Tag: Architecture

AIACC 2001 Design Award Winners

in: ARCCA Archives / 0 Comments
Share this article:

[Originally published 3rd quarter 2001, in arcCA 01.3, “Publicness.”]

Here follow the 2001 AIACC Design Award winners. Out of these many, excellent projects, we have selected five for a closer look. Our process was neither systematic nor pure. I sought the suggestions of the editorial board, who were intrigued by the range of scales represented this year, then I freely modified those suggestions to include a project or two of particular interest to our roving correspondent. Roving and generous, for she — Therese Tierney, AIAS — graciously agreed to write the entire set of features, which follow the portfolio. We are grateful for her enthusiasm, her diligence, and her insight. –Editor



Ground Zero Ad Agency, Marina Del Rey, Merit Award, Shubin + Donaldson Architects, Inc., Santa Barbara, photos by Tom Bonner.


International Elementary School, Long Beach, Merit Award, Thomas Blurock Architects, Costa Mesa, and Morphosis, Santa Monica, photos by Milroy/McAleer.


Lloyd D. George United States Courthouse, Las Vegas, Nevada, Merit Award, Cannon Dworsky, Los Angeles, photo by Timothy Hursley.


New International Terminal, San Francisco International Airport, Honor Award, Joint Venture: Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP, Del Campo & Maru, Michael Willis Architects, SF, photos by Timothy Hursley.


Private Residence, Northern California, Honor Award, Turnbull Griffin Haesloop, Berkeley, photos by Peter Aarons/ESTO.


Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinatti, Ohio, Merit Award, NBBJ Sports & Entertainment, Marina del Rey, photos by Tim Griffith.


101 Second Street, San Francisco, Merit Award, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP, San Francisco, photos by Timothy Hursley.


South Coast Plaza Pedestrian Bridge, Costa Mesa, Honor Award, Kathryn Gustafson/Design Lead, Vashon, Washington, and Ellerbe Becket, San Francisco/Seattle, photo by Nathan Ogle, drawing courtesy Kathryn Gustafson and Ellerbe Becket.


Toyan Hall Renovation, Stanford University, Merit Award, Cody Anderson Wasney Architects, Inc., Palo Alto, photos by Dennis Morris (left) and Kathleen Clerk (right).


Walter A. Haas, Jr., Pavilion, University of California at Berkeley, Merit Award, Ellerbe Becket, San Francisco, photos by Timothy Hursley.


Metro Red Line Station
Los Angeles
Ellerbe Becket, Los Angeles
Honor Award
Photos by Timothy Hursley

Defying gravity, like a shining fish leaping out of the water with a flick of its tail, a great silver ellipse beckons. Situated at the crowded intersection of Vermont and Santa Monica Boulevard, north of downtown Los Angeles, is a new metro station with an identity and dignity rarely found within the oppositional landscape of relentless grid and chaotic signage of Los Feliz.

Completion of this dramatic public structure and plaza required endless navigation through the stringent design regulations of the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA). The spatial configurations of stations, as well as the palette of allowable materials, were expressly defined by the MTA. In response to these parameters, project architect Mehrdad Yazdani’s strategy was to use bold, clearly understood gestures that could withstand the tedious planning and approval process. Instead of a ubiquitous parking lot, the architect’s proposal included a series of retail shops and a public performance space to enliven the square.

The metro project was conceived sectionally as a series of layers—above surface, transitional space, and below surface—incorporating movement as well as space. Distribution of program follows the path of natural light. Yazdani handled each of the three layers in a different way. At the surface, marking the entry and serving clearly from a distance as signage, is a large, elliptical metal canopy. The carefully balanced ellipse is situated within a gridded plaza comprised of small glass blocks. During the day, the monumental stainless steel structure allows natural light into the transit station below street level. At night, over-scaled, oblique light posts brightly illuminate the plaza for the safe movement of passengers. Red, custom-designed light standards establish a monumental scale and rhythm marking the plaza’s perimeter. “It was a way to recall the Red Line,” says Yazdani, “[and] the poles help to knit together the fragmented nature of the surroundings.”

Escalators pass beneath the glass pavers, small skylights muting the bright sunlight. The descent invokes an almost primal response as cooler air and echoing sounds reverberate off a darkened double height space. A sense of enigma pervades this vault hollowed out of the ground, as if one were entering a tomb or a church. In the subdued light, ones eyes adjust, moving along the walls where Yazdani worked jointly with artist Robert Millar to stencil 10,000 questions about the design process on the exposed concrete walls: “How does art alter our perceptions?” “What is the relationship of art to architecture?” “What makes architecture?” “Why do we participate in social activities?” “What can the role of failure be in politics?” Yazdani elaborates that “the text is an exploration of the design process and the relationship between art, architecture, and the community.”

The platform level below is defined by a central row of stainless steel columns alternately dividing and unifying the space. Stainless steel panels dematerialize as distorted images blur and reflect off the polished surfaces. Reflected images animate the space as trains carry their passengers to their destinations. On the ceiling, a series of stainless steel elliptical louvers, similar in form to the entrance canopy, recall to mind the entrance and provide artificial light.

Situated within a context of uninspired orthogonal forms, the tilted light standards and canted forms of both entrance canopy and elevator clearly suggest the potential of speed and movement of the metro trains below. The concept is carried throughout the plaza in the landscape furniture, which angles off in unexpected directions, keeping the eye in constant motion. The canted, glazed elevator enclosure reveals the intermittent movement of gears and cables as the cab traverses from surface to depth and back again.

The Metro Red Line Station brings to mind the positive anticipation of movement and travel. Through a meticulous and inspired collaboration with artist and engineer, the architect was able to create a visual beacon and public place within the community. In an area where little civitas is evident, this metro station has the power to generate meaning, to shake off the commercialism outside, to give pause and provide a moment for reflection.


Diamond Ranch High School
Morphosis, Santa Monica, and
Thomas Blurock Architects, Costa Mesa
Honor Award
Photos by Brandon Welling and Timothy Hursley, respectively.

Speeding along Highway 60 in a hybrid gas/electric Toyota, I feel sure that the future has arrived. It’s proved with certainty as I turn a corner and a dramatic series of corrugated aluminum forms commands my attention. Incredibly, this dynamic artificial landscape is a public high school, one of the latest projects by Morphosis. With a vista of hard-edged mountains and the city of Pomona below, the school’s rooflines mimic the rugged hillside environment undulating with the terrain. Flanking the buildings, playing fields are incised in an act of terrestrial intaglio, carved into the earth, as the built structures erupt like rocky mineral outcroppings.

The project was concerned with three issues: the complex’s conceptual stance towards the site environment, social groupings, and educational flexibility. Morphosis’s first goal was to take advantage of the natural beauty of the site by integrating the playing fields and buildings into the surrounding hillside. The second goal was the creation of a dynamic built environment that would invite maximum social interaction among students, faculty, and staff. Finally, their third intention was to provide a flexible teaching environment that allowed a solid foundation of core curriculum for grades 9–10 and offered a focus on specific program majors in grades 11–12.

Morphosis was awarded this project through a competition, their concept illustrative of a fusion between architecture and topography. While much of the steeply sloped site was considered unbuildable, Thom Mayne, AIA, understood this to be an advantage, allowing him the opportunity to continue his investigations that blur distinctions between object and site. Acknowledging the complex balancing act required between cut and fill, he concentrated his efforts on a refolding of the landscape. His initial concept of geologic strata bending under unseen forces evolved into a linear plateau enclosed by shifting, folded roofscapes.

Socially, the intention was to create a densification of cultural experience like that found in urban areas, but juxtaposed here against the school’s suburban environment. Formally, the buildings’ canted metal accretions and angled parapets, though nonstructural, exhibit a dynamism that early twentieth century Futurists often associated with the modern city. Central to the school’s parti is the “main street,” which serves as a social gathering place and, in Southern California’s mild climate, becomes as important as the buildings themselves. Explains Mayne, “In this project, we were interested in providing a model for a public school facility that speaks to the students experientially through a symbolic, physically kinetic, architectural language. We were interested in reversing the message that has been sent by a society that routinely communicates its disregard for the young by educating them in haphazardly arranged, temporary bungalows surrounded by impenetrable chain link fencing.”

The grades 9–10 classrooms are located on the downhill side of the street, while grades 11–12 are placed on the uphill side. These two principal divisions were conceived as small “schools within a school” and are articulated as separate buildings that create a series of clusters. Each unit has its own outdoor teaching or gathering space and a teacher’s workroom. Each is orientated to command a view of the valley and mountains beyond. Arranged in split level configurations, a series of ramps and shaded tunnels interconnects these areas to each other as well as to the rest of the school.

The initial impression of angular complexity belies an inherently ordered, rational organization. Sectionally, the athletic fields and classrooms stairstep down the terraced hillside, while circulation follows the topographic contours. The primary circulation, or “main street,” connects classrooms, library, and support spaces. Secondary circulation is parallel to the main street, but routed at different levels. This over/under strategy produces a hybrid approach to form and program. The buttresses of the gymnasium retaining wall penetrate through the roof terrace plane to support shading devices and flexible seating for the stadium. Other building walls that would conventionally be static instead roll up to create a stage or performance space. Outdoor stairs, which at the same time serve as classroom roofs, transform into amphitheater seating during performances.

The excitement at Diamond Ranch High School is generated not out of a sophisticated material palette (the materials here—corrugated metal, stucco, glass, and exposed concrete—are simple and restrained), but instead out of the pure geometric potency of the forms and their structuring. An inventive, exploratory approach to site utilization has produced a socially stimulating school. And, through intelligent planning and careful detailing, it was built within the standard school budget of $140 per square foot. Most importantly, the students and faculty are wildly enthusiastic about it.


Reactor Films
Santa Monica
Pugh & Scarpa, Santa Monica
Merit Award
Photos by Marvin Rand

Santa Monica-based architects Gwynne Pugh and Lawrence Scarpa, AIA, say they never know where they’re headed, that the design possibilities are endless. Without predefining architecture, they respond directly and intuitively to the material qualities of place. The context and program for Reactor Films’ production studio suggested an experience ordered like a film or freeway, framing and containing reality. In addition, the compressed schedule generated an unusual approach that disassembled the project into discrete elements.

