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L.A.: Land of (Unrealized) Possibilities: An Interview with Sam Lubell

Categories: Articles

PA and PE, 1990. Peter Alexander. Copyright Peter Alexander.

Sam Lubell is the West Coast editor of The Architect’s Newspaper. He was previously an editor at Architectural Record, and continues to contribute to that magazine. He has also written several books on architecture, including Paris 2000+, London 2000+, and Julius Shulman Los Angeles: The Birth of a Modern Metropolis. Recently he served as co-curator of an exhibition called Never Built: Los Angeles at the A+D Architecture and Design Museum, Los Angeles.

Senior curator Martin Moeller, who organized an exhibition called Unbuilt Washington in 2011-12, recently interviewed Lubell about the significance of unexecuted architectural proposals.

Martin Moeller (MM): What were your primary goals in presenting Never Built: Los Angeles?

Sam Lubell (SL): Our first goal was to uncover an important history of Los Angeles that had until now been undiscovered. So many treasures of the city’s past that came close to utterly transforming the place had been sitting unseen in archives and in architecture offices for years. Our second major goal was to help instigate change in Los Angeles’s culture of timidity in regards to public buildings and large scale urban projects. The city is legendary for its single family residential architecture, but not so for larger work (with some obvious exceptions). We wanted people to re-assess why that’s the case and start a conversation on improving the civic realm in the city.

MM: It’s interesting that you mention L.A.’s “culture of timidity” in public buildings and urban projects. Washington also has a reputation for timidity in the design of the public realm, but I curated a similar show here at the National Building Museum a couple of years ago called Unbuilt Washington, which revealed dozens of truly bold design proposals for major buildings in the city. What are some of the projects that really might have shaken up L.A. if they had been executed?

SL: L.A. is truly one of the creative capitals of the country, if not the world. It’s where people go to dream, and think differently. But unfortunately many of their visions—at least those on a larger scale—are never realized.

I think the vision that would have changed L.A. the most profoundly was Olmsted and Bartholomew’s 1930 plan, “Parks, Playgrounds and Beaches for the Los Angeles Region.” The plan, carried out for the Chamber of Commerce, called for thousands of acres of interconnected parks, all linked via grass- and tree-lined parkways. It also would have closed off most of the city’s beachfront to development, and installed neighborhood parks within walking distance of all homes. The plan not only could have limited the notoriously park-poor city’s aggressive sprawl and its concrete mania, but it could have changed the culture from one glorifying the private realm to one glorifying the public realm. Another obvious game changer was Kelker & De Leuw’s 1925 plan for over 170 miles of subway and elevated rail for the city. Not only could this plan have transformed how Angelenos travel, it could have radically changed development patterns in the city along transit nodes. Certainly this plan stands out in the popular conception of L.A. as a freeway-first city.

As for architecture, I think Pereira and Luckman’s original plan for LAX is the most dramatic. It would have centered the airport on a gigantic glass dome that would have made coming to Los Angeles an awe-inspiring experience, instead of a humdrum one. It could have encapsulated the age of hope and futurism, and put L.A. on the map with regards to public architecture. And perhaps most important, it could have raised the bar for civic architecture moving ahead.

MM: Pereira & Luckman’s proposed glass dome for LAX was indeed spectacular (though I know it would have been challenging to keep it cool on a sunny day!), and the Olmsted plan would have been wonderfully transformative. What about the other side of the coin? What are some unexecuted projects that would have had a negative impact on L.A.? 

SL: Yes, there certainly were some challenges to keeping that space cool!

I think the most negative impacts would have come from the city’s plans for many more freeways. Only about a third of the freeways that were planned actually got built. Basically L.A. would have looked like a grid of freeways from the air, with expressways traveling through every canyon and virtually every neighborhood. Probably the most egregious example of this off-the-rails ambition was the 1960s plan for the Santa Monica Offshore Freeway. City and state leaders were hoping to build this freeway on landfill stretching across the Pacific Ocean between downtown Santa Monica and Malibu. The plan was approved by city, county, and state leaders, and was only stopped by the veto of then-Governor Pat Brown, father of our current governor, Jerry Brown.

This type of over-reach is typical of some of the other destructive Never Built proposals from mid-century. The original plans for Bunker Hill, for instance, called for a continuous succession of super blocks raised over the street. Other plans for Santa Monica including tearing down the Santa Monica pier for a giant convention center and hotel complex built on landfill. I think this arrogant over-reach instilled a fear in the population that swung the pendulum into the direction it’s in now, where citizens are scared to build anything at all.

MM: Yes, the public does seem to be skeptical these days that anything new will be better than what it replaces. Do you think that exhibitions (and books) like Never Built: Los Angeles can help to open the minds of the general public to ambitious possibilities for the future of our cities, or do most of the unrealized projects just come off as curiosities to them?

SL: Well, I certainly do think that many of the plans do come off as curiosities to people. Just the visual impact and the chutzpah of these plans really draw people in. But what really gets people excited is that the plans were close to getting built. They say, “We could have had that??” So they’re opening their minds to the possibility that they could have had something better (or worse). I think there is a sense that people are frustrated with the bland, timid public realm that has been going up around them. They’re pining for the type of ambition that they see in a show (or book) like Never Built. So yes, I think Never Built has helped open peoples’ minds to more ambitious possibilities for their cities.

MM: You are obviously very well versed in L.A.’s architectural history, but I suspect you still came across a few surprises while doing research for the exhibition. What were the biggest eye-openers for you?

SL: The surprises were the most fun part of the project. And there were so many. Because you can’t really look up “Never Built” in the library, they often came through chance encounters—a discussion over lunch, or over drinks with L.A. lovers. Others we got through digging through archives and polling [architecture] firms. We learned that CalArts [the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, a relatively distant suburb of Los Angeles] was originally supposed to be built in Hollywood, right across from the Hollywood Bowl; and that Disneyland was originally supposed to be built in Burbank, not Anaheim. We found tunnels under the Hollywood Hills and a huge museum built on top of them. There really was no shortage of ideas for this place; and in the Never Built world, no obstacles could stop them. I thought I knew the work of many of L.A.’s most famous architects, but I never knew that John Lautner had planned a wonderful Nature Center hanging over a hillside in Griffith Park. Same for Frank Lloyd Wright—I didn’t know that he had planned so many ambitious projects for the city, like a country club floating over Runyon Canyon. The surprises really were limitless.

MM: Although your exhibition was organized independently of the Getty’s sprawling Pacific Standard Time Presents initiative, a multi-institution look at the city’s architectural heritage, it certainly contributed to the unusually large amount of attention devoted to L.A. architecture over the past year. What do you think the end result is? How have impressions of L.A. changed thanks to this great series of exhibitions and related programming?

SL: It was an amazing time for L.A. architecture. I think the series of shows got people excited about our rich architectural history, and helped cement the city’s status as one of the country’s architectural and creative centers. This is where people go to dream, and to experiment, and it’s resulted in an astonishing collection of architecture and of architects—from the serious to the wacky. Because L.A. is so far from the cultural and intellectual heart of the country, many peoples’ conceptions have been based on stereotypes and on the imaginings of Hollywood. But I think the image of what has really happened here is finally coming into focus for both Angelenos and for the rest of the country. The fact that shows like Overdrive are now traveling east will only help with that progression.

This post was created in conjunction with Overdrive: L.A. Constructs the Future, 1940–1990.