MONUMENTS: IMPRESSIVE ERECTIONS ALL OVER AMERICA
Eternity doesn’t mean a thing in Los Angeles. Sometimes, that may be for the best. Look at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. I bet the six- foot marker that saluted the Confederate Army Veterans set in 1925—en- shrined in granite and feeling like a “beautiful monument” and all—ex- pected to be there well, forever. Yet, in August 2017, it was removed as a consequence of a national conversation that started in the wake of the Charleston Church shooting two years ago.
Interestingly, 1925 is also the year a young Richard Neutra sets foot in Los Angeles. The Austrian architect’s contribution to the Angeleno landscape goes far beyond the glass houses he designed for the Old Hol- lywood titans—his work as a part of the Modernist movement is uni- versal and perennial. Several of his iconic buildings have already been destroyed and more are slated to follow; a few are being rehabilitated. Modernist architecture has become emblematic of the landscape of Los Angeles, and the city’s struggle to become a more sustainable, beautiful, and efficient city.
Modernism thrives on economically and intelligently accommodat- ing many ways of living through versatile design. The initiative heralded a new way of thinking about architecture in the United States as until this point, the nation had a tendency to erect Potemkin-esque buildings meant to capture the gravity of architecture in the Old Continent. In 1945, Art & Architecture started a project publication that challenged a handful of major architects and a quest for a utopian way of living based on clean lines and panoramic views—West Coast Modernism—was born. The Case Study Houses were commissioned to optimize the efficiency of the space and its environment for the ordinary American family after World War II. While Europe was undergoing reconstruction, America became the playground for visionary living in the midst of a new order focused on consumerism and a growing middle class.
In the fifties and sixties people spent a lot of time looking at screens, and now they wanted to live in one. Schindler and Neutra houses were heavily emblematic of life in Hollywood films. But while the market fo- cuses on marketing, architects focus on designing for the future. Mod- ernists were already conscious of energy efficiency and sustainability. Case Study House #4 by Ralph Rapson featured the “Greenbelt”—a cen- tral, park-like interior that divides two parallel pavilions through glass windows. Case Study House #21 by Pierre Koening introduced a cooling use of water both as structural and landscape element, while the reflec- tion of the pool against the glass translucent walls ultimately linked the indoor and the outdoor space.
But the aspirational prefabricated technology that conveyed Mod- ernism didn’t necessarily make sense economically for the majority of uses. The site-specific design philosophy, high-end materials, and the construction process it required didn’t match the very high demand for housing in Los Angeles in the 1950s and 1960s. By the late 1970s, the Modernist utopia was put at risk by the California Energy Commission with Title 24, which enforced a 20/80 ratio of glass to insulated wall. Dion Neutra (Richard’s son and collaborator since he was 11 years old) de- plores the decision, which implied that glass means less energy efficien- cy. It prevented some of his father’s unbuilt Case Study Houses from ever materializing as designed. Even though one of his clients is interest- ed in building the Omega house on a piece of land in Palm Springs, it’s turning out to be tough to work around this one.
Much of Dion Neutra’s work now is focused on preservation. And his battlefields are numerous. America and the West Coast specifically are less inclined to protect their constructions than Europe, as if the lack of an extensive past means there should be no future. Battles are won through the rehabilitation of misused or obsolete construction. One example is the very first building Richard Neutra commissioned in 1927: an apartment complex in the Hollywood Studio District. The original promoter who had envisioned building several on the same plan across America went bankrupt and barely had it finished.
After nine decades lying in decay, the Jardinette Apartments qualify as of August 2017 for an exemption under the Mills Act, a legislation that grants local government authorities into contracts with owner of historic properties. The single studios and few one bedrooms that overview the Hollywood Hills have been marketed for the new wave of hip Angelenos but still intend to remain true to Neutra’s original vision for the building, bringing sunlight and efficiency-back and follow both a sense of preser- vation and capitalization on the perennity of a monument.
Next year, the current owner Robert Clippinger is set to allocate a budget of $4,5 million in renovation of the 43 units building including $700,000 dedicated to a “voluntary seismic upgrade”. The Los Angeles Hall of Records also has had its rehabilitation in more precarious terms. The annex building which held all recorded documents of the city over low ceiling, windowless floors has been turned into offices. But it still stands as the only Neutra official building in DTLA.Dion Neutra recalls the pride his dad showed each time someone would mistake one of his designs from the 1920s, such as the Lovell House, as in iconic fashion of the 1950s. It’s very touching to think that the quality of the design could be high enough so that it would last indefinitely even though materials need to be replaced often past the amortization period, which is 30 years. I’m very conscious of that when I design today, Dion Neutra explains.
