Architecture and accessibility. Power, money, vision. Artists and audiences. These are the critical elements for cultural greatness. For most cities, cultural greatness comes after centuries of gradual growth. Some, not without hubris, like Los Angeles, attempt to achieve it in half a century.
In the beginning there must be architecture, for the presence of great civic and public buildings defines the taste and vision of those in power and the aspirations of the community. A great building can provide not only a home for art and artists, but also elevate the quality of what is placed or takes place inside.
A great building should give one pleasure to see, be near, touch and pass by, as well as enter. It should cause the spirit to soar and the eye to rejoice, perhaps even shock, so that we become freshly aware of our surroundings. In Paris, Notre Dame and the Asemblee Nationale are examples of the first category, Beaubourg and the Pyramide du Louvre exemplify the second.
Even great public buildings, however, must be on a human scale, celebrating, not diminishing man. (The worst public building in the United States is probably the Kennedy Center in Washington. It is monumental, arrogant, isolated and inhuman; more appropriate as a monument to Mussolini than to J.F.K.)
The first good public building in Los Angeles was probably the Central Library. The first great public building is yet to be built, hopefully it will be the new home for the Philharmonic, designed by Frank Gehry.
The existing Music Center, for all its good intentions, is still elitist, sterile and isolated from its neighbors. The new Disney Hall, by its use of plazas, glass, green spaces, light and changing scale, relates to and does not ignore its neighbors; it welcomes and does not intimidate the public. If the design is not compromised by conflicting pressures from the City, the County, the Community Redevelopment Agency, donor decisions and Music Center politics, it will set a standard for what great architecture should be in Los Angeles.
In Paris, office, apartments, stores and theaters, daytime businesses and night-time pleasures intermingle in the same neighborhood. In Los Angeles, this rarely happens. True "mixed use" development remains more of a planning theory than a neighborhood fact in Los Angeles, but Disney Hall and the projected Craft and Folk Art Museum development on Wilshire Boulevard are two important steps in the right direction.
The Los Angeles Theater Center offered this promise, but the CRA couldn't deliver and the project remains three performing spaces of varying quality in a renovated building in a run-down neighborhood, trying to figure out its mission and connect with its neighbors.
For a number of years conventional wisdom and the mandate of the CRA have linked cultural endeavors and real estate development together with an exclusive focus on downtown Los Angeles. It is a fatal mistake to focus so exclusively on one small area. It is time for the CRA, the City Council and the Board of Supervisors to recognize that Los Angeles is indeed a group of urban villages. The remaining years of this century should be spent reinforcing the global/urban village character of Westwood, Pasadena, Glendale, Mid-Wilshire, Sherman Oaks and Santa Monica.
The Lewitzky Dance Gallery felt it had to be downtown for prestige, for power, and above all for access through the CRA to developers' pocketbooks, but the Dance Gallery could have perhaps come into being quicker and better in Santa Monica or West Los Angeles--closer to its audience, less expensive and a catalyst for quality in surrounding neighborhoods.
Great culture requires mass and density. Art doesn't happen in isolation and easy access is a requirement for developing audiences. Paris offers mobility, safety and cultural attraction in every arrondissement . New York offers a similar degree of mobility if not of safety. Los Angeles offers safety but insufficient mobility. The city's weak point remains transportation: Metro Rail is more a symbol than a solution. Buses, trams and neighborhood shuttles remain the only practical remedy. It makes little sense to ask the Music Center to do audience outreach for ethnic groups, the elderly, the young and people of lower incomes, if the targeted audiences can't get there.
Architecture and infrastructure are important prerequisites for cultural greatness, but they must be preceded and followed by personal vision and political will.