Sunday, December 21, 2008

Nine in ‘09 for Los Angeles Architecture and Urban Design

For years I wanted to develop a list of architecture and urban design New Year’s resolutions. The usual resolutions - loose weight, exercise more, let the other person talk first - while all useful, are too personal for these hard times. As an architect, because of the shrinking economy, I feel motivated this year to make architecture and urban design resolutions that lead to architect’s being asked to contribute to building the next Los Angeles.

What hopefully unites the following professional design resolutions is a desire to elevate discussion of the important role design plays in establishing a vital and interesting city. Design implemented makes a city more amenable, more comfortable, more identifiable, easier to navigate, and more delightful and beautiful. Beauty and delight alone do not solve the environmental, economic and social ills that surround us. But try to imagine a city without beauty and delight. Would you want to live there? More than acknowledged, designed delight and beauty, when incorporated into the routines of daily life do make a big difference, both in terms of our own civic enthusiasm and the enthusiasm of outsiders who visit us and then critically judge us.

Architecture and urban design resolutions are meant to remind leaders and citizens alike that a city must be continuously designed, even when the economy is bad. A continuously designed Los Angeles is a Los Angeles that competes successfully for attention, interest, visitors, and investment in a global urban marketplace with lots of choices. Architecture and urban design resolutions are also meant to be a New Year’s gift to ourselves as professionals, to give those of us who already live here, and want to keep working here, more reasons to trust that the next job is coming.

In this spirit I have nine 2009 resolutions on my list.
  1. Plant and maintain 800,000 trees - quickly. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa announced two years ago an initiative to plant and maintain a million new trees. This is an important environmental program that promises to mitigate the effects of Los Angeles’ urban heat island, reduce water runoff, and beautify the city. To date, despite the valuable gifts of corporate sponsors and volunteers, the initiative has resulted in less then 200,000 new trees. This program should be speeded up, become the most visible evidence that the City is serious about realizing a 21rst Century urban forest, and utilized as a tool to let Los Angeles communities know that the City is planting for a better future. In this last regard, a good place to concentrate and maintain tree-planting efforts is along the City’s major boulevards.

  2. Design and build environments for farmer’s markets. In Los Angeles there are now close to 40 farmer’s markets bringing tens of thousands of people sociably together on a weekly basis. Yet these public spaces are ephemeral, appear only for a morning or an afternoon, and then disappear, making no contribution to their surrounds for the rest of the week. Now is the time to design and realize tangible places for these markets that can become everyday spaces. High quality pavers, lighting, benches, landscape and pavilions should transform the parking lots, streets and sidewalks of farmer’s markets and allow people to enjoy them everyday, even when the farmers are not in town.

  3. Paint Los Angeles taxicabs uniquely – hail them on major boulevards. Tokyo taxis are famous for their minty green color. New York’s are almost always yellow. Their cabs define in part the identities of their metropolises. Los Angeles’ are yellow, blue, green and do not contribute to the City’s image. Los Angeles needs a unique, colorful, and edgy taxi graphic and the City should require all new cabs to adopt it as a requirement of licensure. At the same time, Los Angeles should immediately extend the scope of the Hail-a-Taxi program from Downtown and Hollywood to major Los Angeles boulevards such as Wilshire, Ventura, and Vermont. Make it easier for people, and especially for tourists, to move about our city.

  4. Create bus shelters that reflect Los Angeles’ diversity. Los Angeles has 35 community plan areas. Implementing a bus shelter design program that flexibly adapts to the characteristics and identities of the City’s many neighborhoods will establish heightened pride and sense of place throughout the city, and more importantly, shelter from sun and rain the hundreds of thousands of people that utilize Metro everyday.

  5. Design and build streetlights, manhole covers, and all manner of street furniture in Los Angeles. Los Angeles has lots of creative designers and lots of foundries. Put them back to work designing and making the City’s outdoor furnishings. A couple of quick and highly publicized design competitions would bring a sense of progressive urgency and civic commitment to this local endeavor which engages local designers and businesses and directly integrates them into public works projects.

