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Jack Smith

Los Angeles, like Rome, wasn't built in a day, but : some satirists think ours may be a city of wreckers

May 26, 1986|JACK SMITH

You may have read a piece on the opposite-editorial page the other day by William C. Baer, as associate professor of urban and regional planning at USC, arguing that we should not try to save our old architectural landmarks in Los Angeles because the true past of Los Angeles is change itself.

He wrote: "The well-intentioned movement to 'preserve' Los Angeles--to save its historic buildings, its relics, its 'important' places--completely misses the essence of the area's history and what Los Angeles stands for in urban development, which can be summarized in one word: change.

"The best way to preserve this tradition of continuous transformation and renewal is to allow it to continue unchecked, unimpeded by misplaced efforts to preserve."

It is an ingenious and provocative philosophical concept, but of course it is just a spoof. Baer is being ironic.

I am reminded of Jonathan Swift's infamous tract, "A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People From Being a Burden to Their Parents or the Country." (They were to be eaten by the rich.)

Satire serves serious ends, in that it shows, by inversion, the iniquity of some public practice. But it has a fatal weakness, and that is that many people take it literally.

Any writer uses irony at great risk.

What Baer is obviously saying is that if Los Angeles is ever to shed its notorious reputation for discarding its past and rushing headlong into the future, it must begin by preserving some of its architectural treasures.

That he means this is clear in his use of ancient Rome as an example in illustration of his point. He notes that Nero built his infamous circus over the Gardens of Caligula, and that the circus in time was demolished to make way for an early Christian basilica, over St. Peter's tomb, which in turn gave way to the present St. Peter's and the Vatican, known to every traveler.

He notes that the Vatican is a museum of Renaissance and Baroque treasures, and asks which of the four monuments preservationists would have saved?

Well, obviously, farsighted preservationists and urban planners would have saved all four, since each could have been located elsewhere than on the site of its predecessor. The inner city of Rome would merely have been enlarged, and today's ugly apartment buildings and condominiums would have been pushed farther into the suburbs.

Besides, Rome, unlike Los Angeles, is supposed to be old. How wonderful it would be today for tourists to walk in Nero's circus, imagining his games; what a site it would make for a modern Olympics; how moving it would be to enter that ancient Christian basilica. If Rome were to continue with this destruction of old monuments surely the present St. Peter's Basilica would be the next to go, and in its place we would see a glass cathedral like the one we have in Garden Grove.

Obviously, Baer's point is that urban builders, in their zeal to occupy successful territory, prefer to erect their trendy structures on the sites of historical monuments. There is an anti-historical perversity about this compulsion.

With his satirical suggestions, Baer provokes us to ask what kind of city will we have if we care only about the new, and if change is the only value worth seeking.

A case in point is the downtown library, a rather fanciful structure that many sentimentalists cherish. Instead of trying to rehabilitate it, why don't we raze it, sell the land for skyscrapers, raze the Convention Center, which never was much to look at anyway, and build a brand new modern library on that site, which has plenty of parking space?

Where will the Convention Center go? Why not raze Dodger Stadium? It's getting along, you know, and it's hard to find a water fountain in it anyway. There is plenty of parking, the access roads are already built, and a Convention Center in Chavez Ravine would come close to Mayor Sam Yorty's dream of putting it in nearby Elysian Park.

Of course UCLA's Royce Hall and the Lawrence Clark Powell Library will have to go, too. They were old to begin with, having been built more than 50 years ago in the medieval Romanesque style, and having never served our image.

After all, they tore down my alma mater, Belmont High School, which was also Romanesque, with a lovely brick bell tower and cloister, and replaced it with a prison cellblock. What could be more in keeping with our image?

Come to think of it, our class motto was Tennyson's line, "The old order changeth, yielding place to new."

We had the improbable good fortune of having a foreword written for our yearbook by Robert A. Millikan, the sainted Caltech Nobel laureate.

"You ask me to write a word on the theme taken from Tennyson," he wrote. "The most important word that can be written on that subject, for the times through which we are passing, is a word of caution to the coming generation not to overlook the lessons that the past has taught. All real advances are built upon the foundations of the knowledge that has already been acquired. He who overlooks that fact, or who has not the patience, before he tries to make his contributions to the new structure, to learn what are the foundations upon which the new must be built, is practically certain to be a wrecker rather than an upbuilder."

Hey! How about tearing down Musso & Frank's on Hollywood Boulevard and putting in a Burger King?

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