Given the incredible fourteen-week schedule from preliminary design to move-in, the firm’s methodology and organization alone are worthy of honor. A systematic working strategy was developed based on collaborative relationships among client, contractor, and architect. Relying on past experience with similar projects, the architects’ approach was to solve the rigorous technical issues and programmatic requirements first. Then the project was divided into distinct areas that could be studied and developed independently of one another to finer levels of detail as construction progressed. Their expertise in both architectural and structural engineering also expedited decision making. A fast and flexible format was established from the beginning: 11×17 free-hand pencil drawings, which could be faxed easily between all parties. The immediacy of working in this “one take” or “live broadcast” fashion increased spontaneity, just as a charette does. Says Pugh, “Contrary to expectations, the time constraint didn’t compromise design; if anything, it actually catalyzed the work.”

Their design examines the tension between the old and the new. The existing 1930 Art Deco tile-faced building was kept intact, with newly proportioned storefront glazing inserted between the masonry frame. As Scarpa explains, the interior can be viewed as “a skin or surface wrapper that moves in and out between the existing brick walls, alternately concealing and revealing the existing building fabric.” The layering and folding of the newly plastered surfaces weave together disparate materials. The existing concrete floor was sandblasted, and, where an existing wall was removed, a backlit, perforated metal panel traces the floor plate. Recalling film director Alfred Hitchcock’s interest in openings as metaphors, here, too, voids are as important as surfaces, revealing an earlier pattern of materials or use.

Of particular interest is the conference room, which is made out of a dissected and reconfigured ocean-shipping container. Procured from a Long Beach shipping yard, the rusted container is treated as an urban artifact encrusted with rich historical signification. Invoking the pervasive modern experience of the freeway, the redefined container has been elevated as an honorific object, its concrete bases generated from the forms of overpass pylons. Above, freeway lights brilliantly illuminate the piece as sculpture, an index registering the passage of time and miles. Mitered steel pipes, cantilevered concrete stairs, and perforated metal screens welded to heavy metal panels slide on tracks, alternately expanding or contracting the space of the conference room. One’s direct response to such overwhelming materiality is immediate: welded and patinated metal, sliced and reassembled, creates atavistic connections that extend into some future time when petroleum will no longer fuel our desires.

The movement of light and people engages and activates the entire space, creating a filmic quality of time and movement. Light here is also used as an ordering device: a luminous slot in the ceiling draws you into and through the space. It is a register of the passage of time as well as a social connector. And, realizing that most of the production staff work in concentrated isolation, the architects designed semi-translucent partitions that relay visual information as people pass by or as the outside weather changes.

In Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, Robert Venturi writes, “A familiar thing seen in an unfamiliar context can become perceptually new as well as old.” Context—here, a 1930s storefront—provides the frame. While acknowledging the mise en scene, the architects play with our cultural expectations. By placing objects, such as the shipping container, “outside the frame,” they create a new frame of reference and deepen our sense of perception. It has been said that art does not reproduce what we see; rather it makes us see. Such is certainly the case here.


Iann/Stolz Residence
San Francisco
Kuth/Ranieri Architects, San Francisco
Merit Award
Left-hand photos by David Wakely; right-hand photos by Cesar Rubio

At the end of a narrow lane on Nob Hill is a residence that explores the idea of house as fine artifact. Its board and batten exterior signals a recognition of Bay Area regional typology, but rendered here in a rarified treatment of varnished mahogany panels. Demonstrating a confident handling of materials and the art of joinery, the battens align and merge with steel horizontal window mullions angling out towards the lane. Folded into a synthetic assembly, the familiar elements of garage door, front door, and bay window coalesce into a sum greater than its parts.

The architect’s site-specific installation, “Fabrications,” at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1998, convinced the clients to select Kuth/Ranieri to design their home. The installation had focused on the complex relationship between the human body and the fabricated building. Exploring the idea of the body in repose, with thick felt seats and curtains embedded in a gallery wall, it was commended for its tactile and emotive use of materials.

Using a similar approach in their architectural projects, Kuth/Ranieri address programmatic requirements directly, starting from an analysis of basic systems and materials. Byron Kuth, AIA, explains, “We use common, everyday components and like to destabilize their traditional meaning.” In this case, they questioned the characteristics of typical wood-frame construction—limited dimensions, a matrix of small units, a particular means of assembly—to develop a rigorous internal logic that might escape the whims of fashion.

One of the challenges was to fit a fairly large program on a small, twenty-three foot wide site. Spatially, the intention was to open up the house as much as possible to views and light, placing services, stairs, and bathrooms at the blind sides. The plan at each level is organized to frame and receive expansive vistas to the bay, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Marin Headlands beyond. In a loft-like configuration, the high-ceilinged interiors provide a continuous flow of space and light. And by excavating a full story below grade, the architects were able to include a three-car garage and impromptu gallery space for their clients.

Within the context of the open plan, living room, dining room, and kitchen are clearly yet unexpectedly defined. Instead of conventional walls that block light and shrink space, a language of visual cues relating to scale, material, and use subtly differentiate activity zones. Defined by a sectional displacement, the dining room is really a room within the larger living room. Evocative materials—stainless steel, blackened steel, limestone, bleached maple, and integrally colored plaster—articulate and communicate different programmatic uses.

With unusual singularity, this house shifts and moves, responsive to the inhabitants’ needs and desires. Walls perceived as solid and static transform into furniture or pivot and fold away completely. Meticulously planned moveable units with inventive dual uses provide flexible specificity. Precisely detailed retractable shelving, sliding panels, and rolling track doors shift effortlessly or disappear, creating the impression of a much larger space. At the roof deck located off the master bedroom, retractable glass doors disappear, causing the boundaries between interior and exterior to dissolve, merging the view with the room.

The design approach of Kuth/Ranieri balances the framework of a rational system with an open-ended exploration of ideas. “Our world has been reduced to surfaces,” says Kuth, “computer screens, signs, television. We’re trying to reclaim a tactile and physical presence in a world obsessed with electronic and consumer imagery.” This house, detailed to the level of fine cabinetry, with materials sensuously used and inventively joined, makes familiar forms new.


Long Meadow Ranch Winery
St. Helena
Turnbull Griffin Haesloop, Berkeley
Honor Award
Photos by Cesar Rubio

“It occurs to me now when we talk about ‘images that motivate,’ mine are not abstract or metaphorical but overwhelmingly concrete and tangible. They are the sites I build on and are always distinct from one another. The shape of the ground, the view, the quality and type of tree cover, the sun, the wind all have voices that I listen to and learn from.” —William Turnbull, Jr., “Images that Motivate: the Legacy of Charles Moore,” Places 11 (1998)

The accomplishments of William Turnbull, founding principal of MLTW, are numerous and well documented. It is probably less well known that this Princeton graduate’s abiding connection to the landscape was inspired by his early years on a farm and was later expressed in his own working vineyard in Napa. In the March/April 1988 issue of Architecture California, he expressed concern regarding the disneyfication of the Napa Valley, which was rapidly churning out Italian villas and French chateaux. Turnbull argued instead for an architecture that would respond to the rural landscape, drawing on local traditions and materials. Two projects—the Long Meadow Ranch Winery and a private residence in Northern California—begun by Turnbull and completed by his partners, Mary Griffin, AIA, and Eric Haesloop, AIA, illustrate the extension of Turnbull’s vision in the ongoing work of the firm.

With one of the oldest olive groves in Napa County, dating from the 1880’s, the Long Meadow Ranch is now a family-owned organic farm with a small winery, fermentation caves and an olive oil processing facility. The owners are committed to sustainability in architecture as well as agriculture; their commitment drove the entire project from siting to construction method to the smallest fabrication detail. Simply, the intention was to minimize the impact on the environment. In a landscape of softly curved hills, native oaks, and grasses, the site was selected for its central location and northern orientation. Most importantly, the steep slope of the hillside was ideal for tunneling into. Weaving a synthesis between the natural topography with the rational program, the winery mediates between the native forest edge and the cultivated vineyards, between the raw and the refined.

The wine and olive oil processes share the same building, but are located in separate wings and have complementary seasonal harvest periods. Straddling the two wings is a shaded open porch used for the crush during grape harvest and for loading the olive press during the olive harvest. Based on an 18th century panopticon typology, the view from the second floor office extends across the entire vineyard and orchard beyond.

What is particularly innovative about this winery is its method of construction. The two-foot thick walls are made of pise de terre, as it is known in France, or PISE (pneumatically injected sealed earth) here. Excess earth, excavated to form the wine cellar caves, was mixed with cement and engineered with steel to form the rustic walls. Although similar to the Southwest’s rammed earth in composition, here the earth is not compacted within a wooden formwork, but instead a soil/cement mixture is pneumatically injected into a steel reinforcing cage. Extensive reinforced concrete foundations were required to support the weight of the earth walls; a 4’x16’x 2’ section of wall weighs over 10,000 pounds. The walls are finished with a mixture of white Portland cement mixed with the native earth to integrate the natural color of the soil. Last, piano wire is drawn across the face of the walls, leaving a rough texture. Requiring little maintenance and absorbing sound, the solid walls feel as if they are part of the mountain.

No air conditioning is needed; only passive features are used to maintain a constant temperature in the winery. Locating the building on the shaded side of the hill minimizes heat gain, while the thick walls provide the necessary insulation and thermal mass. Other passive strategies include a night air cooling/ventilation system and connection of the interior spaces to the stable, cooler temperatures within the caves.

The structure is exposed throughout; roof and floor framing utilize recycled timber from a bridge. The systems are expressed and detailed to bolt directly and unapologetically onto the earth walls. In addition, the architects designed the lights and worked with a local designer on the furniture. The tables, chairs, shelving, and lights were all fabricated locally.

Turnbull’s legacy is a deeply considered architectural response to the landscape; his talent was to place structures with a sense of always having been a part of their rural surroundings. “Bringing out the simplicity and clarity of a particular situation will be his most cherished tradition,” writes architectural historian Mitchell Schwarzer in William Turnbull, Jr., Buildings in the Landscape. At Long Meadow Ranch Winery, with appropriateness and honest simplicity, Mary Griffin and Eric Haesloop continue the timeless quality of his work.


