Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Thursday, August 15, 2013

L. A. Counterfactual: How the City's Architectural Development Might Have Been Different

I was recently in Los Angeles and stopped by the fascinating new exhibit, “Never Built Los Angeles,” at the Architecture and Design Museum on Wilshire Boulevard.

The exhibit profiles dozens of architectural and city planning projects that came close to being realized but ultimately failed.

Gazing at the drawings and models of the proposals, one cannot help but feel many of the feelings that underpin all counterfactual speculation: regret that about opportunities missed and gratitude about disasters avoided. 

Some of the tantalizing proposals that might have made the city more architecturally grand appeared in the 1920s and 1930s, including a City Beautiful plan along Wilshire Boulevard featuring arches and fountains and a massive Art Deco civic center complex designed by Lloyd Wright. 

At the same time, we can be grateful that many ill-considered proposals came to naught.  These include Richard Neutra’s mega housing development for 30,000 people in Chavez Ravine, a 1965 plan for an offshore freeway, called the Causeway, running through Santa Monica Bay, and a bland assemblage of generic skyscrapers on Grand Avenue in Downtown.

Like all good counterfactual history, the exhibit also sheds light on the forces of historical causality, making clear that Los Angeles’s missed architectural opportunities have usually stemmed from the greater power of private interests (developers, mostly) compared to city political officials. 
As LA Times architecture critic, Christopher Hawthorne, put it in a recent review: “The city…has both inherited and refined over many decades a political system that makes it far easier to say no, to protect the status quo and pockets of wary and litigious privilege, than to advance an agenda for positive change.”
As a result, the city has shown great timidity in the realm of civic minded public architecture at the same time that it has displayed bold innovation in the realm of private building (mostly residential architecture).
In the end, the exhibit prompts us to wonder what might have been.  To quote Hawthorne, "[had some of the visionary public 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.”


  1. Thanks, James. The world of architecture definitely seems to have recognized the relevance of counterfactuals....