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Review: A city’s unrealized ambitions in ‘Never Built Los Angeles’

August 3rd, 2013 Entertainment

Los Angeles has never been big on regret.

For most of the city’s history we’ve been so busy charging forward, inventing and reinventing the future, that we’ve rarely paused to wonder what might have been.

In architecture, when we do look back, we usually focus more on mistakes of action than inaction. We mourn the landmarks we’ve knocked down rather than the ones we failed to build in the first place.

But how do you catalog a history of mistimed, misguided or ill-fated ambition? What about a preservation movement for the ideas and designs that almost made it?

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“Never Built Los Angeles,” a revelatory new exhibition at the Architecture and Design Museum on Wilshire Boulevard, is a first step in that direction, an attempt to corral the city’s most beautiful architectural ghosts and put them on public view.

Curated by architectural journalists Sam Lubell and Greg Goldin, the show offers a rich parade of proposals for civic projects in Los Angeles and Southern California — by architects including Frank Lloyd Wright, Richard Neutra, Paul Williams, Rem Koolhaas, Steven Holl, Frank Gehry and Jean Nouvel — that for a variety of reasons never got off the drawing board.

The range of work is vast. The show includes parks, monorail systems, movie theaters and churches that appeared, as the curators put it, “on paper and nowhere else.” There are doomed master plans here, stillborn office towers and DOA museum wings.

Between 1920 and 1930 alone, Los Angeles considered a plan for an extensive subway and elevated-train system, a series of City Beautiful arches and fountains along the length of Wilshire Boulevard and a county-wide proposal (by the Olmsted Brothers firm, led by sons of the Central Park designer) for new parks and open space.

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Had even one of those three projects been completed, the character of Los Angeles would be strikingly different. It would be a more public-minded, greener and perhaps a more equitable city than it is now.

You could probably put together a show like this on any big American city. In Los Angeles, though, the distance between what’s offered up to the public and what gets built has been unusually wide.

Our paper architecture is less about theory and more about the drive to change a city that has always seemed singularly full of possibility. Our planning process has focused — and continues to focus — on one-off, big-ticket mega-projects at the expense of a more patient and comprehensive approach, giving architects and developers incentive to swing for the fences while leaving the score card littered with strikeouts.

At the same time, we’ve always been hamstrung, our ambition stunted, by deep disagreements about what kind of city we want to be: horizontal or vertical, respectable or happily idiosyncratic, extending the traditions of East Coast and European capitals or eager to break from them.

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Not all of the projects in the show provoke regret. More than a few qualify as bullets mercifully dodged, including a 1965 plan for an offshore freeway, called the Causeway, running through Santa Monica Bay.

What emerges is a nuanced portrait of this city’s tendency to flirt with and then give up on major civic initiatives. Caution cuts both ways. If we’d been a bolder city in terms of public architecture in the 1960s, today we might have a county museum on Wilshire Boulevard designed by Mies van der Rohe. But we might have the Causeway too, or a freeway through Laurel Canyon.

On view through Oct. 13, the exhibition is separate from “Pacific Standard Time Presents: Modern Architecture in L.A.,” the Getty-sponsored series of architecture shows that have been opening throughout Southern California this spring and summer. “Never Built” was originally planned to run well in advance of PSTP.

But by appearing now — as a coda to the Getty shows and as the city welcomes a new mayor — “Never Built” picks up new shades of meaning and arguably greater influence.

Though smaller, scrappier and less even in its presentation, “Never Built” works especially well as a sequel or companion piece to the Getty’s “Overdrive,” the anchor show in the PSTP series.

“Overdrive,” which closed July 21, celebrated (and critiqued) L.A.’s massive architectural production in the postwar years. It was about what actually gets built in Los Angeles, where architectural innovation has flourished in the private realm but shriveled in the public one. By extension, it was about the compromises inherent in building, not to mention the environmental and social costs of over-building.

“Never Built,” in its alternative history of Los Angeles architecture, features projects that in many cases were allergic to compromise, or noticeably more sophisticated about design than politics.

The cast of characters is different too. “Overdrive” was animated by architects with the connections and savvy to get projects completed. “Never Built” leans, not surprisingly, toward the dreamers, the loners and the techno-futurists. Among its leading figures are architects who distrusted Los Angeles or never felt at home here, antiheroes like the visionary, dyspeptic John Lautner.

Other protagonists of “Never Built” include Lloyd Wright, son of the famous architect and a frequent producer of bold, exquisitely sketched civic plans for L.A. that went nowhere, and Anthony Lumsden of the firm DMJM, whose career was split between remarkable built projects and even more significant unrealized ones, including a stunning 1966 design for a hilltop-hugging housing and retail development, west of the 405 Freeway, called Sunset Mountain.

“Never Built,” with exhibition design by Culver City firm Clive Wilkinson Architects, is organized in a loosely geographical way, with coastal projects at the entrance giving way to designs for downtown near the back. Along the way it offers compact histories of L.A. architecture in a range of categories. You can follow the evolution of architectural drawing and salesmanship in Southern California, beginning with the hand-drawn sketch and moving through the sleekly persuasive computer rendering and, more recently, the video fly-through.

You can also trace the complex story of architectural patronage in Los Angeles, a city with a generally weak mayoral system that has always relied on, and often been let down by, private power brokers. It was the Chamber of Commerce, not City Hall, that sponsored the Olmsted Brothers’ open-space plan of 1930, and this newspaper that organized a competition yielding Lloyd Wright’s audacious 1925 design for a new Art Deco Civic Center complex stepping magisterially up Bunker Hill.

It’s here that “Never Built” holds the most obvious lessons for contemporary Los Angeles. Eric Garcetti, the new mayor, is deeply knowledgeable about architecture and planning, but while a member of the City Council showed little of the tolerance for controversy that will be required if he wants to become an active patron for innovative public design.

The city he leads has both inherited and refined over many decades a political system that makes it far easier to say no, to protect the status quo and pockets of wary and litigious privilege, than to advance an agenda for positive change.

But there are clear signs — including strong electoral support for mass-transit funding, interest in reshaping the L.A. River and the success of Ciclavia — of wide, growing enthusiasm for a bolder civic agenda, a set of strong policies tailored for a city trying fitfully to re-embrace and re-animate its public realm.

As Southern California emerges from a recession that hit architecture firms and architectural ambition particularly hard, proposals for large-scale projects including the Millennium Hollywood towers, an expanded Union Station and a new LACMA by Peter Zumthor have appeared, producing both anticipation and opposition, and now occupy the gray area between concept and execution.

The debate about what gets built and what doesn’t in Los Angeles — about when it makes sense to throw in with the schemers and conjurers of new worlds, and when with the pragmatists and anxious protectors — is more pressing than it has been in many years.

christopher.hawthorne@latimes.com