Share this article:

The Problem of Architecture in Public and the Public in Architecture

in: ARCCA Archives / 0 Comments
Share this article:

[Originally published 3rd quarter 2001, in arcCA 01.3, “Publicness.”]

Author Bryan Shiles, AIA, is a partner with Gordon H Chong + Partners in San Francisco and adjunct professor of architecture at CCAC (California College of Arts and Crafts).

Inside the universal “outside” that surrounds us, there is an inferred and imaginary consciousness: inferred because we believe in it the way we believe in Other Minds (surface, after all, means “on the face”); imaginary because it is purely projected — not without excuse — but projected beyond the simple smile lines which say smile, or the brow’s wriggles which write puzzlement or anxiety, to create the emotional state we regularly assume would draw them. These conditions of consciousness, which live metaphorically “behind” the configurations of the city’s face, can dampen or liberate our feelings almost by osmosis, the way any friend’s or lover’s gestures can, through the frank show of this state of mind. —William H. Gass, “The Face of the City”

Because architecture defines the human landscape, it is the most public of art forms. No matter what the use or context, a work of architecture—or, more accurately, the aggregate of architecture—dominates the visual field in which we live our lives. Architecture’s visual prominence drives the contentious debate over public values in architecture. What makes a building good or bad, worthwhile or wasted, progressive or conservative, is often what makes us the same. Thus it follows that good architecture is critical, that it searches to define us but does not stop there. The best architecture carries us forward by appealing to vision, not nostalgia, and aspirations, not fears. Doing so requires a challenge to, and not the mere confirmation of, our assumptions.

In “The Face of the City,” William Gass illustrates the reflexive relationship we have with architecture. Our consciousness affects the way we read the city and our consciousness is affected by the signs that the city’s surfaces project back to us. Implicit in this relationship is the importance of the language of architecture. How the surfaces are articulated, what they allude to or disregard, is as important a component in urban design as the scale and arrangement of the pieces. The surfaces of the city have the power not only to shock, but more significantly to quietly shape our everyday lives. They are the most visible murals of the inspiration or the complacency of the public will. This is the context, both physical and spiritual, that anticipates architecture and demands rigor in its appraisal.

Yet if criticism of context is so vital to public architecture, who provides the criticism? Traditionally, of course, criticism has been part of the authorial purview of the artist. For the architect, that most public of artists, this purview creates a special conundrum. On one hand, authorship is a private undertaking, part of the creative process that is at its heart very personal (even if undertaken as part of a professional collaboration). On the other hand, an integral component of the best design is specificity to its site, and the architect is in most cases a citizen of a metropolitan world, not a representative of a particular locale. As an interpreter of context, a provocateur who translates the known into the unfolding, the architect requires assistance in making a complete assessment of what best informs the design.

This is the reason that the contemporary process provides structured opportunity for the public to voice its priorities for a given design. This structure typically defines “the public” through elected or appointed representatives in government, the principal “users” of the space to be created, as well as other “stakeholders” from the community at large, residents and businesspeople who will be affected in any number of ways by the design. However, the public voice often fogs the mirror in which the public image is reflected, leading to the lack of inspiration—or worse, the equivocation—that is among the most virulent cancers of architecture. Another very real problem is that a handful of vocal advocates can hijack the public process and impose a vision for the design that is not only unrepresentative of the public character but also reactionary and retrograde.

Our conundrum restated: it takes two to tango, but the architect and the public are uneasy partners. The democratization of the process of architecture has destabilized the traditional relationship between architect and public. How might a new, workable relationship be formed?

A sustainable balance between public and architecture lies in the vernacular—that is, in the particulars of the form, memory, and rituals of a place. The public’s ability to frame an authentic cultural context in which architecture may be created derives from these particulars. Rather than prescribing the outcome of a design, the public process should set goals and elucidate the patterns and traditions of a place.

Likewise the architect, in imparting sensibility, should respect this information by making it fundamental to the design rather than peripheral, the meat rather than the garnish. This priority does not preclude, but further necessitates, the architect’s role as observer and interpreter, which involves a stepping away from the vernacular to get a critical perspective. The public process gives the architect more to consider, more to synthesize, and demands, if anything, a greater critical distance in order to see the forest for the trees. It is in the architect’s reunion with context, in the return from the critical distance, that the success of the design is measured. After all, the public process is an act of entrustment, and it is a betrayal for the architect to return from his Olympian retreat with an inflexible design that disregards or minimizes or mocks the contributions of the stakeholders. To do so casts the architect as an unrepresentative special interest, the alter ego of the most fractious element on the other side of the equation.

In many cases , failures in the public process have their roots in the way that the idea of context has come to be understood in the public realm. Discussions of context are now so biased toward the creation of continuity that more authentic interpretations of place have been abandoned. Is the fabric of the Northern Waterfront District in San Francisco best described by punched brick walls or the rawness of industry? Is the future of downtown Culver City best served by the recreation of an ersatz Main Street America or an exploration of the promise of media in the public realm? It is not for any individual or special interest to decide these issues. Yet, because a public process often pits architects fearful of having their authority diminished against a public wary of elitist architecture that makes little reference to, and has little use for, the people who must interact with it, substantive discussions about place are hard to come by. When such conflicts occur, the resolution is usually found in the lowest common denominator, in mimicry of the past rather than a progression from the past.

A case in point occurred recently in Berkeley. The city needed a new public safety building and chose a site adjacent to its City Hall, a classical building designed in 1938 by James Placheck. There were several iterations to the selection of an architect for the project, including a design competition. The competition brief stated that response to the goals of the community and the context of the City Hall building would be the key criteria for selecting the winner. Given the site and program, such a priority certainly makes sense and would seem to be the foundation for an exploration of cultural context, especially in a city as broad-minded as Berkeley.

At several points along the way, the city was presented with the portfolios of architects who would clearly be critical in their view of context. And at several junctures various architects had the opportunity to craft dialogue around the cultural context of Berkeley. Ultimately, however, the city chose a safe route. The pat solution of continuity as context won out over a progressive direction. How can it be that in Berkeley, where across town at UC the canon of the DWM’s (dead white men) was being challenged with vigor, it was ultimately seen as appropriately contextual that the public services building be wrought in the language of classicism? It is beyond the scope of this article to explain how this happened, but what is most poignant is that, from the inception of the need for the project to the final built reality, there was no process that elucidated the cultural context necessary to produce an authentic work of architecture. As a result, the city got a most a-contextual building. Nothing in the design speaks to Berkeley’s famously progressive civic values.

One way to form a link between the patterns and traditions of place and the language of architecture would be through the old fashioned notion of propriety. That is, one can make good matches among place, time, and program through judicious choices. Thomas Jefferson, for example, argued that classicism was a good choice for American civic buildings after his visit to that little temple in France. Gothic has been seen as an appropriate choice for college campuses, etc. In today’s world of expanded choices (like the multitude of television channels) a client or municipality or whoever could surf until she found an architect’s portfolio that suited some view of her needs. Surely there are architects whose work embodies values that can be recognized and matched to a situation. I would ask: is classicism an appropriate choice for Berkeley? This process of choice presumes that the architect has provided a priori a body of critical content that might be reconstituted in the particular locale. The process assumes, as well, that the choosers bring a critical mind to the process, for in their choice of architect they are effectively prescribing the building’s context.

The other direct ion would be toward so-called authenticity. In other words, each place has—or can have—its own architecture. To fulfill this view, the client would seek out an architect known not for a signature “look” but for a body of work whose signature has varied with the particularities of different sites. The act of arriving at an authentic response to a place would bias a process of research and discovery over a process of choosing and immediate understanding. Certainly there is more risk involved, because it opens the door to an ad hoc unconventionality (which, incidentally, might well be suited to the political climate of Berkeley).

There are, to be sure, many examples of public processes that have yielded greater success than that of the Tsukamoto Public Safety Building. During the development of this building, there was general agreement on siting issues, scale, and the arrangement of the pieces. But when attention turned to the surfaces and the language of the building, the absence of an adequate public process undermined the building’s potential to represent the city’s character. The very diversity and expressiveness that Berkeley’s political culture has popularized was in this case categorically barred from the built environment. Unfortunately, this sort of outcome is all too common in the American city.

The example of Berkeley is chilling because it exposes the disconnection between a cultural context and the legibility of an architecture. Why are we so loathe to accept diversity and expression in our built environment, when we applaud it in our political environment? If the architect is to act as provocateur, as an agent and partner in creating a critical public realm, she has the responsibility to teach the value of innovation and the ability of architecture to express a context beyond the merely adjacent. The architect must be convincing, not merely demonstrative, to be entrusted to steer the collaborative criticism that gives rise to our best architecture.

Photo by Marc Phu.

Share this article:

The Velveteen Village, or How a Pretend Publicness Can Become Real

in: ARCCA Archives / 0 Comments
Share this article:

[Originally published 3rd quarter 2001, in arcCA 01.3, “Publicness.”]


The first enclosed mall, the introverted Southdale Shopping Center, near Minneapolis, 1956.

Author Dorit Fromm, A I A, has written on architecture, community, and housing for publications such as Architectural Review, Places, JAPR, Metropolis, and Home. She is the author of Collaborative Communities from Van Nostrand Reinhold, has contributed to The Encyclopedia of Housing, edited by William van Vliet, Sage Publications, and works at ELS Architecture & Urban Design in Berkeley. Co-author Carol Shen, FAIA, is a principal of ELS Architecture & Urban Design in Berkeley. She is chair of the arcCA editorial board.

As connoisseurs of place-making, architects have long idealized the publicness of the village square, while bemoaning malls and shopping centers. Granted, there are good reasons to moan: many malls give the appearance of having dropped out of the sky with no clue about their surroundings. Bulky, introspective, car-girdled malls are viewed as the wallflower building type in urban design.

While the village square has been locally grown over time, connected to surrounding buildings and inclusive, malls are a controlled publicness whose entrances aren’t really open to all, with an underlying agenda of merchandising, not socializing, at their core.1 Mall guests are scrutinized, monitored, and analyzed with a monetary aim, their surroundings scripted to create brand identity. The village square has been perceived as “real” publicness while malls are vilified as faux publicness.

