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Review: A city's unrealized ambitions in 'Never Built Los Angeles'

The Architecture and Design Museum's 'Never Built Los Angeles' exhibition is filled with dream projects that have lessons for L.A. and its leaders.

August 03, 2013|By Christopher Hawthorne, Los Angeles Times Architecture Critic

Los Angeles has never been big on regret.

For most of the city's history we've been so busy charging forward, inventing and reinventing the future, that we've rarely paused to wonder what might have been.

In architecture, when we do look back, we usually focus more on mistakes of action than inaction. We mourn the landmarks we've knocked down rather than the ones we failed to build in the first place.

But how do you catalog a history of mistimed, misguided or ill-fated ambition? What about a preservation movement for the ideas and designs that almost made it?

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"Never Built Los Angeles," a revelatory new exhibition at the Architecture and Design Museum on Wilshire Boulevard, is a first step in that direction, an attempt to corral the city's most beautiful architectural ghosts and put them on public view.

Curated by architectural journalists Sam Lubell and Greg Goldin, the show offers a rich parade of proposals for civic projects in Los Angeles and Southern California — by architects including Frank Lloyd Wright, Richard Neutra, Paul Williams, Rem Koolhaas, Steven Holl, Frank Gehry and Jean Nouvel — that for a variety of reasons never got off the drawing board.

The range of work is vast. The show includes parks, monorail systems, movie theaters and churches that appeared, as the curators put it, "on paper and nowhere else." There are doomed master plans here, stillborn office towers and DOA museum wings.

Between 1920 and 1930 alone, Los Angeles considered a plan for an extensive subway and elevated-train system, a series of City Beautiful arches and fountains along the length of Wilshire Boulevard and a county-wide proposal (by the Olmsted Brothers firm, led by sons of the Central Park designer) for new parks and open space.

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Had even one of those three projects been completed, the character of Los Angeles would be strikingly different. It would be a more public-minded, greener and perhaps a more equitable city than it is now.

You could probably put together a show like this on any big American city. In Los Angeles, though, the distance between what's offered up to the public and what gets built has been unusually wide.

Our paper architecture is less about theory and more about the drive to change a city that has always seemed singularly full of possibility. Our planning process has focused — and continues to focus — on one-off, big-ticket mega-projects at the expense of a more patient and comprehensive approach, giving architects and developers incentive to swing for the fences while leaving the score card littered with strikeouts.

At the same time, we've always been hamstrung, our ambition stunted, by deep disagreements about what kind of city we want to be: horizontal or vertical, respectable or happily idiosyncratic, extending the traditions of East Coast and European capitals or eager to break from them.

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Not all of the projects in the show provoke regret. More than a few qualify as bullets mercifully dodged, including a 1965 plan for an offshore freeway, called the Causeway, running through Santa Monica Bay.

What emerges is a nuanced portrait of this city's tendency to flirt with and then give up on major civic initiatives. Caution cuts both ways. If we'd been a bolder city in terms of public architecture in the 1960s, today we might have a county museum on Wilshire Boulevard designed by Mies van der Rohe. But we might have the Causeway too, or a freeway through Laurel Canyon.

On view through Oct. 13, the exhibition is separate from "Pacific Standard Time Presents: Modern Architecture in L.A.," the Getty-sponsored series of architecture shows that have been opening throughout Southern California this spring and summer. "Never Built" was originally planned to run well in advance of PSTP.

But by appearing now — as a coda to the Getty shows and as the city welcomes a new mayor — "Never Built" picks up new shades of meaning and arguably greater influence.

Though smaller, scrappier and less even in its presentation, "Never Built" works especially well as a sequel or companion piece to the Getty's "Overdrive," the anchor show in the PSTP series.

"Overdrive," which closed July 21, celebrated (and critiqued) L.A.'s massive architectural production in the postwar years. It was about what actually gets built in Los Angeles, where architectural innovation has flourished in the private realm but shriveled in the public one. By extension, it was about the compromises inherent in building, not to mention the environmental and social costs of over-building.

"Never Built," in its alternative history of Los Angeles architecture, features projects that in many cases were allergic to compromise, or noticeably more sophisticated about design than politics.

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