  6. Push the fences back and plant the buffers. I am driven nuts each time I see a school fence, golf course fence, or a park or open space fence of any kind built right to the back of any sidewalk. Los Angeles should immediately pass legislation that sets any new fence back from sidewalk facing property lines. Give some landscape back to the public and the city in the form of greenways, parkways, and trails that all can enjoy.

  7. Ban new billboards. While outdoor advertising has always been a part of Los Angeles’ urban landscape, the steady legal, and now illegal, proliferation of off-site signs, building wraps, and digital billboards sullies the city-wide environment. Hollywood and other parts of the city such as Downtown can and should make the case that commercialization of urban viewscapes is an essential aspect of Los Angeles place making. But these places should be the exception, not the rule. The rest of the City should be gradually freed from off-site signage blight.

  8. Hire architects, landscape architects, and designers so that the City of Los Angeles can implement and administer a new civic design work program. The intent of the first seven recommendations is a call to implement with stimulus dollars a new type of civic design and works program. They expand the definition of local public works beyond the fixing of potholes and the paving of roads. They ameliorate and beautify the environment. The beauty and delight of our city reinforces our second largest industry, tourism.

    Some of these improvements will require the talents of private sector design firms. Others are most efficiently completed directly from within City Hall. In a recessionary time and with a new definition of civic design works in mind, now is the moment that the City should hire architects, landscape architects, and designers with a range of design and design management skills to immediately begin and implement a new civic design program.

  9. Implement one demonstration smart and green street. Of all the infrastructural tasks a city undertakes, restriping a street to make it more pedestrian and bike friendly is one of the least expensive. Imagine that along with a restriping that the City would plan, coordinate, and implement the tree planting, farmer market, taxi, bus shelter, street furniture, and fence push back recommendations just suggested, and for good measure take down a few billboards as well. The result would be a street transformed, a place that people could bike, walk, live, work and play in better harmony with their surrounds. A first step would be to find the perfect street to test these ideas on a demonstration basis.

    I have always thought 6th Street from Downtown to San Vicente Boulevard would be a great candidate for streetscape improvement and consequent community reinvention. 6th, for seven miles, connects residential communities to places of work, education, worship, open space, and commercial activity. Today 6th is a four lane traffic-clogged byway along most of its length. Restriping this street with only two lanes, one in each direction, would allow for the introduction of dedicated bike lanes and protected left-turn lanes. Restriping would also create within the right-of-way room for local shuttles to move back and forth. Presence of shuttles would promulgate the need for bus shelters. More pedestrian scaled lights would further highlight districts that are already abuzz with activity and invite more people rather than vehicle activity. Missing street trees could be replaced and additional trees planted. Fences at parks and schools could become transitions to green spaces rather than single purpose security barriers. A demonstration of these ideas and principles could transform and change the use of an entire sector of the city and result in a social, economic, cultural, and sustainable urban transformation that betters daily life in Los Angeles for hundreds of thousands of people.
Would the above resolutions require, coordination, facilitation, design skills and funding to implement, much less implement quickly? Of course. But, in comparison to many of the ideas that are on the table to reinvigorate our local economy, these ideas are relatively less expensive and quicker to go. They also put a lot of people to work. They encourage others to make place-based long-term economic investments. Most critically, they demonstrate the important role that design and design improvements play in the life and health of cities generally and Los Angeles specifically.

At year’s end I will go back, look at this list, and determine for myself whether or not the City of Los Angeles is making this type of design progress. I emphasize that this is my list. Some of the items may appear a bit ephemeral or even silly (there should be a place for silliness in the urban world). Others may be impossible to achieve, at least in the near term. Yet, all of us, as architects, need to start describing to our friends how design realized makes for a better and more beautiful Los Angeles. I think they will be interested to hear what we have to say. Inherent in my 2009 design resolutions is a belief that a better designed Los Angeles, even in hard times, is a more beautiful, successful, and happy Los Angeles for one and all.

This piece is slated to appear in the January/February issue of Form - Pioneering Design.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Architecture and Urban Design Matters

For the next year I have the privilege of serving as President of the Los Angeles Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. LA/AIA has over 3,000 members and is one of the largest chapters in the United States. Yet this is not a propitious time to be an architect, what with all the layoffs and the sense amongst almost everybody I encounter that architecture is going nowhere fast.