So why shouldn’t architects and planners continue their nostalgia for real village publicness (which, in California, can be more fantasy than reality), and thumb their noses at places like malls?

America’s Number 1 Attraction (not Yellowstone, not the Statue of Liberty)

Mall of America, in Bloomington, Minnesota, attracts 42 million people each year and is the number one most visited attraction in the U.S. Visitors don’t go there just to visit the 500+ shops and eat at 50 restaurants, they also attend public events and celebrations. Americans love this place: over 1500 couples have been married in it. Of course, this love affair has grown from repeated, and often life-time, exposure to shopping malls and centers. There are 5.57 billion square feet of shopping centers in the U.S., taking in 51% of all retail sales. According to the International Council of Shopping Centers, 94% of Americans visit shopping centers each month.

A lot of these folks are Californians. This state has the most shopping centers of any in the country, and Los Angeles wins first place as the city with the most shopping centers in the U.S.2 (Not surprising that one of the largest malls built, Ontario Mills, is just east of Los Angeles.) Overall in California, shopping centers are a bigger crop than produce, with 6,034 of them generating an estimated $130 billion in sales.3 Of those shopping centers, about 300 are malls, 300,000 to over 1,000,000 square feet in size.4 Every decade since the ‘60s has seen an expansion.

For Gruen, the interior of Southdale functioned like a town square. Opening Day, 1956.

Consumed by Consumption

Before any teenager had ever spent an afternoon at a mall, back in the early ‘50s, architect Victor Gruen envisioned an enclosed shopping center as a new town center. The first indoor shopping mall, Southdale, was planned by Gruen in Michigan and modeled on a European shopping street recalled from his native Austria. Gruen devised a new type of heat pump that kept the interior at an even temperature year-round so that visitors had a place not only for shopping, but to “have social meetings, to relax together, to enjoy art… good food and entertainment.” (Unlike European shopping streets, Southdale was built in a cornfield outside Minneapolis.) For this innovation, U.S. News declared Gruen one of “25 makers of the American Century.” Southdale turned into a model for suburban shopping (and sprawl), and “for better or worse, Gruen changed the landscape of the continent.”5

The “Garden Court of Perpetual Spring” featured canaries and a magnolia tree. Southdale.

Over the succeeding fifty years, suburbs and malls have propagated, hand in hand. The malls primarily attracted women with time on their hands, whose suburban values were reflected in the clean, safe, and well-landscaped interiors that turned their backs to surrounding homes, just as suburbanites had turned their backs to the city.

Countering the ennui of the suburbs and the isolation of the home, malls turned the task of shopping into something enjoyable, even fun. In many California new towns, there was no other public place to go, no older community context for gathering on the spur of the moment. Teens and the elderly often had no traditional gathering place, or, if such a place existed in a park or square, it was increasingly perceived as unsafe or boring.

Bigger and better malls attracted more and more visitors—so much so that they became competition for more traditional street shopping, often taking the “public” out of the public realm and beckoning them into a fantasy publicness. Sealed in the comfort of conditioned air, where day and night are banished (along with clocks and easy exits), larded with sale items, abundant food courts, Muzak, and free parking: the allure proved irresistible.


First mall water feature—a gold fish pond at Southdale.

Ever New

Shoppers are attracted to malls partly because of their newness. Accordingly, malls cannot be left to their own devices for too long, but must be frequently repositioned, like aspirin or detergents. If not, they eventually suffer from “mall fatigue.” They begin to lose their magic attraction, fewer shoppers come, and, with fewer people inside, they’re perceived as stale. If an anchor tenant leaves, the mall may spiral downward. As a product, the public spaces inside malls, far more than those of public streets, have to be continually repackaged—stuffed with new colors, motifs, landscaping—for public appeal.

Malling Main Street

As new shopping centers worked to attract visitors through a Bigger & Brighter image and enhanced public spaces, the traditional stores and main streets that were losing their customers began paying attention. In some city districts, shops began to band together to coordinate landscaping, colors, merchandising, and security. Banners, events, places to sit and hang out eventually were added to downtown shopping streets as they sought to become “branded,” some as an idealized Main Street experience (evoking a cleaner, sweeter, better landscaped, and more expensive shopping version of the past). In some cities where there was little downtown life, the addition of an integrated retail development (a cousin to the suburban mall) was like a spark to dead wood. More than a few downtowns have become activated and revitalized, ablaze with life, through such catalyst developments as Pioneer Place, in Portland, Oregon, and Denver Pavilions, on Denver’s 16th Street Transit Mall. Through branding, uniting shop owners, and insertion of mall-like retail developments, a new generation of downtowns picked up on the positive attributes of mall’s place-making.

Time Out: Rethinking American’s Favorite Recreational Activity

Shopping malls, although still beloved, were designed for a way of life that is now changing. Just as the suburbs are undergoing changes—people moving back to the city, longer commutes, affordability issues—so too for malls. Aside from the increasing percentage of retail sales through internet shopping, big box retail, and warehouse shopping, malls are also facing competition from the re-discovery of and re-kindled fascination with the new and improved Main Street. In addition, so many malls have reproduced across the landscape that they are becoming their own competition.

Adding to their woes, suburban values of one generation are being supplanted by the post-material values of another. Quality-of-life issues, identity, a sense of community: these are the values that shoppers often bring when hunting for a new pair of shoes. The experience of shopping is as important to them as what is bought, and that experience had better be fresh and memorable, or they won’t be back.

Luring a shopper who prefers being and experiencing to pure consumption, who seeks the good life and hungers for authenticity, requires a revisioning of the traditional mall. Developers are realizing that simply building Bigger & Brighter isn’t going to do it. The focus has turned to creating a sense of place. To overcome mall fatigue and to stay distinctive, mall developers are looking at successful downtown streets and focusing on shopping experiences that offer variety with each visit. And they are turning towards the “unscripted” public to achieve it.

Mall Morphing: Evolution & Devolution

People are hungry for an informal public life and they are attracted to the changing, the varied, and the conjectural. Architects may disparage a public that wants to pay for cleaner, more secure, more entertaining and controlled spaces than the reality that city centers often have to offer, but in fact these qualities are the key to their attraction. Recent shopping developments are trying to provide the best of both worlds through new hybrids—both controlled and ad-libbed.

While the first generation of malls turned inward, a new generation is appearing with both inward and outward facing shops. The best of these, like Perimeter Mall in Atlanta or Stanford Shopping Center, turn an appealing public face to their surroundings. Another evolution connects the mall with adjacent city streets, seen in examples like Broadway Plaza in Walnut Creek. The most successful models create a synergy: by tying into existing street shopping or enlivening building frontages that have for so many years turned their backs to public streets, merchandising and a sense of publicness are both strengthened.

As malls originally “improved” the street shopping experience, and shopping areas took on ideas from malls, so, in turn, mall developers have begun incorporating the diversity of experiences and spectacle aspects of public street activities. They have enhanced the old suburban formula by adding concerts, seasonal celebrations, festivals, more food, and more outdoor experiences. Morphing from mall toward mixed-use, developments have appeared with the multi-purpose additions found in downtown districts: entertainment, offices, and housing.

Becoming Real

The faux publicness of the Future Mall replicates the real publicness of the neighborhood shopping street of the past. The new shopping experience—like a traditional neighborhood—is an outdoor experience that has stores facing the street, with distinct façades and goods that are specifically chosen with the locale in mind. This arrangement combines the attraction of the scripted environment of malls that are managed by one master developer/owner with the appearance of individually owned shops, evolving over time.

These ambitious developments can create an instant downtown, as Mizner Park does for Boca Raton, Florida. The 30 acre site, once occupied by the failed Boca Raton Mall, was turned into a neo-traditional “village-within-the-city” as owner/developer Crocker & Company envisioned it. This $60 million development includes a main boulevard with a linear central green, Plaza Real (decorated with gazebos, benches, and fountains), surrounded by 50 shops and restaurants, evoking a European style shopping street, 300 units of housing, and 300,000 square feet of offices. Blessed by no less than the Sierra Club as a great sprawl-alternative, Mizner Park attracts residents and tourists alike, who flock to enjoy the Main Street atmosphere, both day and night.


Mizner Park creates an ‘instant’ Downtown for Boca Raton, Florida.

California has big plans for similar developments. The soon-to-be-opened Santana Row in San Jose, a $700 million mixed-use retail project with 1200 units of housing (and a 200-room hotel with a grand European palazzo), turns the ailing Town & Country Shopping Center into an urban village—place-making on a fast track schedule.

These new types of urban retail projects can trace their evolution from lessons learned from European shopping streets as clearly as those learned from malls. Place-making begins by providing a diversity of experiences, by attunement to the culture of the area, by meaningfully tying into the surrounding streets and district, and through the addition of housing and services. The public is attracted through the enchantment of theme and fantasy, through a tailored mix of retail and entertainment, a sense of safety and security, and more than a whiff of excitement.

Who can combine these lessons into memorable multi-dimensional places, quickly, better than architects? Models are needed that include places for people to live and work, cultural amenities for all ages, good access, and some room for incremental growth; that’s what will make these instant downtowns or villages responsive over time.

The question is not whether these faux authentic retail streets create a “real” place (whatever that means in this new century). Instead, will people want to live there, and will visitors be drawn back over time, so that these places (like the Velveteen Rabbit) have a chance to be worn, altered, and loved?


  1. The issues of remote ownership vs. local ownership, the separation of production and consumption, and other economic differences deserve, at the very least, more attention than space in this article allows.
  2. From Shopping Center Directions, published by the National Research Bureau, Spring 2001, and 2000 statistics from the International Council of Shopping Centers, New York.
  3. 2000 statistics from the International Council of Shopping Centers, New York.
  4. Malls (a type of shopping center) are defined as regional or super-regional centers, typically enclosed, with department stores as anchors.
  5. U.S. News & World Report, on-line. cover story, 27 December 1999.


Photos of Southdale Mall , from Shopping Towns USA, by Victor Gruen and Larry Smith, Reinhold Publishing Corporation. Photo of Mizner Park by Barry Elbasani.

