By Jack Skelley
Never Built Los Angeles, the A+D Museum exhibit co-curated by Sam Lubell and Greg Goldin and designed by Clive Wilkinson Architects, is the talk of the town. The project (plus a staggeringly comprehensive book) spotlights significant places and plans imagined for the city that couldn’t get off the drawing board.
There are many sighs of regret for excellence that might have been; the “visionary works that had the greatest potential to reshape the city,” as the curators state. In his thoughtful review, Los Angeles Times architecture critic Chris Hawthorne terms the show a “revelatory… attempt to corral the city's most beautiful architectural ghosts.”
Implicit in this lament is the truth that Los Angeles has far too often been an architectural and planning disaster. If only, for example, the powers-that-be had embraced the Olmsted Brothers proposal to unite the city through extensive new parks, we wouldn’t be one of the most greenspace deprived cities in the world. (That plan is an exhibit highlight.) Or, if only they hadn’t dismantled the Red Car streetcar system and erected those community-carving freeways, our neighborhoods might thrive much more dynamically.
But the show is as much “thank goodness” as “if only…” It proves the city wisely aborted a rogues’ gallery of hideous monuments to greed, ego or now-discredited design trends.
Its most jolting examples include Santa Monica Causeway—a late 1960s scheme to span a freeway across the bay using 120 million cubic yards of fill from the Santa Monica Mountains. The only suitable response to such a monstrosity should be, “Are you freaking kidding?” But at the zenith of freeway worship and promoted by the city of Santa Monica and L.A. Mayor Sam Yorty, it took a veto by Governor Pat Brown to kill the thing.
Other misbegotten plans are dangerously cloaked in architecture du jour. Lloyd Wright's 1925 Civic Center Plan appears to be a Fritz Lang Metropolis–style fortress with the defective vision of many successive “improvements” of Downtown L.A.: Purporting to renew the city, it risks smashing an authentic urban fabric with mega monoliths. This is the same mentality that in the 1960s bulldozed the priceless Victorian neighborhood atop Bunker Hill to impose a financial and entertainment district (The Music Center) that already existed downhill on Spring Street.
During my decade as an editor of L.A. Downtown News, I was privy to a parade of such plans, large and small. Today, some more worthy ones still cling to the drawing board. Others may be, mercifully, “Never Built.”