Architects are frustrated. Just at the moment when cities, decision-makers, branders and the public at large began to take architecture as a subject of serious interest, the rug has been pulled out from under the profession. Thousands are out of work. New projects are not beginning. Prospects seem dim. In a time when trillions of dollars are being spent in the rescue of banks, and billions more will in all likelihood be spent on great public engineering works such as roads, as architects, we and what we work on run the risk of being forgotten - no worse - defined as irrelevant. Architecture must not be dismissed in this time of economic challenge as the luxury you add on after all of society's other ills are addressed.

Each of us who volunteer to be LA/AIA President are asked to think of a theme or organizing principal to guide our year. In a moment of larger challenge such as this, it is easy to forget that architecture and urban design matters. I can think of no better theme when our profession is so discouraged. Both as a practice and as a subject of engagement for our communities and our city we must remind all, now more than ever, that architecture and urban design matters. How does it matter? There are at least four key ways; as an economy that should be supported, as a practice that promotes sustainability, as a means to more efficiently make key decisions regarding the future of our urban environment, and as a practice that helps ensure the competitiveness of our region.

First, we must remind ourselves that we are a significant local industry. There are hundreds of architecture firms large and small in Los Angeles employing tens of thousands of designers. They in turn feed a larger building industry that delivers the housing, places of education and worship, work places and entertainment destinations that house a population that will continue to grow. As a micro-economy, architecture and urban design matters because architects are a key industry within a vital building economy that powers and shelters regional prosperity. The diminishment of our industry portends lesser prospects for the greater good. Supporting the architecture industry in ways subtle as well as direct leads inevitably to increased vitality throughout the region.

A second way architecture and urban design matters is the manner in which it increasingly fosters the sustainability of our daily lives. Indeed, architects now manage the information systems and technologies of sustainability. Architecture and urban design practices are saving energy, reducing dependence on foreign oil, leading to community designs that encourage walking and sociability and reducing our collective exposure to toxic materials and environments. Architecture and urban design matters because it is ever more entwined within the health, safety and welfare of our individual and communal lives.

Third, architecture and urban design matters because through the utilization of the tools of our profession, mainly intelligent visualization, communities agree to move forward with new projects, the libraries and schools and homes and retail centers of our near and distant future. No community in Los Angeles at this point, rich or poor, brown, black, yellow or white is willing to nor should accept a second rate built environment for themselves or their children. Architects visualize future visions better than any other profession. Along with the technology of sustainability, the technology of visualization is a key medium by which consensus is now reached. Architecture and urban design matters because it serves a a critical and artful medium for new agreements and new hope. In the planning for our near and long-term future we have to insist upon this type of visualization, not only because it is good for the economy of the profession, but because it is essential to forging forward with the projects that will define the 21rst Century.

But it is not enough to plan and visualize sustainably sound and beautiful environments. We must make them. There is no doubt in my mind that tremendous funds will be spent in coming years on infrastructure projects. Architects must insist that some of this stimulus be spent on improving not simply the efficiency of our cities and towns, but also the sustainability, quality and beauty of the urban environment as well. In a 21rst Century world all places are created equal, but those that attend to their sustainability and amenity values, that aspect of the city that incorporates delight as well as commodity and firmness, will find themselves more equal than others. For Los Angeles to compete in the coming decades, for our City to be attractive and competitive on a national and world stage, architecture and urban design has to matter. It defines the difference and is the difference maker now more than ever.

Perhaps as architects and designers this is all obvious. But I think we do not spend nearly enough time or energy articulating these ideas , and many other related ideas, to all of our friends and our publics. Each of us in the coming weeks and months should feel comfortable remembering and representing the crucial importance of architecture and urban design matters and not be discouraged by the difficult times and premature thoughts of our professional demise. When Los Angeles emerges from this present moment , and we will emerge, we will be a better city if during this time of challenge architecture and urban design mattered.