Share this article:

The Planner’s Guide to the Future of Sports and Entertainment

in: ARCCA Archives / 0 Comments
Share this article:

[Originally published 3rd quarter 2001, in arcCA 01.3, “Publicness.”]


Left, America West entertainment district, Phoenix; right, Future Paseo at America West Arena; computer renderings, Orne & Associates/Michael Hallmark.

Author Michael Hallmark is a sports and entertainment development consultant based in Los Angeles, California. He was a founding principal in two architectural practices specializing in sports facility design and was the principal architect on both the America West Arena and Staples Center Arena, among others. He is currently developing a live performance theater in Phoenix, Arizona, and arena master plans and facility improvements for the Bradley Center and for America West Arena.

Few building types have had a greater impact on our communities than the modern sports facility. They affect local transportation, public funding priorities, urban planning, and city and state politics. Their power to influence public policy, public open space, city skylines, and even a region’s international public relations has resulted in an inevitable love-hate relationship with these projects.

The public interest in these projects was vividly demonstrated to me in January of 1996. I was a principal with NBBJ architects, interviewing for the design of a new retracting-roof ballpark for the Seattle Mariners in Downtown Seattle. Now known as Safeco Field, the project was controversial, as many of these developments are. There was nothing surprising in that fact, but when the selection committee chose us over our rivals at HOK, the Seattle Times ran the selection as a banner headline. Not just a front-page story, but an inch-tall headline. It was dramatic evidence that these facilities had become the rock stars of architecture. They were no longer design problems for a few specialty sports architects; they were an opportunity to alter a city’s perception of itself, which is always a newsworthy event.

Today, professional sport is simply a subset of the much larger marketplace of entertainment. Its health and survival in our society will depend on adapting to changing consumer markets. Entertainment retail and sports are essentially a marriage made in marketing heaven. Typical arenas in the U.S. can regularly attract 2 million visitors a year without much regard to the location. That drawing power is valuable to many other interests including retail, dining, and corporate advertisers willing to invest in a product that goes beyond the traditional sponsor signage found in most facilities today. The drawing power of sports and entertainment facilities can also help to re-energize the public realm of our city centers.

Changing Concepts of the Sports Facility

What might be required from these facilities in the future is best understood in the context of their historical evolution. The modern day sports facility, like most other naturally evolving things in our society, saw significant changes only when there were outside forces at work. After the rise of sports venues under Greek and Roman cultural domination, new facility development virtually stopped for more than a millennium. It took several unrelated events—the industrial revolution that created a middle class with leisure pursuit interests, the invention of several new forms of team sports, and the creation of the modern era Olympic movement—to bring renewed interest in arena and stadium development.

The early 19th century fostered a climate of development that resulted in some of the most venerated of sports facilities, including Fenway Park, Wrigley Field, and Forbes Field. Unfortunately, the contribution these projects made to the language of sports design was lost to later generations of planners, who abandoned the urban centers of American cities in favor of post World War II suburbia. By the ‘60s, downtowns were suffering from compound social and economic ills. The undeveloped areas outside central cities offered affordable real estate, room for parking cars that Americans now loved to drive, and new freeways to take them there. The stadium archetypes that resulted from the new and simplified planning models cleverly accommodated a range of sporting events, but they were Spartan, devoid of any of the personality that endeared so many fans to the older venues.

Fortunately, the suburban myopia that affected everything from housing development to retail malls and transportation was about to experience another paradigm shift. Supported by urban redevelopment efforts, stadiums and arenas would no longer be seen as isolated objects. These projects, capable of attracting millions of visits yearly, could serve as economic engines for urban centers.

While there was significant construction of facilities during the ‘60s and ‘70s, the true renaissance did not begin until the ‘80s. This time around, many new and powerful forces were in play. Unabashedly aggressive cities courting team relocations, player celebrity with its accompanying stratospheric salaries, escalating corporate sponsorships, and cable television all fueled development. There was also a subtle but growing shift toward a new entertainment economy.

Under the unwritten rules of the new entertainment economy, a trip to the stadium or arena must be an entertaining experience before, during, and after the game, win or lose. Otherwise, fans will simply opt out to find new forms of leisure-time amusement. And, when attendance at live sports events loses its cachet for the general public, there will be less reason for corporations to support teams or facilities by owning exclusive seating. Going to the game must be a universally appreciated experience, or the entire complex of interconnecting needs begins to unravel.

Sports, of course, is not the only industry to go through such rapid transformational change. Retail has shifted just as radically, and the surviving product is also a much more entertaining and interactive experience. Experiments from the ‘90s, such as City Walk at Universal City, California, and the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, offer divergent but equally effective views of the future of retail. Corporate retailers like Rouse and the Mills Corporation likewise have different approaches, but they share a common understanding of the need to create an experience that entertains while creating commerce.

The next generation of sports facility development will be primarily urban in location and diversified in its uses. It will more fully capitalize on the variety of ancillary uses and on the destination drawing power of the sports venue as its anchor. It will partner with other destination attractions. New, entertaining retail such as sports merchandising, music, book sales, and a greater variety of one-of-a-kind sports bars and food venues will work more closely in a partnership with the principal sports tenant.

Sports Facility Development and the Public Realm

More team owners and facility operators are now seeing the impact their projects can have on surrounding districts and are taking steps to exploit the full potential of these developments for their own programs. Two existing arena projects, Staples Center in Los Angeles and the America West Arena in Phoenix, illustrate the importance of co-developing the adjacent public district along with the facility itself.

Future entertainment district at Staples Center, Los Angeles, computer rendering by RTKL.

Staples Center Arena is a prime example of a sports venue that is being used as an entertainment anchor in a larger vision. Along with a variety of concerts, conventions, and awards programs, It has the distinction of being the only arena in the world with three major franchises (two NBA and one NHL tenant). But it is not the number of event days that will ultimately allow Staples Center to endure over the next decade; it will be the successful development of its entertainment master plan.

With the arena itself complete and entering its third season, the Los Angeles Arena Land Co. is turning its attention to the creation of an entire entertainment district in downtown Los Angeles. In a site that many thought not workable for such a development, Staples Center is set to convincingly illustrate, once again, that destination attractions like stadia and arenas belong in urban cores.

The key elements in the L.A. master plan now include a convention hotel, a 7000-seat performance theater, restaurants, clubs, retail, and a public plaza that will allow for the assembly of 50,000 people outdoors. These interconnecting uses have the potential to create a much-needed sense of place for downtown LA, all of it brought about by the initial project of a single sports venue.

Some older arenas are also being newly integrated into a larger public realm. One of the pioneers of modern revenue-producing arena design, Phoenix’s America West Arena, was once the highest producing arena for advertising revenue in the NBA. That was in 1992. But that record was short-lived, ending when Chicago’s United Center opened the following year. It continued to be broken by successive facilities. Now the 17th oldest facility in the NBA, America West Arena needed a major reconstruction and is currently undergoing a $40 million redevelopment.

The New America West Arena will include two new food venues, one by Chicago based Levy, a new Jillian’s that will feature a sports bar, bowling, billiards, and after hours live music, and a complete overhaul of the public areas. Experiential Sponsorship will make its debut here in the form of a new interior entrance pavilion and an exterior public walk called the Paseo. Like the connecting walks in both Atlanta’s Philips Arena (Hawk Walk) and Miami’s American Airlines Arena, the Paseo will insure that this sports venue ends its urban introversion and becomes, out of practical necessity, a connective catalyst to other downtown experiences.

Bringing it Home

The stadia and arenas of the future will no longer be isolated affairs. Their developers will create partnerships with many non-sports industries that share the need to capture consumer attention. They will become more complex in order to become more interesting, with more diverse uses in order to generate more diverse revenues. And they will reconnect with, rather than separate themselves from, the surrounding public realm.

The planning models that are now being developed at the professional sports level will eventually be incorporated into smaller, second tier cities and universities. Like the concept of suites, which began in the most exotic of large facilities, those ideas that find a responsive consumer will be realized at many different levels and sizes of facilities. Mixed-use sports and entertainment is one of these ideas.

Our common desire to be entertained, and the corollary need to create places in which to be entertained, is one of the enduring traits of civilization. The modern-day challenge is not in developing the idealized project that can outlast all others, but in creating facilities that adapt to the best ideas of the present day without foreclosing on future possibilities.


Share this article:

Portals Not Pillories: The Bus Stop and Public Space

in: ARCCA Archives / 0 Comments
Share this article:

[Originally published 3rd quarter 2001, in arcCA 01.3, “Publicness.”]

Author Doug Suisman, FAIA, is the founder and principal of Suisman Urban Design in Los Angeles.

The pillory was a familiar feature of the medieval city. Authorities would erect the wooden structure in a public space so that social offenders would be punished by way of humiliating public confinement. In contemporary Los Angeles, a similar scenario unfolds at the typical bus stop. Our latter-day social offender—the citizen who has failed to obtain a car—is confined to an ugly plastic bench with advertising. The bench sits inches from the curb, where vehicles speed by in alarming proximity. A metal trash can overflows with refuse. Trees are removed so that no shading is available in summer; in winter, rain falls unimpeded. A metal pole carries a route number sign without any information on the route itself or the schedule of the bus. The punishment is completed by hundreds of scornful glances from passing drivers, comfortable in their air-conditioned cars. An Elizabethan constable would have heartily approved.

The neglectful mistreatment of riders at bus stops is only the most visible indicator of the broader decline of the public transit system itself. Los Angeles once had a famous network of trolley lines, but the explosive growth in automobile ownership and post-war suburban expansion eventually made the trolleys seem slow and obsolete. The irreplaceable rights-of-way were abandoned, and trolley lines became bus routes. The buses became stuck in the same traffic as cars. The middle class stopped using the buses altogether. Ridership plummeted. Service declined.

Yet today, even without significant middle class patronage, Los Angeles County still has more than a million bus boardings a day, the highest number in the country after New York. These boardings are made primarily by the “transit dependent,” a technocratic euphemism for the working poor, the mentally ill, the disabled, the adolescent, the elderly, the carless, the homeless, and the occasional solid citizen whose car is in the shop. The middle class is barely aware of the bus system at all, other than the annoying tendency of its buses to get in their way as they drive the boulevards. The bus stop is really the single urban location where the two populations—the transit dependent and the transit independent—actually observe each other at close range. The conditions of the bus stop can only confirm the relief of the middle class motorist at not having to use the bus at all.

