Posts tagged Los Angeles

Photo by Gary Lai

All photos by Gary Lai.

Inspired by our recent viewing of La La Land, my wife and I felt compelled to make the trek up the hill to visit the Griffith Observatory. We had heard stories about the epic traffic caused by the popularity of the film, so we decided to take the LA DOT DASH shuttle from the Metro Redline Station at Vermont and Sunset up to our destination to make life easier.

It proved to be the right decision.

Cars stretched down to Los Feliz Boulevard, the traffic snaking upward from both the Greek Theater and from Fern Dell Drive routes up to the Observatory. Even though the DASH crawled up the same road as the rest of the traffic, we were eventually dropped off directly in front of the entry plaza while everyone else in their cars had to still navigate and battle for parking up top.

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The day was spectacularly clear with a moody sky perfect for an amateur iPhone photographer. Even though we had been to the Observatory many times, the trip never disappoints. The building itself screams nostalgia with its Art Deco architecture from a by-gone era of old Hollywood glamor. This combination of architecture and the breathtaking view offers a spectacular experience worthy of the crowds.

Photo by Gary Lai

Standing on the rooftop deck of the Griffith Park Observatory, the urbanist in me couldn’t help but imagine the view back in 1935, the sight of a central city surrounded by orchards, farmland and small, somewhat isolated communities. I would have surely been shocked to see a vast megapolis with long boulevards stretching toward the horizon.

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If the 1927 film Metropolis seemed far-fetched to my imaginary 1935 self – or even my former 1982 “Blade Runner” self  – surely this view would convince me that those  fictional visions of the future are entirely plausible. As we run out of developable land and concentrate on densification and in-fill, I hope that we will make smarter decisions to manage our growth in the next century as opposed to the last. It was something for my wife and me to contemplate as we made our way back down the hill on the shuttle in bumper-to-bumper traffic.

[Mild spoilers ahead]

In the opening scene of Damien Chazelle’s new movie musical, LA LA Land, the sound of honking begin before the visuals start (reality check: no one honks their horns in LA, for fear of being shot). The camera pans across a line of cars stuck in traffic on the 105/110 interchange. For a movie about Los Angeles, this is about as cliche as it gets…yet, also about as accurate as you can get considering we do have the worst traffic in country.

As the camera pans across bored and miserable people baking in the sun and stuck in their cars, it suddenly climbs up above the traffic and zeros in on a specific women who starts to sing the opening number, “Another Day of Sun”. The woman jumps out of her car, convincing her fellow commuters to sing and dance their way across the freeway. As the camera deliriously pans back and forth over and around the freeway, the musical number reaches its climax, upon which everyone promptly gets back into their car and the honking resumes. The word “Winter” appears on the screen.

The audience at the Vista Theater in Los Feliz chuckled in acknowledgment.

Image: Lionsgate

Los Angeles is a city of great complexity and contradictions. As the movie moved onto follow two star-crossed lovers – a struggling jazz musician played by Ryan Gosling and a struggling actor  portrayed by Emma Stone – I realize that director Damien Chazell, more than anyone I know, has a deep understanding of Los Angeles.

As a contextual designer, I strive to understand a place, a site, a neighborhood, a city, a state, a country or wherever I need to design. Since the majority of my current work is in Los Angeles, I need to understand Los Angeles. But, LA is a city of contradictions. We are slow to accept change, but obsessively fast to implement change once it is accepted (see: public transportation). We revere aspects of the past, but are also quick to tear down reminders of that past (see: our penchant for destroying historical landmarks).

We convey the Hollywood image to the world, but are really about our blue collar background (did you know that we are one of the largest manufacturing cities in the country?). LA LA Land uses the imagery and cliches of the City of Angels to say something more about the inner truth of this place. At one point Gosling’s character, a native Angeleno, criticizes Los Angeles: “We worship everything, but value nothing.” Even that statement is a cliche, but has truth to it.

LA LA Land plays with these contradictions and layers them throughout its 128 minute playing time. It’s a modern musical shot in 1930’s style. It’s a fanciful drama of Old Hollywood Glamour set in Los Angeles gritty post-industrial neighborhoods – a “City of Stars” that regularly crushes its occupants aspirations and dreams, always precariously edging toward disaster, but maintaining stability somehow.

What’s a designer to do? Like an author striving to write the “Great American Novel”, designers try to create the “Great American Place” – in my case, the “Great LA Place”.

Maybe the key to designing in such a place is to embrace the complexity and contradictions of this city and try to ascertain the deeper meaning. Do we contradict ourselves because we honor and miss the past but recognize the need to move forward and change? Perhaps designing for our real life LA LA Land is really about designing to the vision of what Los Angeles wants to be. Perhaps we need to design for the ideal, the glamour, the image, but make those designs accessible to the reality of the people who live in this city.

As I was walking out of the theater, I overheard the best line of the evening that wasn’t even in the movie. One man standing in line for the restroom asked his friend, “So, did that movie inspire you or make you more desperate?”

Exactly the correct Los Angeles question.

It was 1982 when I visited the future.

I had just caught the latest Harrison Ford flick, Blade Runner, with my high school buddies. Overall reviews for the movie amongst my friends were mixed, but the one thing we could agreed upon was that we had been transported to the 2019 version of Los Angeles. We were absolutely sure of it.

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For those who have not seen the movie [raised eyebrow], Ford plays an LAPD officer specializing in hunting down and killing artificial humans – “replicants” – who have broken their programming and illegally immigrated to Earth to blend in with humanity. The Los Angeles of Blade Runner is dirty and wet, an industrial and apocalyptic wreck of city rendered as dense as New York or Tokyo, but with the appearance of only a marginally functioning economy and environment. In fact, the smog in the movie is so dense, the city is drenched in perpetual rain. Teeming with criminals, the homeless, and policed by corrupt cops milling about around bombed-out buildings, the forecast looked grim.