Over the next year let each of us renew the beautiful optimism of building that is embedded in our diverse practices. Let us not be afraid in our thoughts and daily lives to speak and practice architecture and urban design matters knowing that it matters now more then ever. Join a committee that interests you, volunteer to serve on a neighborhood council, come together in fellowship within our and allied professions. Speak to the matters and delights of architecture and urban design and know that you are making a positive difference in doing so.

I look forward to working on this theme and evolving a common agenda with all of you that reminds all of us and our publics of the critical and positive role of our profession and our work in the making and remaking of our environment and our city.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Minicity IV: Defining Minicity - The Architecture And Urbanism of Convenience

Not far from my home two story mini-malls face off across Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles with taller office blocks and residential buildings beyond; each type a peculiar combination of social logic and economic calculation; each form serving an urban purpose, if not adding up to an artful townscape.

I did not start out with the idea that I would become an aficionado of mini-malls. No, in the beginning of my fascination I think, like most people, I saw them as a problem, a visual blight, second order urban detritus.

In Los Angeles, the first mini-mall I paid close attention to was one not far from my house in the mid-Wilshire district. I was not seeking out for study the mini-malls in my community per se. Rather, I was looking at the setting the mall was placed within. I found myself fascinated with the extreme juxtaposition of large buildings next to small buildings, a scene characteristic of many of Los Angeles' boulevards. This contrast, I postulated, must constitute a unique Los Angeles pattern. Within this frame of small versus large was surely some kernel of truth.

Upon reflection, I realized that the truth I was seeking was prosaic. It was formed by a nexus of land cost, parcel size, retail opportunity and traffic counts. If office markets and housing demand are not too robust, if the nearby residential population is plentiful and if traffic counts are high, economics dictate that most commercial corners are most productive as retail strips. Combined with traditional prejudices in Los Angeles against dwelling on traffic-congested streets, empirical observation suggests that market forces lead to the proliferation of mini-malls. I realized I was at them and in them all the time looking out at the city and denying what I was directly experiencing, the view from a mini-mall. What started out on my part as a formal study, looking at one corner commercial situation and imagining from this singular review the ideal shape of Los Angeles urban design, soon turned into review and research regarding an architectural type that I had unintendingly become familiar with, the mini-mall.

A feature on the mini-malls of the San Gabriel Valley appeared in the Los Angeles Times on March 31, 2005.

All Angeleno's utilize mini-malls but but few appreciate them. There are of course somewhat tongue in cheek reviews that appear infrequently in the Los Angeles Times describing the delights of mini-malls. And more recently a local real estate blog has taken to highlighting on an occasional basis favorite commercial corners, though again in an ironic manner. Notwithstanding these activities, few people actually honor the type or take it seriously as an integral part of daily life. Mini-malls are not Disney Hall and Frank Gehry does not design them. They are rarely seen as contributing to the life of their urban surrounds even as they are used everyday.

In normative urban design and architectural design practice the mini-mall is not a subject of serious study. Only in a few cases can one point to recognized architects being given commissions to design these centers. The prophets of New Urbanism eschew the type. Yet despite the lack of sanction, I found I could not resist them. I found myself and still find myself using them everyday. Soon I realized that my interest was not so much the juxtaposition of small versus large form and the codification of a Los Angeles pattern but understanding commercial types, particularly corner commercial types and their relationship to automobility and everyday life.

My hypothesis, perhaps too obviously, is that contemporary mobility breeds architectural types that are a direct response to daily life in the present metropolis - hence mini-malls. I also sensed as I delved into the subject that an interest in mini-malls would lead to an alternative view and illustration of the history of the city, one that was more inclusive of forms previously ignored as utilitarian and prosaic. My further thought was that an exploration of automobility and its forms would allow a more nuanced view of the building requirements for daily life in the contemporary city. From a design point of view understanding the typologies of automobility would lead to formal innovation within the logic of the mini-mall type. From this multi-faceted hypothesis came both a program of research and a concept, minicity.