Public transit and public space go hand in hand. In both cases, Los Angeles middle class lack of interest has led to disinvestment. The dismaying condition of the bus stops can be extrapolated to large swaths of sidewalks, plazas, and parks. But disinvestment is not the same thing as disappearance. It has become fashionable among certain architectural critics to declare the end of public space. These urban obituaries are usually preoccupied with burnished concepts like the privatization of the public realm, the malling of the street, disneyfication or theme park urbanism, the new electronic agora, the crisis of cultural inauthenticity. But these critiques are primarily concerned with symbols of middle class culture and commerce and usually ignore the very real, very neglected, and very public streets, sidewalks, and bus stops that millions of working class citizens inhabit every day. For them, for better or worse, public space endures.

The pedestrian walking to the bus stop knows that this public space is real because, within it, she puts her body on the line. She isn’t just a pair of Jane Jacob’s famous “eyes on the street,” a metaphor for a shopkeeper or apartment dweller gazing on a crowded public space from the safety of a private doorway or window. The bus rider is a body on the sidewalk. Occupying public space increases your physical vulnerability—to discomfort, annoyance, revulsion, fear, abuse, injury. That’s the price you pay. At the same time, there is supposed to be a reward. Easy movement around the city. Exposure to appealing but hidden places. Chance encounters with interesting strangers. The sense of belonging to an urban community. Even the satisfaction of reducing your contribution to environmental degradation. These are the pleasures that the middle class pays dearly for on vacation but shuns in daily life back home, where armored vehicles with leather seats are the preferred mode of urban mobility. Most Los Angeles transit users don’t have the luxury of that choice. They are the involuntary foot soldiers of the city’s public space. By virtue of their numbers alone, they populate and therefore activate public spaces that the middle class has left for dead.

Over the past decade, this situation has begun to change, as the middle class has come to the tentative conclusion that investment in public transit and public space may have economic and social benefits for them. Streetscape and downtown revitalization projects abound. And Los Angeles now has an embryonic subway system and two light rail lines, with as many as three more light rail lines under construction or under consideration. But rail’s high construction costs, political complexities, and limited potential for expansion have also forced officials to take a fresh look at the discredited bus system.

The existing bus system has the great advantage of going virtually everywhere. Despite the vastness of Los Angeles, there’s actually a bus stop within reasonable walking distance of millions of residences. But it also has two major disadvantages. The first is speed. Slower speeds may be tolerable in compact cities where distances are short and walking is an alternative, but not in an urban area a quarter the size of Switzerland. The economic penalty of long-distance delay is too great. The second is the image of bus transit itself, which is widely viewed as dirty, noisy, and inferior to rail in any form. Some of the blame for this poor image can be attributed to transit operators, who have failed to imagine buses as anything other than rubber-tired boxcars to be covered with advertising. But politicians and the engineering/construction industry have also contributed by pushing exclusively for more glamorous, more expensive, and more job-producing rail projects.

To overcome these disadvantages, in the mid 1990’s the Los Angeles County MTA and the city of Los Angeles’s Department of Transportation began to develop a demonstration project to improve both the speed and image of bus transit. Studies showed that traffic congestion was responsible for only 50% of the slow speeds. The other half derived from time spent waiting at red lights and the “dwell time” at bus stops. Dwell time delays were also multiplied by the high number of stops, typically located every two or three blocks. In the new project—40 miles along Ventura and Wilshire Boulevards—stops would be spaced approximately one mile apart, like a rail line. New electronic technology would be used to hold green lights a few seconds longer for the bus. New buses would be ordered with low floors for easier and faster boarding, larger windows for better views and security, and compressed natural gas engines for lower emissions. The “station stops” would be designed to further accelerate boarding. Electronic signs would give waiting passengers information on the arrival of the next bus. And the whole system would have a new graphic and architectural identity. It would be called Metro Rapid.

Our task was to develop a visual identity for the Metro Rapid system and to create a single, distinctive design for station stops. The design had to speed passenger boarding, provide enhanced passenger amenities, look appropriate in a wide range of urban settings, fit onto narrow sidewalks, minimize visual obstruction of adjacent businesses, expand easily for longer buses anticipated in later phases, anticipate the eventual pre-payment of fares and multi-door boarding, allow for fast and minimally disruptive construction, and be sufficiently economical to allow for widespread application of the design.

We developed the Rapid shape—referred to variously as the comet, the surfboard, or the airfoil—to provide the system with a distinctive and memorable form. Our hope was to contribute a positive symbol of public investment in public space that could hold its own in the sea of private commercial symbols that border the boulevards.

The design treats each stop as a defined public environment within the larger public space of the street. The basic modular element is an “umbrella gate”: two 16–foot steel poles joined at mid-point by a crossbar, surmounted by a curved, translucent canopy. This goalpost form creates a literal gate that marks the exact spot where the doors of the Metro Rapid bus will arrive, which helps speed boarding and deboarding. The base of each support pole is protected by a curved stainless steel railing, which directs passengers to the door and provides support for leaning (seating is typically not provided because of the frequency of Rapid buses, which arrive as often as every 3 minutes during peak hours). The door’s location is indicated by a “welcome mat” of red concrete pavers.

Signage is an important component. Mounted on each gate’s crossbar is an electronic message sign providing real-time information on the arrival time of the next bus. At the leading edge of the stop, a 19–foot high “flagpole” with an illuminated Rapid sign extending over the street helps approaching passengers see the stop from several blocks away. An attached kiosk displays to waiting passengers a large, illuminated map of the entire transit system. Revenue from an advertisement on the traffic side of the kiosk helps pay for stop maintenance.

Metro Rapid was launched in the summer of 2000. The cost per mile: about $2.5 million, compared with $250 million for the subway. It was an immediate statistical and popular success. Travel times have been cut by as much as 25%. Ridership on the two lines has risen by an average of 30%. Perhaps most significantly for the long term prospects of public transit in Los Angeles, half of that increase in ridership is from “new riders,” those who had previously used a car instead of a bus. Within ten months of the opening of the two Rapid lines, the MTA board voted to expand the system from two to 22 lines, with another 14 to be considered later. Six new lines are to be selected for immediate implementation.

The attitude of waiting passengers at the Rapid stops appears to be one of greater assurance and pride. They can see the investment in the place where they’re waiting. Thanks to the electronic message sign, they know when the next bus will arrive. And they know that the bus which arrives will be clean, modern, and fast. The bus stop becomes a lively, dignified, and focused urban space, where many people can harmoniously do many different things, from sitting in the sun, to waiting for the bus, to buying flowers, to making a phone call, to purchasing a transit pass. The bus stop infrastructure is reconceived as a two-way portal—a gateway to the transit system as you board, a gateway to the city as you get off. Pillories transformed into portals: they offer glimmers of hope for public transit and public space in Los Angeles.

Photo of man in pillory copyright Corbis; all other images by Suisman Urban Design.

Share this article:

A Water Bibliography

in: ARCCA Archives / 0 Comments
Share this article:

[Originally published 4th quarter 2001, in arcCA 01.4, “H2O CA.”]

“Aquatic Arts.” Daidalos, no. 55 (1995) (theme issue).

Bachelard, Gaston. Water and Dreams: an Essay on the Imagination of Water, translated from the French by Edith R. Farrell. Dallas: Pegasus Foundation, 1983.

Betsky, Aaron. “Take Me to the Water.” Architectural Design Profile 113 (1995): 8-15.

Blomquist, William A. Dividing the Waters: Governing Groundwater in Southern California. San Francisco: ICS Press, 1992.

Calvino, Italo. “The Call of the Water,” in Numbers in the Dark and Other Stories. New York: Vintage International, 1996.

deBuys, William, and Joan Myers. Salt Dreams: Land & Water in Low-Down California. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1999.

“Design for Water.”Metropolis (July-August 1992) (theme issue).

Gumprecht, Blake. The LA River: Its Death, Life, and Possible Rebirth. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1999.

Hart, John. Storm Over Mono: the Mono Lake Battle and the California Water Future. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.

Hughes, Thomas. Networks of Power. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983.

Illich, Ivan. H2O and the Waters of Forgetfulness. Berkeley: Heyday Books, 1985.

Jackson, Donald C. Great American Bridges and Dams. Washington, D.C.: Preservation Press, 1988.

Jones, Julian. “Water-Designing for Plenty and Purity.” Architectural Design Profile 113 (1995): 22-29.

Kahrl, William L. Water and Power: the Conflict Over Los Angeles’ Water Supply in the Owens Valley. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982.

McClurg, Susan. Water and the Shaping of California: a Literary, Political, and Technological Perspective on the Power of Water. Berkeley: Heyday Books, 2000.

Moore, Charles. Water and Architecture. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1994.

__________ . “The Potential for Wonder.” Architectural Design Profile 113 (1995): 16-21.

Morrison, Patt. Rio L.A.: Tales from the Los Angeles River. Santa Monica: Angel City Press, 2001.

Mulholland, Catherine. William Mulholland and the Rise of Los Angeles. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 2000.

Postel, Sandra. Last Oasis: Facing Water Scarcity. New York: W.W. Norton, 1992.

Reisner, Marc. Cadillac Desert: the American West and Its Disappearing Water. 2nd ed., rev. and updated. New York: Penguin Books, 1993.

Outwater, Alice B. Water: a Natural History. New York: Basic Books, 1996.

Simon, Ted. The River Stops Here: Saving Round Valley, a Pivotal Chapter in California’s Water Wars. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.

Stegner, Wallace. Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs: Living and Writing in the West. New York: Random House, 1992.

“Architecture and Water,” Architectural Design Profile No. 113, 1995.

Walton, John. Western Times and Water Wars. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.


On Amazon, use the search category “water resources development.”

Water Librarians’ Homepage.

CALFED Bay-Delta Program.

California Department of Water Resources.

California Urban Water Conservation Council (CUWCC).

California Rivers Assessment (CARA).

Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Wetlands, Oceans, and Watersheds.

Friends of the LA River.

Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

Ocean Arks International.

USGS Water Resources of the United States.

T.R.E.E. People.



Share this article:

Coda: Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s John Ferraro Building

in: ARCCA Archives / 0 Comments
Share this article:

[Originally published 4th quarter 2001, in arcCA 01.4, “H2O CA.”]

Author Anne Zimmerman is Principal of AZ Architecture Studio in Los Angeles and was, at the time of this writing, a member of the arcCA Editorial Board. Photographs courtesy of the Historical Photo Collection of the Department of Water and Power, City of Los Angeles.

In recent years, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s John Ferraro Building, at 111 North Hope Street in downtown LA, has not stood out as a civic landmark. The motley Bunker Hill high-rises of the 1970s and 80s have drawn attention away from the Civic Center that comprises an anemic axis, linking (visually more than physically) the newly restored and renovated City Hall, other government buildings, and the Music Center complex. The Ferraro Building terminates this axis.

Now, with the new Disney Hall to one side and the new Raphael Moneo-designed Cathedral to the other, this civic axis will be invigorated, and the Ferraro Building will attain a stature it never dreamed of.

A. C. Martin & Associates conceived the building in the mid 1960s, not just as functional offices for 4000 employees, but as a symbol of the department’s dual kingdoms of water and power. At night, the building glows like a gigantic lantern, reflected in the water-filled moat surrounding the building, and, in the daytime, the building appears to float upon that water, which hosts families of seagulls and ducks.

The water’s value is not, however, merely scenographic. It provides, as well, cooling capacity for a third of the building’s air conditioning load. Along with recaptured heat from the interior lighting, which eliminated the need for space heating, the pool is an early, forward-thinking example of sustainable design. A recently added solar array extends and makes more visible the building’s conservation measures. Beautiful but low-key, the John Ferraro Building maintains a vision of sustainability for the “new” downtown.


Share this article:

Carbon Fiber Vortex

in: ARCCA Archives / 0 Comments
Share this article:

[Originally published 4th quarter 2001, in arcCA 01.4, “H2O CA.”]

Bruce Tomb’s toilet and high tank are a reshaping of the conventional home fixtures as autonomous pieces of furniture. They join a series of explorations by this San Francisco-based architect and artist into the form and mechanics of domestic functions. Others in the series include a granite cooktop, a bath cart, a self-contained “bedroom,” and a lavatory.

Unlike most toilets, which operate by the siphon jet principle, Tomb’s toilet operates on the principle of the vortex. The form of the bowl makes visible the innately sculptural phenomenon of the vortex. The toilet’s refined, esoteric materials — carbon fiber for the bowl, urethane for the seat, and stainless steel for the armature — contrast with the more traditional materials of the accompanying high tank, built like a barrel or a water tower and proportioned to the human figure.

Tomb’s toilet and high tank are in the collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. His lavatory, “Basin,” is available commercially at www.infinitefitting.com.


Share this article:

Sea of Entropy

in: ARCCA Archives / 0 Comments
Share this article:

[Originally published 4th quarter 2001, in arcCA 01.4, “H2O CA.”]



Author Thom Faulders is the founder of FAULDERS STUDIO and Professor of Architecture at California College of the Arts in San Francisco.


The artist Robert Smithson once described the natural phenomenon of entropy in the following manner: imagine a child running between two sand boxes, one with white sand and the other with black sand. As the child continues to run in a clockwise direction between the two, the sand increasingly mixes into a uniform gray. He is then told to run in a counter-clockwise direction, though one discovers that this will not undo the previous mixing and re-sort the colors. Given an infinite amount of time the sand could never reorganize — the process of entropy will irreversibly continue.1

A similar observation can be made regarding the physical and social interactions that shape the ongoing saga of the Salton Sea, a 40-mile stretch of inland salt water in the Southern California desert, east of San Diego and 30 miles north of the Mexican border. Accessible by car, it is a surreal index of a sea created by an artificial canal gone awry, vacation communities stopped dead in their tracks, and water so toxic as to create coastal sands made entirely from bones. Mistakenly, the sea appears to be a life- giving oasis (a mirage?) within its arid and rocky setting, and is a mere thirty-minute drive from the super-irrigated green golfing lawns of Palm Springs (a constructed mirage, to be sure). The Salton Sea is out of control in an entropic interplay between organic forces and artificial interventions.

Salton Sea Drainage Map by Shannon1 is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

Accidental Rupture

As the Baja California peninsula began its Miocene shift away from the continental mainland, the Golfo de California and the Salton Trough were formed. Formerly part of the gulf sea, the dry trough sank further into the earth, creating the Salton Sink, an isolated depression of land hundreds of feet below sea level.

Fast-forward to 1905, when a man-made irrigation canal, built to divert fresh water from the Colorado River to agriculture in the Imperial Valley, abruptly broke its levees due to an unanticipated overflow of storm water. Through this catastrophic rupture, the entire irrigation flow from the Colorado River spilled into the Salton Sink, force-filling it with fresh water.2 In due time, the levee was successfully dammed (reportedly using scores of discarded railroad cars as filler), but the Salton Sink had become a permanent body of water, renamed the Salton Sea. Adding further distinction to this new aquatic feature, the Salton Sea’s water elevation is 236 feet below sea level, putting it in the same “low” class as the Caspian and Dead Seas.

During the 1950s and ‘60s, the Salton Sea was vibrantly promoted as a vacation oasis within this desert where summer temperatures routinely reach above 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Situated between the aptly named Chocolate Mountains (home to the military’s Chocolate Mountain Impact Area and off limits to civilians due to live aerial bombing) to the east and Anza Borrego State Park to the west, the sea offered stunning views and a bounty of affordable seaside land. The water was stocked to attract sport fishing, and the sea was advertised as a boating and water-skiing paradise. The sea’s coast sprouted speculative communities, the largest being Salton City on the western shore. Names like Mecca Beach, Oasis, and Slab City were sure to attract the curiosity of newcomers, and areas like Bombay Beach (rumored to have been named after a bomb was dropped, creating a small bay) were established as year-round trailer park living environments within the unforgiving landscape. Perhaps in the ultimate spirit of optimism, architect Albert Frey (a longtime resident of Palm Springs who designed experimental desert structures alongside Richard Neutra, John Lautner, and Donald Wexler’s all-metal housing), completed the North Shore Yacht Club in 1959, adding a central pulse to the sea’s newfound existence.


Derelict and half-submerged trailers and structures, photo by Hajime Masubuchi.

Tainted Waters

The topographical qualities that gave birth to the sea were also indirectly threatening its longevity as an asset in the otherwise harsh environment. Lacking any natural source of replenishment other than run- off from sporadic local precipitation, the sea most likely would have dried up, returning to its original, arid state. As it turns out, however, increased agricultural activity in the hyper-productive Imperial Valley region has brought steady irrigation runoff, flowing downhill into the low level sea and guaranteeing an abundant supply for the recreational waters. Unfortunately, this “nourishment” has come with a paradox: the irrigation water is heavily laced with herbicides, pesticides, and additional topsoil salts, which exacerbate the already high salinity caused by mineral salts seeping from the sea floor. The result over time has been catastrophic to the marine and recreational life of the Salton Sea, with fish and bird-life dying off in debilitating numbers and visitors flocking elsewhere.

Along with the rise in contamination, the water level itself has continued to rise with the increased agricultural development, creating permanently flooded communities and forcing many remaining residents to flee. Not to be defeated, the Bombay Beach community constructed earthen dikes between its village and the sea, with sump pumps strategically placed to guarantee dry land for its occupants. Presently, it rests approximately 10 feet below the water level, and visitors find themselves driving up to the beach. Half-submerged mobile trailers and cars litter the coast, and telephone and power line poles march perpendicularly out to sea, indexing underwater roads. A road map of the region still touts the Salton Sea as a vacation haven, yet warns water enthusiasts (those brave enough to enter this murky fluid) to be aware of such underwater obstacles as trees, structures, and automobiles when boating or water skiing.

The panoramic beauty of the sea provides a contradictory façade to what lies beneath. Enormous algae blooms have voraciously multiplied, sucking available oxygen from the water and killing fish strong enough to survive the rising pollution and salt levels. A walk along the water’s edge provides a curious yet startling realization: the aggregate crunching beneath one’s feet in many places is not sand, but the crushed ribs, spines, and scales of dead fish — an animal sand. Many more fish float lifeless in the water. A rank, pervasive stench rises from the water and lingers in the air.

Emblematic of the convoluted relationship between nature and the man-made, the Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge and the Salton Sea Military Test Base approach within a mile of one another at the sea’s southern end.


In Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film, Stalker, a small group of truth seekers ventures into the “zone,” an area of wasteland surrounding the ruins of a nuclear power plant. Though spoiled by its past, the land- scape is rumored to contain hidden forces worth seeking and protecting, and thus its torment creates its attraction. The visitor to the Salton Sea region confronts the same enigmatic presence. The sea’s crises, though serious and many, have nevertheless intensified this area into one of the most provocative landscapes in California.

Further layers complete the picture: the San Andreas Fault lies directly under the Salton Sea’s eastern shore; its northern vicinity is one of the windiest places in the country and home of the Tehachapi Valley Windmill Farm, the second largest windmill cluster in the world. Nearby Slab City, surprisingly designated on a regional map, is a nomadic “non-city” where residents park their mobile homes on concrete slabs that are the residue of military buildings long since demolished. Marking the entrance to this surreal desert conglomerate is Salvation Mountain, providing a colorful beacon amidst the beige desert sands. It is the creation of a desert eccentric, who for years has been painting an entire hillside with a concoction of house paint, mud, and straw in dedication to the afterlife.

Today, Albert Frey’s yacht club stoically stands, boarded shut, its outdoor pool and walkways cracked and contorted. Undeterred visitors and high- way nomads stop to inspect this once hopeful relic and to gaze upon its silent land and seascape. Across the water, Salton City lies poised for a future that has not yet arrived: most of its infrastructure of roads, sidewalks, and street lights remains empty and silent at water’s edge, awaiting new occupants who surely will never come. Robert Smithson created an active exchange between artificial and organic forces with his “Spiral Jetty” earthwork in Utah. Visitors to the Salton Sea are treated to the same entropic interplay, but on an extreme scale. It is high-speed geography, appearing to change between every visit.


