City of irreconcilable dreams

"Putting our best efforts into reforming the built environment as the means to reform ourselves and society is a remarkably deeply held belief in our culture, as if we modern urban dwellers are a cargo cult, putting faith in things to transform our souls and spirits."--Wade Graham, Dream Cities: Seven Urban Ideas That Shape the World.

Wade Graham's new book, Dream Cities, is a cautionary tale. It ranges widely through time and around the world. But it's aimed straight at Los Angeles, the author's hometown, right at our present moment.

Big dreams promising to transform our city are all the rage these days:

dream cities copy.jpgFrank Gehry is reimagining the LA River!

More than $120 billion in new funding for Metro will remake the way we move around LA! (If voters approve a sales tax increase in November.)

The Olympics will make LA a world-class city! (Again!)

The Third Los Angeles is on the way!

Graham's book is not explicitly about these new dreams. But it is about dreams that have shaped--and continue to shape--Los Angeles, and how people expect the built environment, a product of urban ideas, to shape our lives, indeed even our souls and spirits. Like all good histories, Dream Cities is about unintended consequences.

Graham is a landscape designer and writer. He lives in Echo Park and teaches at Pepperdine.

When he looks at Los Angeles, he sees a city of irreconcilable dreams.

All of the big urban ideas that he traces in Dream Cities are at work here in LA:

  • The "romantic city" of the Spanish colonial villa, which can be seen most clearly in Santa Barbara, of course, but also in Beverly Hills and other wealthy redoubts around LA, where an imagined past confers the aura of historical legitimacy on a contemporary order.
  • The "monumental city" of well-ordered boulevards, stately plazas, and trophy buildings, which can be seen around Grand Park, City Hall, the LA Times building, the Music Center, and most dramatically in Walt Disney Concert Hall, which manages the neat trick of looking futuristic while fulfilling the role of a monument reflecting "glory and gravity" back on the city and those who preside over it.
  • The "rational city" of modern skyscrapers, "slabs" Graham calls them, connected by freeways. "A city made for speed is a city made for success," wrote Le Corbusier, the godfather of this dream. We see it in on Bunker Hill, in Park La Brea, and Century City.
  • The "anticity" of "homesteads" seen everywhere in LA's most dominant form, the single-family home, sprawling ever outward, as people seek to be part of the city, but apart from it. Its most iconic form shows up beautifully in the famous nighttime image of the Stahl House (Case Study House #22), where two women sit serenely conversing in a modern home cantilevered over a hillside, with the parallel lights of the city's streets receding into the safe and scenic distance.
  • The "self-organizing city" of neighborhoods, "cities within cities," epitomized in the apocryphal critique that Los Angeles is "72 suburbs in search of a city," variously attributed to Dorothy Parker, Aldous Huxley, and H.L. Mencken. But also in what all of us who live in the city know, that LA can be a very different city depending on which neighborhood you are in.
  • The "shopping city" of malls, in which "maximizing shopping equals maximizing urbanism," seen here from Third Street in Santa Monica, to the Galleria, the Grove, CityWalk at Universal Studios, and more.
  • The emergent "techno-ecological city," conceived as a kind of isolated space station in a harsh environment, concerned with the "metabolism" of the city, sustainability, water conservation, recycling, production of food and energy, and a changing climate.

Los Angeles isn't shaped by any one of these big ideas alone, Graham told me. Instead, LA is a city of "dynamic, problematic conflict between dreams," he said. Los Angeles is driven by contradictory ideas "that don't mesh well with each other."

So why are we now hoping that some new idea might somehow save the city?

"We buy into the promise of ideas," Graham said. It's easier than the hard work of "democracy, citizen participation, and boring things like that," he added. "And it leads us astray most of the time."

Despite the failure of all of these ideas to live up to their promises, Graham said, we still would like to believe that changes in the built environment could somehow miraculously solve all of our urban problems.

There is a "social project" inherent in all of the urban ideas that Graham writes about in Dream Cities. The architects and planners he profiles all believed that the right built environment would create better people, a better society, from Daniel Burnham's "Make no little plans, they have no magic to stir men's blood...." to Jane Jacobs, who fought big plans on behalf of little neighborhoods.

"We put an incredible freight of meaning into objects that don't really deliver," Graham said.

What we really need to do instead is "disenchant our objects," because if we keep acting like a cargo cult, praying that the next big idea to fall from the sky will change our lives and our city, we may be waiting forever.

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