Research in the form of driving and walking the streets of Los Angeles reveals an automobile oriented informal city of commercial corners bursting with mom and pop businesses, innovative stores selling specialty goods that can not afford to locate in shopping malls, ethnic and innovative eateries, businesses run by first generation Americans, businesses that depend for success upon the certainty of immediately available parking, and a huge range of enterprises and activities that span the range of daily life, from Tae Kwon Do studios to animal hospitals to storefront churches. Martin Leitner, an intern from the Bauhaus University who assisted me in this research, first dubbed this phenomenon Minicity.

Minicity is marked by easy in and out parking and focused visits, often quite short. Minicity serves the practical needs of surrounding neighborhoods while catering simultaneously to a larger mobile community who pass by on foot, by bus and of course by automobile. Minicity efficiently serves the needs of mobile lifestyles. It has a logical built consequence, an architecture and urbanism of convenience. The mini-mall in all its forms is its most refined outcome.

Minicity is also a feeling of or state of being within the city. In this sense minicity describes the routines and pleasures of using the commercial corners and mini-malls. Thus minicity is the heightened consciousness of daily routines within the automobile oriented metropolis. Minicity is also about movement through the space of the auto-influenced city. This type of movement is a cousin of the space time movement described so powerfully sixty years ago by Sigfried Giedion in Space, Time and Architecture. However rather than Gideon's space time, which was the liberating sense of pure flow through the forms of the modern city, minicity suggests rather a place time where the the mini-center offers a focused pause in the frenetic activity of the networked city.

The Flip a Strip competition sponsored by the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art (SMoCA) in Scottsdale, Arizona explored means to reinvent the ubiquitous strip malls of the Phoenix area. This entry by Gould Evans returns the strip center to its historic point of origin, the drive-in market selling produce to passing motorists and suggests a continued vital future for this overlooked typology.

Architectural types are neutral. They bespeak neither good nor evil. However good architecture is not neutral, it bespeaks care. Minicity in most cases needs care. My only regret when looking at the majority of this type of convenience landscape is that it is so underdeveloped, indeed formally ugly. Perhaps by revealing it to be a tangible and neccessary part of contemporary daily life the seeds are sown for its improvement. My sense is that with care minicity will find an honored place within the historic typologies of the city. The first step towards improving the design of minicity is to acknowledge its purpose and relevance.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Minicity III - Smart Cars = Smart City

The El Adobe Drive-in Market built in the early 1920's in Hollywood California prefigures today's mini-malls (see Richard Longstreth, The Drive-in, The Supermarket and the Transformation of Commercial Space in Los Angeles, 1914 - 1941)

There is an assumption in city design that both professionals and citizens have learned from the lessons of the past century. If the Twentieth Century brought us innumerable forms of sprawl that have left us out of shape and overweight, we know better than to reproduce the same patterns in the present. Today we are for mixed-use development with housing over retail and eyes-on-the-street overlooking active urban sidewalks. We relate land-use to transportation improvements. Higher density housing and job space need to be located next to light rail and bus rapid transit. Villages with residents within walking distant of neighborhood shops are much preferred over cul-de-sac suburbs. Growth within this framework must be compact and sustainable. When growth is both, it is smart.

At the same time economic and social forces reinforce these urban design tenants. In the last years we have heard about location-responsive mortgages that encourage us to build close to transit. Zoning innovations encourage small lot subdivisions and accessory units within formerly single family house neighborhoods Walkability audits lead to improved sidewalks and streets that are green and great. Combined with rising energy costs, together these factors suggest that the city will evolve, finally, towards a New Urbanism.

Facts suggest that these forces are no longer academic. In many cities you can ride a light rail from the airport to the center city to the individual neighborhood and see block after block of mixed-use development rising. Downtowns are being renewed by an agglomerating creative class. People are building smaller houses in the outlying districts. Drivers are selling their SUVs and buying smaller cars. A few are buying Smart cars and then go onto to live the smart urban life. This, if you subscribe religiously to all of the above, may be an urban design challenge you did not anticipate.
The Smart Car, because it is cheap, efficient and easy to park challenges the viability of a purely traditional urbanism and promotes the building of more mini-malls.Image from

Smart cars are smart because they dart in and out of congested traffic with ease. They park in the most unlikely of places. They are light and promise great mileage. They project an aura of cool; light, compact, thrifty and convenient. They allow us to ignore and better negotiate the envelope of automobile-oriented sprawl and congestion. Soon, very soon, many more of us will drive micro-cars, save money, and look for places to go; places like light, compact, thrifty and convenient mini-malls.