Modern architects designed to better the future but developers build to provide to the present. If the modernist philosophy had been invested at least in the construction quality angle that promoted long lasting materials such as steel and concrete over wood maybe the Los Angeles landscape wouldn’t feel that vulnerable in the face of entropy and natural catastrophes. But commerce unfortunately has been the end game for too many decades while the city blossomed along the arbo- rescence of freeways and avenues like the arteries and veins browse the human body.
“The city was here before the freeway system”, wrote Jean Bau- drillard in America (1986), “no doubt, but it now looks as though the metropolis has actually been built around this arterial network.” In Los Angeles, nothing can be said to be certain (and everlasting), except death, taxes and rush hour. So most likely the freeways will keep expanding; and hopefully some day metro station will populate all neighborhoods in equal density. The railroad system is an interesting topic in Los Angeles because there were very functional railways since the beginning of the twentieth century which was sold to a conglomerate of investors includ- ing General Motors which was later convicted of conspiring to monopo- lize the sale of buses and related products.
Streetcars disappeared a year later and bus routes replaces them. Technology is a guarantee against status quo of a landscape, especially as humans experienced the early stage of development. To that extend, City Planning in Los Angeles has experienced bumpy roads, as well as liter- ally IRL. For several decades as the automotive industry blossomed, city planners could still pretend to take action that will last for a generation.
But because technology accelerated the evolution of behaviors, they had to start focusing on the day to day need, accomodate it. Ashley Atkinson, who is a Planning Performance Manager at the Department of City Plan- ning reflects on the consequences of non-user friendly decisions that have morphed the city into scattered pieces of a puzzle: Every city across the country has freeways crisscrossing it and we’ve seen the outcomes of what it does to communities, how it cuts cities into little pieces and it makes it bigger. That’s a great example of entropy.
Shall we address the elephant in the room now? It is gigantic, 750 miles gigantic. Ladies and Gentlemen, the San Andreas Fault. How about that to challenge eternity? If ever, that is to say when ever the Big One hits, will the “soft-first-story” buildings stay safety put? Will the “non-ductile concrete” walls not swallow thousands of Angelenos? Accidentally one of the most dangerous complex in Los Angeles - Park La Brea, is heavily featured in “Miracle Mile”, a 1989 apocalyptic films that attributes the End via a nuclear strike on Los Angeles from a foe country. On a gov- ernment perspective, long-term decisions are hard to make because the results will occur when officials, whom have bear the immediate conse- quences, won’t be in office anymore.
Yet, Mayor Eric Garcetti soon after he was elected wish for a plan to address the city’s greatest earthquake vulnerabilities. As of October 2016, Los Angeles has the “Resilience by Design” Plan which requires the ret- rofitting of 13500 soft-stories within 5 years (half of them have already started). Non-ductile concrete will just break, not bend if it’s under stress.
Their upgrade to seismic safety will occur over the next 25 years, there are potentially 15000 of them in Los Angeles (mostly parking structures but also again, Park La Brea) and they’ll require to be emptied before the retrofit. Needless to say that property owners are reluctant to see their building getting tagged. And tenants don’t want to chip an extra $50 a month to remain safe into a potential earthquake.
When Ms. Atkinson - who is also the director of her chapter at the American Planners Association started her career in the early 2000s in Los Angeles, downtown was still a no-man land and many neighbor- hoods had been disinvested in so much that planning had to first reha- bilitate basic infrastructures.
She was part of a new generation of plan- ners who had reflected on their predecessor’s mistakes and came from a more humble, humane place. Today, young planners who witnessed the improvements in their communities while they were growing up have a very heartfelt vision to city planning which is ultimately to cater to everyone’s need, no matter their economic, social or ethnic background. Many of them developed an interested for this very unknown discipline playing Sim City, not a bad training considering the video bears real, natural threats to the virtual cities: nature will take over - even virtually and humans have zero control over it.
The ultimate tax you pay in life is death; but it gives it value AKA the “price of life.” By essence, eternity in Los Angeles cannot be. Or else it would lead ultimately to an end because we’d live so much in the moment that we wouldn’t care if there were a future. We’d end up leaving in limbo like in Black Mirror’s “San Ju- nipero”, a dystopian town where “no longer” becomes “forever.” Afterlife VR transhumanism anyone?
Written by Elodie Tacnet
Title image by Thomas Wolf