I’ve just returned back from the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica, where I left the recognizable landscape of the city for one wholly different. Lush, wild, somehow both chaotic and orderly, the coastal rain forest in the southern end of Costa Rica is where some of the world’s first skyscrapers arose, trees towering so high a whole ecosystem of birds, insects, primates, and even sunbathing iguanas can be seen, albeit sometimes only with the aid of a telescope. My eyes were stimulated by the sheer amount of data and detail to process, yet not overwhelmed. Instead, there was an undeniable sense of awe felt within this landscape encompassed within the womb of a forest. It’s not too often I feel this sense of experiential joy within a city. Why?
While flying back into Los Angeles airspace l I was struck with the sight of my hometown from overhead. Though the city’s vast expanse is intricate and wild in its own urban way, it’s also an undeniably unattractive chaos (at least during the day; at night the city takes on a different personality, becoming an illuminated circuit board on a grand scale).
The beauty of Los Angeles is mostly hidden, found in historical pockets, singular architectural moments, and along bordering remnants where native flora and fauna have been protected or forgotten to grow. But mostly Los Angeles is covered by development formulated by “per square foot profitability” rather than with any civic sense of “per square foot beauty probability”. There’s much I love about Los Angeles, but the city’s architectural landscape and lack of green space as a whole leaves a lot to be desired.
Which takes me to a video by Alain de Botton titled, “How to Make an Attractive City”. In it de Botton argues certain cities are more beautiful than others for specific reasons…reasons which are not subjective as is often argued, but actually objective in their universal appeal. According to de Botton a beautiful city is represented by common characteristics which appeal to both our conscious and unconscious receptiveness to beauty:
- Order (buildings should be uniform in appearance and layout with some variation to distinguish the individual lives within)
- Visible life (foot traffic, bicycles, and maybe even horse drawn carriages make for interesting traffic)
- Compactness (density)
- Orientation and mystery (a mix between larger and smaller streets which allow for the possibility of getting lost)
- Scale (buildings should be no higher than 5 stories with certain exceptional landmarks)
- A sense of the local
I’d add a seventh element which makes the most beautiful cities memorable and desirable: an integrated element of the locale’s natural elements. Think the jagged coastline of Santorini in Greece, the waterways of Venice, or the trees lining the walkways of Paris. Los Angeles has too few of its natural past interwoven into its present infrastructure, and we suffer for it.
But there is hope as city planners, landscape architects, and architects are working to incorporate more native and natural elements back into city life here in Los Angeles to help mitigate erosion, water loss, and fire hazards, spurred on by state wide drought. It’s ironic a manmade disaster might prove the impetus for us to finally appreciate what was always already here. The bonus is we might end up with a more beautiful city in the process.
– Gregory Han