History suggests that automotive innovation spawns building types and urban forms that belie traditional urbanism. There is no reason to think that micro-cars will not do the same. Los Angeles was one of the first cities in the United States to have a very high percentage of car ownership and it became the place where the 20th Century American landscape of super gas stations, drive-in-markets and supermarkets was more or less invented. While other cities also had their part in this evolution of urbanism, Houston (strip centers), Detroit (interior shopping malls) and Kansas City (auto-villages) come to mind, the forms of automobility spread fastest in Los Angeles (again, see Richard Longstreth). Now, a new generation of automotive innovation will spur a further round of typological evolution. One can easily imagine a hybrid city that is at once compact, traditional, smart and accepting of micro-cars in mini-malls.

If a car is inexpensive to buy, cheap to drive, easy to park and fun to boot, why deny yourself the private pleasures of a mini-car at the mini-center? Micro-cars present one of the greatest challenges to traditional urbanism in the 21rst century precisely because they enable people in urban situations to maintain already dominant patterns of daily existence within spread out urban landscapes. Mini-malls have a natural place within these micro-driven urban environments precisely because they, like the super stations, drive-in markets and supermarkets before them, offer the individual daily convenience through a specific typology with a minimum of fuss, a maximum of freedom and reasonable comfort.

I believe in the compact city. But I also believe that designers will find new ways to make automobile-oriented uses compact. I believe in smart growth. But I also believe that smart cars have a place within the urban intensity that is a consequence of this growth. I believe in sustainability. One response to evolutionary sustainability is buying a very small car that does not use gas nor measure efficiency in terms of miles per gallon. Minicity is the acceptance, sometimes reluctantly, of this already present urban projection and the understanding that architectural visions, indeed new visions for mini-malls, are needed, and will be created.

Minicity II - Ambition and Hope

A question arises when looking at the common mini-mall. Are they pure building type, in essence a wholly engineered response to a given set of economic imperatives that directly relate the automobile to the consumption of everyday convenience, or do they have the capacity to embody more complex values and aspirations? Certainly most mini-malls are parsimonious in the deployment of detail, symbol and idea, sticking to the tried and true, rarely deviating from the formula of a corner "L" embracing a field of parking.

In Los Angeles at the intersection of Western and 6th, this two-story mini-mall is an engineered exercise in design efficiency. No architectural excess or delight mars its economy of purpose and convenience.

Another way of asking this same question might be, do mini-malls lie outside architectural discourse? Clearly if I really thought this I would not be writing this essay. Yet, one has to be an iconoclast at best and a masochist at worst to pursue the mini-mall as an object of architectural passion (or to desire to design a mini-mall - which I do). Most of them are quite plain if not visually blighting. All the conversations and experiments that mark contemporary architecture may be wasted on a building form that is more often than not prosaic. After all, the real purpose of a mini-mall is to provide a drive-in vessel of convenience, an envelope set in urbanized space to go in and out of quickly and with purpose - a machine to facilitate everyday consumption.

Seeking beauty in the form of a mini-mall raises all sorts of accusations from the architectural crowd. Somewhere between bemusement and anger, I am variously accused of being uninterested, undiscriminating and populist in the sense of being part of the ignorant mob-like crowd. At other times I admit to a sense of perversion. I do have trouble justifying this interest in the basest form of commercial architecture. Do I perhaps too quickly take undue pleasure in the destruction of traditional as well as yet to be realized cityscapes through the unintended promotion of unfettered commercial automobile oriented sprawl?
Yet to those who don't believe it possible I tell you there are mini-malls that rise above the merely utilitarian. These mini-malls suggest that the form is still evolving, is still relevant, is still an architectural tool that can be deployed and when deployed reward and enrich everyday life. Three of these mini-centers are encountered in my daily life and they each make an architectural statement of care.

