For the last several years, conventional wisdom has been gathering behind the idea that the world's most innovative architectural projects would also, increasingly, be among the very biggest. Norman Foster in Moscow. Rem Koolhaas in Beijing. Frank Gehry on Grand Avenue and at the Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn.
But a one-two punch from the faltering economy and the credit crisis is threatening to bring XL architecture to its knees, perhaps putting an end to the age of the mega-project before it ever really got going. Gehry will be lucky if his huge projects are built in piecemeal, slimmed-down form. China seems unlikely in the near term to produce a new crop of buildings to rival its 2008 Olympics class. Last week, Bloomberg News reported that Dubai was scrambling to line up fresh loans to keep its building spree from collapsing. If the leading member of the United Arab Emirates is feeling cash-strapped, it's hard to see the picture looking rosy any time soon.
Can hard times be good for architecture? Probably not for individual firms, many of which will struggle to find work and be forced to trim their staffs. But for the profession as a whole? That is a different story. After a decade of infatuation with stars and with a digitally designed future that seemed to promise a sleek condo tower by Lorcan O'Herlihy or Winka Dubbeldam on every block, a period of tight credit could force architects to trade glitz for substance. Or, if that sounds a bit optimistic, at least offer fewer opportunities to thrill millionaire penthouse dwellers with double-height, glass-wrapped living rooms. It is no coincidence that both Metropolis and Architectural Record magazines have special issues out this month focusing on public-interest architecture.
A slowdown may help generate some much-needed new theory as well. Architecture needs fresh faces to play precisely the role that Peter Eisenman, Leon Krier, Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and others did with such success during architecture's last extended slump in the '70s and '80s -- someone to push architects to imagine, identify and define new paths.
An example of where theory is wanted: Architecture is in the midst of a transition to what might be called an immersive future. Buildings will no longer be discrete objects we look at -- or "read," to use an old-fashioned metaphor -- but more like environments, collections of screens and digitally animated surfaces that engulf even as they entertain us. Some architects fear this shift, others think it can't happen quickly enough. But the profession has barely paused to explore its implications. A more interesting question, particularly for Los Angeles: Can hard times be good for cities? That one is tougher to answer. Crime seems likely to inch back up. Some families may retreat to the suburbs or outside of metropolitan areas altogether -- chipping away at the urban revival we've seen in the U.S. in recent years. And the public's enthusiasm for financing the kind of big-ticket items that L.A. sorely needs -- subway lines, in particular -- may drop even below where it stands today, though government funding on infrastructure is certainly possible as a New Deal-style stimulus.
The macro level, though, is not the only level where Los Angeles needs help. A prolonged slowdown may offer a prime moment to focus on those parts of the city that have never received enough attention: its connective tissue, in particular. For 50 years, L.A. conducted an experiment in building a city that caters to all of us as individuals, as freedom- and opportunity-seekers, and none of us as a group. As long as traffic flowed freely and single-family houses were affordable and plentiful, the experiment thrived. But in a more crowded Los Angeles -- and as we begin to imagine the post-oil shape of the city -- that framework is crumbling.
In fact, Wall Street has had nothing on L.A. in sanctifying the idea that the private sector -- the market -- knows best, or at least has the muscle public agencies don't. (Look at the Grand Avenue project: Even for a development and adjacent civic park rising on city and county land, we have let a developer, New York's Related Cos., call the most important shots.) The result has been a consistent emphasis on stand-alone landmarks that were sometimes stunning architecturally but often inward-looking and that did little to knit the streets or neighborhoods of the city more closely together. A city made of Getty Centers and Caltrans headquarters, of Americana at Brands, Music Centers and Cathedrals of Our Lady of the Angels, is one that looks awfully good on a magazine spread or from a speeding car but pretty dismal from the sidewalk.
Now that a government bailout of Wall Street has made the word "public" safe again, it will be fascinating to consider the effect on America's most privatized big city. The period of malaise and reflection we're about to enter may at least offer a chance to focus on redesigning the shared spaces of the city. As makes sense for an era of diminished expectations, this needn't be big-picture stuff. We can concentrate instead on "micro-infrastructure:" Park benches and bus shelters. Street trees and pocket parks. Bike lanes and pedestrian paths. Sidewalk design. Shifting the balance of power in city government so that traffic engineers have less sway over the design of the city and planners have more.
In a recession-dampened Los Angeles, the next big thing may not be a big thing at all. It may be a thousand little ones.