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In Los Angeles, it's back to the future

The city, known for looking forward, has gained a sense of history. Places where artists, architects and engineers influenced the future are being made into monuments and shrines.

November 13, 2011|By Christopher Hawthorne, Los Angeles Times Architecture Critic

For others, though, PST has loomed as an irresistible target. Adam Nagourney, the L.A. bureau chief for the New York Times, wrote last month that the Getty initiative "suggests a bit of overcompensation from a city that has long been overshadowed by the New York art establishment, a place that — arguably unfairly — still suffers from a reputation of being more about tinsel than about serious art, and where interest in culture starts and ends with movie grosses and who is on the cover of Vanity Fair."

Nagourney then quoted the art critic Dave Hickey, who said of PST: "It's corny. It's the sort of thing that Denver would do. They would do Mountain Standard Time. It is '50s boosterish, and I would argue largely unnecessary."

Boosterism, of course, is woven into the DNA of Los Angeles. A recurring theme of Reading L.A., my yearlong series of blog posts on the canonical books devoted to Los Angeles architecture and urbanism, has been the city's longstanding, seemingly preternatural gift for self-promotion, much of it connected to real-estate speculation and Chamber of Commerce-style marketing.

Carey McWilliams, in his brilliant 1946 book "Southern California: An Island on the Land," called Los Angeles "one of the great promotions the world has ever known" and "the best-advertised city in America." In 1933, Morrow Mayo wrote that "the attitude of Angelenos towards their city is precisely that of a salesman towards his product, or a football cheering-section towards its team. Here is a spirit of boost which has become a fetish, a mania. Everything else is second to it."

In that sense, PST may appear to be merely more of the same. And yet Hickey and Nagourney had it at best only half-right. If the PST effort qualifies as boosterism, it is of a sort new to Los Angeles, promoting the past instead of the future — or, to be more precise, promoting the dynamic futurism of the recent past.

The same week that Nagourney's piece appeared, in fact, NASA officials were formally signing over title and ownership of the Space Shuttle Endeavour to the California Science Center in Exposition Park. The Science Center this year won a fierce competition for the orbiter, which was largely built in Palmdale and during its active NASA service touched down regularly at Edwards Air Force Base in the Antelope Valley.

After NASA finishes the tricky task of cleaning the shuttle, near the end of next year, it will send the vehicle to LAX on the back of a modified 747. The shuttle will then be driven through the surface streets of Los Angeles to Exposition Park, in an event that Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa predicted will be "the mother of all parades."

With the architecture firm Zimmer Gunsul Frasca, the Science Center is developing a $170-million air and space wing as the shuttle's permanent home. The new structure will likely take the form of a glass tower, allowing the museum to display Endeavour vertically.

In other words, it will be the biggest, most expensive vitrine in Southern California, large enough to accommodate a dozen Eames House living rooms. Endeavour is expected to boost attendance at the Science Center dramatically, making it one of the region's top tourist attractions.

Who knows? It might just outdraw Tomorrowland.

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