Beverly Palm Plaza in Beverly Hills, California was designed by Goldman Firth Architects and completed about eight years ago.

The first, Beverly Palm Plaza, is named after it's namesake intersection in Beverly Hills. Designed by Goldman Firth Architects and completed about eight years ago, this mini-mall is a rehabilitation of a 1951 Earl Sheib paint and body shop. When rehabilitated the size was doubled. What makes this center so special is the simplicity of the design means yet complexity of the end result. Minimal glass aluminum storefront, flat stucco walls layered to reveal the sky and a steel trellis sitting between the layered stucco walls and extending beyond the building form to create a vehicular gateway to the center from Palm Drive. Combined they infuse an integrated architectural spirit into the basic shape of a mini-mall by always bringing the eye back to glimpse the Southern California sky and the surrounding palms.
At Beverly Palm Plaza the sky is always mediated by the architectural forms, creating a connection between the built and natural environments.

At the ground plane of Beverly Palm Plaza flax plants create a vertical green buffer between the automobiles in the street facing parking lot and the surrounding sidewalks. The surface of the parking lot is made up of simple concrete pavers, providing a rich surface to walk across to and from your car. In the corner, a small round seating area creates a welcome respite and invites one to linger a bit after dropping off the laundry. Every detail is thought through, an educated hand and eye shaped every proportion and choice of material. Beverly Palm Plaza demonstrates that it is possible to create a mini-oasis along a busy Los Angeles boulevard, a moment of architectural uplift in the course of a busy day.

The second example of an architecturally focused mini-mall is just a block to the east of Beverly Palm Plaza along Olympic Boulevard in this same city. The fact that two such examples exist so close to each other in one city is also no doubt a testament to the rigor of the Beverly Hills design review process, but that is a topic for another time.

Doheny Plaza, designed by Kanner Associates in 1995; still crisp and fresh feeling in 2008.

Doheny Plaza, the mini-mall at the northeast corner of Olympic Boulevard and Doheny Drive, was designed by Kanner Architects and completed in 1995. Still fresh looking almost fifteen years after its completion, this center is unusual in that the parking is tucked behind the two-story structure, sheltered by a twenty foot overhang supported by tension rods. According to the architect this is a structural reference to a tension rod supported canopy that graced a previous gas station that stood at the site. Regardless of the resulting sidewalk hugging character of the building and the sense that it might be more of a taxpayer block then a mini-mall, the small footprint occupied by this building in contrast to the generous area left for surface parking clearly keeps this building within the commercial corner genre. Yet here the type evolves, providing sidewalk friendly storefronts and a second floor that clearly suggests use as office space as opposed to the second tier and lower rent retail found in too many centers. The diagram of this center is wrapped in a crisp modernism that at once evokes Le Corbusier, Oscar Niemeyer and
Arquitectonica. However, the expressiveness of the structural detailing at both the storefronts and at the overhang make the architecture specific to the seismic forces of Los Angeles and surrounds. Doheny Plaza tweaks the typical mini-mall diagram by putting the cars in the back but never strays so far from basics as to become inconvenient for its vehicle bound patrons.

The last example is again a rehabilitated building, in this case a repurposed mini-mall. Designed by architects Rios Clemente Hale for their own offices with attendant ground floor retail space for their product business Not Neutral, this redesigned center sits just south of the intersection of Melrose Avenue and Larchmont Boulevard.

Rios Clemente Hale redesigned and repurposed an existing mini-mall in the Larchmont area of Los Angeles, transforming it into a center for their own offices and attendant retail space.

What was once an undistinguished center has had its walls ripped off and replaced with a visually sophisticated metal and glass wall. Transparent glass planes reveal interior activities yet at the same time allow for a sense of privacy when interupted by attached and integral aluminum decorative screens. Like Beverly Palm Plaza, concrete pavers at the ground plane create a simple yet textured plaza that is at once rich and welcoming. The exterior space is allowed to bleed into the interiors of the architect's offices, suffusing the entry with a sense of layering, light and the delightful confusion of reflections.

