The Impermanence of LA’s Built Environment?

What deserves protection?

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The 6th Street Viaduct, Photo via L.A. Magazine

With every announcement I read about the construction of a new building, new museum, or a park redesign comes my inevitable questions: what was there before? Is there anything worth saving? And how will these new spaces shape L.A. in the 21st century?

My latest pondering of these questions has to do with L.A. Magazine’s recent discussion about the transformative effects the new 6th Street viaduct might have on Los Angeles. The viaduct’s architect, Michael Maltzan, believes the new design will help foster greater connections between communities, while still respecting neighborhood identity. The redesign looks pretty fantastic, and of course The High Line in NYC was one of the first comparisons that came to mind, in terms of the new viaduct’s potential to encourage both a sense of respite and a vibrant urban community. At the very least, I think it will inspire tourism from locals and visitors. But can it help create a new public identity for Los Angeles?

That question about the public identity of Los Angeles is one that I find endlessly engaging, and I’ve written about it at length. At the heart of the endless chatter about L.A.’s urban identity is the belief in reinvention. Maltzan himself argues that “the impermanence of L.A.’s built environment is no vice.” Rather, he sees it as a “real advantage” in a city that lacks a “longer history” of solving urban problems “in a particular way.” Instead, Angelenos have the freedom to approach contemporary challenges with fresh ideas without being hindered by the past. Yet, I found his statement rather glib. Should we be cautious about encouraging a sense of impermanence here?

L.A.’s reputation as a place of creativity, of innovation and experimentation, a place where you can throw off old ideas and start fresh, has existed for more than a century. These qualities are certainly what draws people here. There is nothing more exciting than imagining what new and untested ideas might spark a more vibrant urban life. But what deserves ‘permanence’ or protection? Who decides what built spaces are in need of reinvention? These questions touch on the complex issues historic preservationists deal with when determining whether a building or space is worth preserving. The work of the LA Conservancy comes to mind. 

As a historian, I can’t help but look to the past when I consider the reinvention of L.A.’s built environment. Some instances brought unquestionable benefits to the city, such as the Music Center and Grand Park. Other instances remain contentious moments in the region’s history, like Dodger Stadium, and the destruction of the Bunker Hill neighborhood. Were these tragedies or triumphs, and at what cost? The revitalization of the L.A. River comes to mind as an especially poignant example. And what about those spaces still up for grabs? Pershing Square is a perfect case study–the space has been reinvented many times over; what will its next incarnation look like? Is there anything currently there worth preserving? What even makes a ‘good public space‘? Maybe that’s a question for another blog post. 

In the case of the 6th Street viaduct, Maltzan “hopes it will be the symbol of a city bounding joyfully into the future.” It will be a modern landmark, to be sure. But does it have the power to transform Los Angeles? If not, what will?

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