Interviews

Why the City of Los Angeles Hired a “Chief Design Officer”

“Los Angeles can be hard to read,” said Christopher Hawthorne, a former LA Times architecture critic. “It doesn’t quite fit the mold of what we think a city is.”

A Pacific Electric red car crosses a steel bridge above Fletcher Drive in Atwater Village, Los Angeles (photo by Donald Duke, courtesy Metro Transportation Library and Archive Collection, via Flickr user Eric Beteille)

Next month, Christopher Hawthorne, The Los Angeles Times architecture critic since 2004, will become the city’s first chief design officer, a position offered to him by Mayor Eric Garcetti. Hawthorne’s new job will be to consider how to improve design in Los Angeles’ public realm, responding to its needs, its flaws and, he’s explained in detail, its actual inhabitants.

In a recent response to a New York Times story about the Los Angeles Times, Hawthorne wrote that the city of Los Angeles is something of an anomaly — particularly when it’s unreasonably compared to places like New York. “People who are accustomed to making quick sense of the world … tend to be flummoxed,” he explained. “This kind of city has grown so large — in economic and environmental as well as physical reach — that it begins to stretch beyond our field of vision.”

As Hawthorne later explained, when he announced his new position, that design in Los Angeles’ public sector is difficult to address. Los Angeles is complex and sprawling; many communities go underserved, and seemingly beneficial design projects are sometimes decoys for displacement. Hawthorne spoke with Hyperallergic about how to reframe our collective thinking about design and public space.

Occidental College hosts 3rd LA City on the Verge: Mayor Eric Garcetti and Christopher Hawthorne in Conversation, in Thorne Hall on the campus of Occidental College in Eagle Rock, March 22, 2017. (photo by Occidental College photographer Marc Campos)

Monica Uszerowicz: What does the role of Chief Design Officer entail? Did it arise from new issues?

Christopher Hawthorne: It arose from Mayor Eric Garcetti’s real interest in architecture and design and his determination to leverage the massive investments we’re now making in transit, housing, and parks to produce well-designed public spaces, as well as better civic architecture. We want to make sure our designs are efficient, inclusive, and represent the character and spirit of Los Angeles. We haven’t always been great at that in LA. Some of our public work in the past has failed in all three categories.

MU: Had you already been thinking about switching careers? I wonder if engaging with criticism made visible the issues you’ll eventually address in this new capacity.

CH: Being an architecture critic for a daily newspaper in a big American city was really the only job I ever aspired to have, so I wasn’t anticipating I’d ever make a change like this. At the same time, in recent years I’ve been doing more teaching as well as producing programs on arts and culture for KCET-TV, and leading public Third Los Angeles events in collaboration with Occidental College. So I’ve had a chance to test out a number of ideas about the future of the city, even as my work as an architecture critic has made quite plain what the most pressing issues are for contemporary Los Angeles.

MU: You wrote this job will be experimental in terms of public outreach and initiatives, and mentioned design competitions as a possibility.

CH: Third Los Angeles has really allowed me to think about public outreach and forms of civic dialogue in a new way. We’ve tried, in almost every event we’ve organized, to redesign the traditional, sleepy panel discussion — we’ve held events in the garden of the Schindler House and along the LA River, commissioned original pieces of writing and video essays for the events, and incorporated the students as well as live music.

If design competitions are themselves well designed, they can be a great tool. But that is a big if. Too many are poorly thought out, or are exploitative of younger architects and designers.

Union Station in Los Angeles (via Flickr user star5112)

MU: You also wrote, “In certain areas … the city’s role as architecture patron is indirect, relying on the power of persuasion as much as anything else. The fragmentation that has long characterized the political structure of Southern California has also been plain to see in the way we produce our public architecture.” Can you tell me about this fragmentation, and what its effects have been?

CH: Power in Los Angeles is diffuse, spread across a huge region and divided into various agencies and actors at the local, city, county, state and federal level. This is a problem in all cities, but it’s especially acute in Los Angeles. At the same time, there’s a sense that because so much is changing, and the level of investment in the public realm is so intense now, we need to figure out new mechanisms for collaborative thinking across these divides. A new Metro light-rail station, for example, is at once a piece of transit infrastructure, a work of public architecture, a slice of the public realm, and an expression of our civic values. Its design should reflect that range of obligations.

MU: The connection between new investment in neighborhoods and the displacement of those community’s longtime residents is an issue in Los Angeles, and elsewhere. How can this be addressed?

CH: We need new strategies for thinking about these issues. The old, paternalistic, Robert Moses-style, top-down approach is long out of date. One goal for the early period of my tenure is to study what’s working, in terms of design work, that adds new public spaces to neighborhoods without allowing those spaces to operate as engines or Trojan horses for displacement. We’ve under-produced housing by roughly a million units in LA County over the last three decades, which is a big reason for the housing crisis we now face.

Another challenge is how to think at the macro, regional scale as well as the local — an absolute necessity in Los Angeles, which was radically shaped by massive infrastructure across the 20th century, and cannot be understood at only a local scale — while rejecting Moses-like tactics.

MU: Is a more nuanced way of discussing design in Los Angeles also more inclusive?

CH: Los Angeles can be hard to read. It doesn’t quite fit the mold of what we think a city is. As a result, its urbanism is deeply misunderstood. Part of shaping this new infrastructural investment so that it reflects Los Angeles is understanding what Los Angeles is in the first place. I also want people to feel as though they are part of the conversation about the future Los Angeles. LA — as opposed to, say, Chicago or San Francisco — hasn’t traditionally had a lot of platforms for that kind of discussion. I want to keep opening up more, in both digital and physical forms.

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