The interior of the Rios Clemente Hale office merges inside and outside space, a trait rarely characteristic of a mini-mall.

These are all of course designed phenomenon that transcend the utility that is presumed to be inherent to the mini-mall type.

In each of these three cases, and I keep collecting more examples, the presence of Architecture infuses a spirit of generosity into a form of built pattern that is assumed to be impervious to delight. In the hands of a capable architect of course anything is possible but imagine if you will a city in which the prosaic, indeed the typically banal mini-mall, is always infused with beauty. Convenience is celebrated as opposed to tolerated. Diagrams, mini-mall diagrams in particular, while not completely forgiven as a type that can foster mindless vehicle oriented consumption and sprawl, are also seen to be in these examples opportunities for the expression of architectural ambition and everyday delight.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Minicity I - Lou

Lorraine and Denise before a meal at Lou, a slow food wine bar tucked into the corner of a mini-mall south of Hollywood, California

Yesterday, a San Franciscan and I had a conversation. He had eight hours before his plane ride home. He challenged me, "where do you go in Los Angeles if you have time to kill?" For any Angeleno this is an existential challenge. We use the city peripatetically, rarely going just one place, instead hopping about through great swaths of space. To MOCA, SMOA, LACMA, Runyon Canyon, Griffith Park, Downtown, the beach, etc. each a delight, but not connected or sustaining interest for an entire day.

Politically Los Angeles resembles Jane Jacob's Greenwich Village, but in practice this city remains closer to Reyner Banham's four sprawling and overlapping ecologies; surfurbia, foothills, the plains of id (where most of us live) and autopia (how most of us get around). "Hey", I told my freind, "if you want to see Los Angeles, visit a mini-mall."

Reyner Banham pays scant attention to mini-malls in his book but they are the logical typological consequence of a city that lives at once on the beach, in the hills, throughout the flats of the geographic basins and valleys and in cars (and I dare say even buses and trains). Angelenos are on the move across vast distances, at least in comparison to traditional urban situations and mini-malls are the halfway houses, the outposts, the forts and campgrounds of convenience.

Every Angeleno mentally maps the Los Angeles locales where they buy a bottle of water, drop off and pick up cleaning, wash pets, grab take-out, exercise, visit chiropractors and weight control specialists, indeed take care of all daily needs. Unheralded yet essential to everyday life, this minicity of "L" shaped haunts is our secret city where we spend the hours and the days of our lives.

Perhaps least obvious to the outsider is how mini-malls, despite lacking the traditional elan of great urban places, increasingly transcend definitions of high and low culture, realizing a type of placeless place to be that is the definition of this place, Los Angeles. One can find the world in a Los Angeles mini-mall. From ethnic foods of every type to goods from every continent, storefront churches and book stores, jewelry and clothing, photo-finishing and fried chicken, art galleries and light industrial manufacturing, there are mini-malls that feature any activity one can imagine or anticipate. You just have to first define your need and then seek it out.

Melrose Plaza, at the corner of Vine Street and Camerford Avenue in Los Angeles, features the slow food wine bar Lou, as well as a laundromat, burger stand, Guatemalan chicken restaurant and Thai massage parlor.

Upon reflection I would suggest that my San Francisco friend spend the hours before his flight at the mini-mall pictured above, Melrose Plaza. This is the "Lou" mini-mall at the southeast corner of Vine Street and Camerford Avenue south of Hollywood. I could wax poetic about the convenient parking, the stunning views of the hills to the north, the curious residential neighborhoods and studio haunts within a quarter mile walking distance, but the real secret here is Lou. Lou is a slow-food restaurant and wine bar. Lou is the guy who owns the place and stands behind the bar and pours the wine and picks the music. The interior is dark and the music is smoky even if one can't smoke. A curtain hides the view out and the view in. You could and I did drive by the place a dozen times before stopping in. On any given day or evening you might run into friends, neighbors, celebrities or just sit alone and talk to Lou. To the San Franciscan who doesn't want to drive in LA, take a taxi to Melrose Plaza, eat a meal, get a massage, look at the hills, enjoy a glass of fine wine and get to know Lou and get to know Los Angeles.