This Saturday, the Los Angeles Forum for Architecture and Urban Design will hold its annual ForumFest fundraiser, this year honoring Michael Maltzan. Operating as both educational and artistic platform, the LA Forum has helped shape the critical perspective on Los Angeles urbanism since 1987. In line with the Forum's impact on the city, Maltzan has contributed to L.A.’s theoretical urban identity as well as its physical one -- producing many critical writings on the city, along with projects on a variety of scales.
In anticipation of ForumFest, I spoke with Michael about his relationship to the city of Los Angeles, why he makes himself write, and the models for successful future cities.
Amelia Taylor-Hochberg: How is writing useful to architectural practice, and when considering urbanism?
Michael Maltzan: The thing I like so much about writing is that I find it very hard, and because of that, because it's not the most immediate way that I express what I'm thinking about, it forces me to approach ideas from a very different place. Because it is often difficult, it inevitably creates some level of struggle in trying to put ideas into a cohesive state. It forces me to make connections and think about connections between ideas that I might not necessarily find when I'm doing something that is much more familiar like designing, sketching or buildings models. So it's less a way to communicate to others about what I'm interested in, even though it serves that purpose, and it's more about communicating with myself about these ideas and to expand the ways that I look at them.
A: Is there a particular project where writing helped you achieve that clarity?
M: Lately, I've been thinking a great deal about scale, as it relates to architecture, and urbanism, or maybe the relationship between the two of those. And in design, scale is always a very specific tool -- it has a specific history, it has a specific set of relationships that we often take for granted when we're looking at work, especially in cities. But in a context like Los Angeles, the question of scale is a very challenging one -- it's very difficult, it's a slippery subject. Traditional ideas of scale don't lend themselves very typically to the way that we think about this city. In writing about this, one of the things that I've started to realize is that there is potentially a real possibility in projects that are in the "wrong scale". That "wrong-scale" whether it's large or small, often comes about because you're trying to anticipate what the city might look like in 20 or 25 years, especially as density gets more and more significant in the city. That leap, understanding something that is potentially mis-scaled if we look at it today, but that mis-scaling might actually be the most appropriate response to what the future is like, is something that has grown out of writing about that subject.
A: What are some of those lessons that Los Angeles has taught you?
M: It's as much about your approach to working in the city as it is any specific technique. One of the concerns in a place like Los Angeles, given the emergence in the development of density in the city, is that many people tend to look at much more traditional urban models, as a way of understanding what density looks like, and even to believe that you could impart those models from other cities, to a city like L.A.. Those models from other cities might work, but addressing a city like Los Angeles on its own terms, to develop different or new typologies is a much more relevant way of working. For instance, we have infrastructure in the city which has been under-utilized. That infrastructure, whether power lines, the river, the railroads, and certainly the highways, has characterized L.A.. As a big sprawling, horizontal city, infrastructure has been able to flow through the city, independently, without any real connection to what is happening around it. Increasingly, as land becomes that much more valuable and areas in the city condense into more clear precincts and destinations, infrastructure needs to transform, and in my mind, needs to take on broader responsibilities, to do more than just one thing but instead to do multiple things. That means that infrastructure might also become housing, become factories, schools, or public space, as well as satisfying its pragmatic and technical concerns.
A: Who should architects partner with to accomplish these new models of density and infrastructure?
M: Something that I think architects are increasingly understanding is that architecture and architects sometimes have different roles in the city. Because architecture is often building-specific, understood in its physicality, its form, and the spaces it makes its effect is more on representation than action. The Architect has the ability to take on a much more elastic role, as it relates to the way you make things, as much as what it is that you make. And that means that to make ambitious work and to make work that has a real effect on the development of cities and the way people live in those cities, then you need to partner not so much with any one individual or group, but find ways to strategically connect many different groups and to help coordinate those different constituencies towards a much greater collective ambition for the city. And those are capabilities -- putting together complex groups and complex ideas, and representing or demonstrating why those are valuable -- that architects certainly possess. It's that quality that I think is the most important. I don't think there's any one person or group that you can hope to align yourself with to move the conversation about the city forward. It’s much more fundamental in the way that architects broadly understand the often very intricate web of relationships, politically, economically, socially, that go into making real change in the city, and then act within that arena.
A: How do you maintain that respect for the complexities for city systems when working in places that you're unfamiliar with?
M: That's always more challenging, and it also depends on the kind of project. I would say that a lot of that does have to do with trying to understand as best as you can the context you're working in; the way that you go out and gather information is very important. The people who can connect you to a context in a particular city are very important. You have to find ways to immerse yourself in those particular places. But I don't think you can fool yourself into working in exactly the same way that I might go about working here. In fact, bringing a level of objectivity, sometimes being an outsider, can be more valuable, as a way of understanding the city, or the project, in ways that because people are so close to the issue can't necessarily see. And often that role is of great value to the discussion about a project. You often have to take the projects on their own terms, in order to make the most useful response even if it’s unexpected.
A: How has Los Angeles changed over the last twenty years, and how has your work adapted to and interacted with that changing reality?
M: Los Angeles has been known as a place where enormous creativity and reinvention are underpinnings the kind of work that is produced here, how it continues to reinvent itself. I think that level of restlessness and change in work, is a big part of the culture of making Los Angeles. At the same time, the form that has taken has changed and continues to evolve, and whether through modernism, and then post-war modernism, or through the significant form inventions in the 70s and the 80s, each generation has found a different way to make something new and of consequence. The biggest change that I've seen is people's willingness to consider and operate on the city -- to imagine architecture's role in very broad terms. I don't know where that goes, but I would say that my work likely parallels those evolving interests, especially as it relates to the very broad discussion of the form of urbanism. At this point though, in the way I'm thinking about work, I've become even more convinced in the potential of the singular architectural form to create a microcosm or an indication of a future idea about the city. I believe that there's a real potency in architecture's ability through the significance of a building to communicate, in very condensed, very focused, powerful ways, what we mean when we talk about ideas of change.