Yet, in 1982 this vision of LA seemed reasonable, if not guaranteed. New York City was in the midst of the worst year of crime on record, Los Angeles itself was an environmental wreck hidden beneath a perpetual thick brown haze. Thermonuclear war was a real concern as President Regan ramped up the military and rhetoric in an attempt to intimidate the Soviet Union to the bargaining table. By the mid-1980’s, a third of the American population believed nuclear war was inevitable, and a dystopian view of the future hung over our heads.

Fast forward to 2016 and it seems dystopia has reemerged in popularity. Pop culture books/movies/shows like The Hunger Game , The Walking Dead, Divergent, and Maze Runner – all uber-popular fiction – revolve in a post-apocolyptic realm. Even the Star Trek franchise – originally built upon a utopian view of humanity’s future – has been rebooted with existential threats at the core of the franchise.

Silver Lake's Sunset Junction transformed into a zombie land in Fear The Walking Dead.

Silver Lake’s Sunset Junction transformed into a zombie land in Fear The Walking Dead.

Closer to home, Fear the Walking Dead shows a fully functioning Los Angeles descended into zombified hell. I have to admit a pleasure in seeing Sunset Junction in Silver Lake as a backdrop and in the opening scene of the pilot.

So, why are we so hell-bent on a apocolyptic future? The world of 2016 is kind of scary place. Terrorist attacks, mass shootings, continuous war in the Middle East for over a decade, a highly polarized political state, horrible new diseases to worry about, 100 year storms with 1,000 year droughts, all with the looming concern of rising sea levels. With all this happening, no wonder many believe the end is nigh and the eventual outcome will resemble the fiction we so voraciously consume on television, movies, books, and video games.

But we would also be wrong. I believe humans are way more resilient and a tad smarter than we give ourselves credit for.

Those seeking a more optimistic vision of Los Angeles in the future should check out, Her. Starring Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson, the film follows a sensitive guy going through a tough divorce who falls in love with his artificially intelligent computer operating system (just go with it). In Spike Jonze’s film, Los Angeles is doing pretty well. Angelenos live in a dense environment, but within sleek and clean hi-rises (that look suspiciously like Shanghai). Phoenix’s character walks and takes trains everywhere – a subway to Santa Monica and a high speed rail to the Sierra Nevadas. He visits parks and interesting public spaces where crime never seems to be a concern. Could this future be a possibility, or just as naive and fanciful as the Walking Dead’s vision of the City of Angels?

Los Angeles as portrayed in the 2013 movie Her was actually a combination of real world locations in LA and Shanghai's Pudong business district. Stills via via Warner Bros. Pictures

Los Angeles as portrayed in the 2013 movie Her was actually a combination of real world locations in LA and Shanghai’s Pudong business district. Stills via via Warner Bros. Pictures

AHBE Landscape Architects is in the middle of looking at a 100 year plan for the firm. At first, I thought this to be a silly exercise. But as we delve deeper and deeper into the plan, I realized that having a ridiculously long range view is an exercise in keeping faith in humanity. We are not planning on stockpiling guns and building bomb shelters. We are thinking about the real problems humanity faces and how our landscape architecture team might be able to solve those problems. We have to begin with the belief we’ll still be here in 100 years, perhaps still muddling through our problems, but surviving.

I find that perspective comforting. If history has taught us anything, our fictional visions of the future are never correct. In the name of drama popular culture skews to extreme situations. Certainly the outcome of a 2 degree Celsius climate change event might seem cataclysmic, but in the end I believe humanity is resilient and will adapt to those changes. In other words, we may have to create a utopian society within a dystopian landscape.

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A few weeks ago I wrote about our office’s ongoing photographic exploration of Los Angeles. My own photographic adventure began when I thought about what defined my own definition of Los Angeles: the numerous small businesses that in sum make up the architectural landscape of our city. Angelenos experience and share their culture through the foods, goods, and services offered at these endless number of neighborhood stores and restaurants.

During my assignment I walked through different neighborhoods documenting with my disposable camera the various storefronts that make each neighborhood unique. I witnessed local residents gathering to buy fruit at the neighborhood store, picking up their daily newspaper or a fresh chicken for the evening’s dinner, observing the everyday activities of a community. At the heart of each area, these small business proved integral in creating walkable neighborhoods, helping establish a deep sense of community among their local residents – an essential component in a city as sprawling, expansive, and culturally diverse as Los Angeles.

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“Why can’t we have an ecology for the rest of us, the ones who don’t want to jump into a pair of shorts and hike up a mountain yodeling?”

This quote from an interview with Timothy Morton, a contemporary philosopher and dark ecologist, has really stuck with me. Looking for ecology in the city can help us redefine our perceptions about nature and what it means to be ecologically aware. Sometimes finding ecology is about scale and looking more closely to see what is already there.

Vacant Lot, Koreatown, Los Angeles, CA_1

While looking out at the city of Los Angeles from a friend’s rooftop in Koreatown, the scale of ecology was vast and somewhat impersonal. Nature seemed far away:  mountains in the distance with clouds slowly drifting overhead, networks of cars in motion, a stationary parade of billboards with palm trees poking out above the buildings in between, and a vacant lot below.

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But zoomed in for a closer look and the gap between nature and me diminishes. A lot that appeared vacant from a distance became full of life, with bees moving from one flower to the next. I guess the distance between nature and me can be as near or far as I am willing to perceive.