Listen as the city of West Hollywood's staff urban designer John Chase describes the effect of having graceful, willowy Chinese elms on either side of a sidewalk.
"It's the symmetry of the double row of trees that's powerful. Two rows of trees create a better, fuller, more complete canopy than a single row does, so the space is contained overhead, as well as on either side." Chase personally fought for the double rows in the elaborate and long-awaited face lift of Santa Monica Boulevard. The street's redesign, which will be dedicated later this summer, collected a major design award last month as it inched toward completion.
Having trees frame a walkway evokes the ease of strolling on a country lane, hardly the reality of West Hollywood's Santa Monica Boulevard. The revamped three-mile stretch is a portion of U.S. Route 66 that also happens to be a bustling business district, marked with a distinct mix of Russian markets, sidewalk cafes and gay nightclubs. Chase's attention to details, and his simple articulation of their effect, illustrate why he's now in the spotlight as a designer working to soften West Hollywood's street-scapes. An architect by training, Chase is also gaining long-overdue accolades as a historian, critic and often very funny writer. His fourth collection of essays, "Glitter Stucco and Dumpster Diving: Reflections on Building Production in the Vernacular City" (Verso, 2000), has just him won the second place 2001 PEN Architectural Digest Award.
Chase's perspective on the urban landscape is at times visceral and personal but also philosophical. "You pick the music you want to listen to, you pick which television shows you want to watch, but everyone, as a citizen of the world, has to deal with the as-found environment," he said recently in his soft, steady voice. "I'm always interested in the existential puzzle of how you live in the world around you and how you relate yourself to the physical environment."
He accepted the PEN award on his 48th birthday last month in New York. It was a milestone for him, since he has struggled financially for years while writing analytically about what many architectural critics find beneath notice: boxy stucco apartment buildings of the 1950s, a shop in the shape of a giant doughnut and cheaply renovated stucco cottages.
As idiosyncratic as such writing may be, Chase is also a ready collaborator. The design of Santa Monica Boulevard, whose award last month came from the American Institute of Architects, must be credited to many parties, including to the city of West Hollywood, Portland, Ore.,-based architects Zimmer, Gunsul, Frasca Partnership (who also have offices here) and L.A. landscape architect Patricia Smith. It also was the result of a very long and inclusive process in which Chase played a subtle but essential part as a staff member. The city assembled a 42-member steering committee and held widely attended public meetings, including one with Russian translation. They learned that the city's two largest constituencies--hip gay men and aging Russian immigrants--both wanted the same thing: a grand urban boulevard with trees and places to sit, wide sidewalks and landscaping. They wanted a place to stroll, meet and greet; they wanted a public living room.
Chase attended every meeting, and of the hundreds of improvements included in the project--landscaped medians, wider sidewalks where possible, seating, gardens at bus stops, lighted street gateways at the entrances to West Hollywood--he feels most proud of helping push for the double row of trees. But his influence may be much greater, in the uncredited ideas and alternatives he suggested along the way. West Hollywood City Planner Hassan Haghani, Chase's boss, describes him as his partner on the project, and Suzanne Dvells, who worked for Selbert Perkins Designs, the firm that created signs and street gateways for the project, says Chase's contributions were crucial. "He was just very hands-on," Dvells says. "He was a wonderful contributor and critic, which made it all the better."
The results of this collective process realize Chase's grand idea of urban design principles--the softening and humanizing of public space--is not just an academic concept but an echo of the public soul's desire.
"That was the really rewarding thing," he says. "The choices that were made were, by my own lights, good choices, so I was happy that they came out of public process. They asked for these things at every step."
It hasn't been all smooth sailing, however. The project, which includes unglamorous additions such as new storm drains, is $7 million over budget and has irritated drivers and merchants for months. Before it even began, a woman chained her mother to a ficus tree to save it from being replaced by one of the Chinese elms.
Growing Demand for Staff Urban Designers