North Shore Yacht Club, Architect Albert Frey, boarded up structure, photo by Hajime Masubuchi.



1. As discussed by Rosalind Krauss in Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind E. Krauss, Formless, A User’s Guide (New York: Zone Books, 1997), pg. 73. From Robert Smithson, “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey,” Artforum, December, 1967.
2. Center for Land Use Interpretation, 2000.

Share this article:

The Sunol Water Temple

in: ARCCA Archives / 0 Comments
Share this article:

[Originally published 4th quarter 2001, in arcCA 01.4, “H2O CA.”]


Author Eric Althoff is a contributing writer for Monrovia-based California Construction Link, a monthly magazine of the McGraw-Hill Companies, where he has covered such projects as the renovation of the Hotel del Coronado in San Diego, the new Soka University campus in Aliso Viejo, and the reconstruction of the damaged South Portico of the Capitol in Sacramento.

At his funeral in 1924, a friend eulogized famed architect Willis Jefferson Polk as a man whose “vision, to the last, was always of this city of San Francisco as the most noble architectural opportunity of the New World.”

Polk’s prestigious life as an architect brought him from humble beginnings in Kentucky and St. Louis to his start as an architectural apprentice in Chicago. Eventually, Polk found his way west to the city upon which he would leave his indelible and unique designer’s mark.

Perhaps Polk’s most famous structure is the Sunol Water Temple, constructed in 1910 and located in a 200-acre public park overlooking San Francisco Bay. Clearly influenced by Polk’s frequent visits to Europe (and Rome, in particular), the 60-ft.-high pavilion marks the nexus of three major water sources: the Alameda Creek, De La Laguna Creek, and Pleasanton Wells, which all flow into the Sunol Valley.

Polk designed the classical structure as a tribute to the Temple of Vesta outside Rome, built in deference to the source of ancient Rome’s water supply. For 65 years after he was gone, the temple stood as a monument to Polk’s aesthetic sensibilities and continued to watch steadfastly over the city that he loved.

Until 1989.

At 5:02 p.m. on October 17 of that year, the Loma Prieta Fault shook, sending a magnitude 7.1 earthquake rocking through the Bay Area, causing billions of dollars in damage and claiming 62 lives, homes, freeways, and Game 3 of the “Battle of the Bay” World Series between the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland Athletics.

Polk’s beloved Sunol Water Temple was not spared. Although it remained intact after the quake, the temple sustained substantial damage and was closed to the public.

It would be nearly a decade before the temple’s owner, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, committed nearly $4 million to restore the fallen icon to its early 20th century glory. Approximately $1.2 million would be spent to restore the structure, with another $2 million to $3 million being spent on landscaping and construction of a small museum for the historic monument.

Historic preservation architects: Carey & Co., San Francisco. General contractor: LTM Construction Co., San Francisco. Article reprinted from California Construction Link, February 2001, by permission of The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


Share this article:

Urban Spring: an excerpt

in: ARCCA Archives / 0 Comments
Share this article:

[Originally published 4th quarter 2001, in arcCA 01.4, “H2O CA.”]


Left, “City Fingers” Lines of Transport, traversing the desert landscape with the interstate paralleling the path. Right, Oasis Lift Station of the Lines of Transport.

Author William R. Morrish, a California native, is the Elwood R. Quesada Professor of Architecture, Landscape Architecture, and Urban and Environmental Planning at the University of Virginia. He was previously founding director of the Design Center for American Urban Landscape at the University of Minnesota, where he created a nationally recognized “think tank” for professionals, academics, and civic leaders on issues of metropolitan urban design. In 1994, the New York Times hailed Morrish and his late wife, Catherine Brown, as “the most valuable thinkers in urbanism today.” This excerpt from “Urban Spring: Formalizing the Water System of Los Angeles,” originally published in Modulus (The University of Virginia Architecture Journal), no. 17, 1984, is reprinted by permission of the author and publisher.

“To a considerable extent, the problem of water in Southern California is a cultural problem. By this I mean that newcomers to the region, who have always made up a majority of the population, have never understood the crucial importance of water. Crossing the desert, they arrive in an irrigated paradise in which almost anything can be grown with a quickness and abundance that cannot be equaled by any other region in America. There does not seem to be a water problem. Nor are they told there is such a problem, for Southern California has always been extremely reluctant to discuss its basic weakness.” —Carey McWilliams (1946)

The freeway, the most famous symbol of Los Angeles, hovers over the landscape like the aqueduct system of ancient Rome. In contrast to the freeway, the water system of Los Angeles, which is much older and fundamentally more critical to its existence, is not as well known. One key reason is that the freeway is a public space and the water aqueduct is not. Daily, thousands of drivers keep their eye on the road and their ear to the radio, listening for SIG ALERTS, warnings of accidents ahead on the freeway. The ritual of the freeway is an everyday activity for residents of Los Angeles. The consumption of water is also an everyday ritual, but one which has been removed from our daily consciousness. This loss of consciousness is primarily due to the removal of the aqueduct from public sight. The ritual of water is no longer a public activity like commuting.

Los Angeles is an excellent example of a man-made desert oasis. Its present day physical form, however — like that of Phoenix, San Diego or other cities in the American Southwest — does not effectively celebrate the water system that nurtures its existence. Most residents thoughtlessly assume that their garden paradise merely comes from “turning on the tap.” In reality, a gigantic system of aqueducts, pumps, reservoirs, canals, and pipes delivers water from 500 miles away. To the average person’s perception of the city, this labyrinth remains hidden from view, except when he receives the monthly water bill or when he has to vote on water-related bond issues. Here, we… will explore the possibilities of externalizing the hidden water aqueduct system into a set of public spaces, activities, and monuments. Potentially, these new public spaces could be the articulated intermediate scale of urban spaces now missing from the Los Angeles landscape. New and existing developments can begin to infill and reorient themselves to the water places, rather than to the scale of the home or freeway.

Using the water aqueduct system as a test case, the goal of our design is to create a set of specific urban sources in and around Los Angeles, which will simultaneously provide utilitarian service, spatial clarity, and ritual places which celebrate a city created from water and sand. The method for this search we can call the design scenario — a process by which statements of policy are translated into three-dimensional architectural or city building programs.

Our method takes the statements of policy and poses the question: What if the information were expressed as architectural spaces or public monuments? The results of this process will generate two types of information. From the first, we can begin to see the effect a policy has upon the physical structure of a place. From the second, we can identify a spatial vocabulary. The following design scenarios look at the potential ritual places that can be created to celebrate both the spiritual and the utilitarian relationship of the city to its water system.

The First Ritual: The Point of Intake

The aqueduct begins hundreds of miles away from the city boundaries. At the Point of Intake, water is pooled from the natural watercourses into holding channels. At one end, the large pumps of the aqueduct lift station draw water up out of the pool, into the pipes of the aqueduct, and on to the distant city. At this point of transference, the water leaves the wilderness, or rural state, and enters the geometry of the city. To many, the lift station can be seen as the gateway to the city. To others, it is the outermost tentacle of the city as it stretches into the countryside.

The lift station, or Point of Intake, also symbolizes the battle for control of water resources, in which there are two participating parties. The first is composed of those who feel they have control over the water because of riparian rights. Since they own land from which the water originates, they feel that they should be in control of its future. The other party usually lives outside the area of the water’s origins and argues that an area’s water resources should not be limited and controlled by the few who own the land at its source. The water should be put to maximum use. They claim the need for appropriation rights. Two hundred years of litigation, legislation, and emotional arguments have been generated by this conflict over the control of limited water resources. This argument is rooted in the historic American conflict between rural virtue and urban intellectualism.

In order to ensure that no other remote region would face the fate of the Owens Valley, the State Legislature passed the County of Origin law in 1931, prohibiting the draining of one area’s water in order to supply other areas. This law helps small counties stop larger municipalities from looting local water resources.

In interpreting the law, the Point of Intake can be seen as the middle ground of the debate. It is proposed that a line be drawn between the intake lift station and the water pool of the natural water system, on which a building called the Basilica of Origin will reside. From this point, the basilica mediates between the values of the rural and wilderness landscapes and the geometric aqueduct lines of city, which terminate here.

In the Basilica of Origin there would be two icons representing the two sides of the water debate: those of the city and those of the county of origin. The basilica would create a place for the debates about balancing water supplies. It would be the formal space where the process of deciding the amount of water entitlement would take place annually.

Each year, lawyers, officials, and citizens from both sides would gather at the Basilica of Origin and act out the ritual of balancing the area’s water resources. This Act of Entitlement would be debated and recorded within the Basilica of Origin at each aqueduct. These basilicas would be created at the Delta, the Colorado River, and the Owens Valley, and each would represent the debate particular to that area of origin.

The Second Ritual: Lines of Transport

As it leaves the Point of Intake, tunnels, canals, conduits, and siphons carry the water across the dry landscape of the Southwest. These Lines of Transport tell the story of the land they traverse — a dry landscape marked by broad, open valleys, which lie between high, rocky mountains. The lines of transport zigzag across the desert floor and at times lift their cargo up and over rocky routes. These are the same routes taken by early settlers; today they are followed by travelers on the freeways that parallel the water system. These Lines of Transport act as ritual passageways from the open land and its ridges to the garden cities of Southern California.

The Lines of Transport unleash their power onto the landscape, a power that has been contained and withheld from the parched land it has just passed over. Each line is unique in its technology, its historical moment of construction, and the terrain it traverses. With its own rite of passage, each is perceived differently by the participants of the passage. To some, the Owens Valley Aqueduct represents a period of ruthless political exploitation. To some, the Colorado River Aqueduct represents the collective work spirit of the WPA. Finally, there is the California Aqueduct, which, to those of Northern California, represents the power and the insatiable thirst of the southern part of the state. Whatever the image, lines of transport act collectively as fingers extending the city into the distance, carrying with it the image and characteristics of that city. The symbolic functions of the City Fingers are to demarcate the distance and passage of time across the landscape and to inform the traveler of the past and present effect of the city upon the land, by creating a three-dimensional time line.

This scheme can be realized by visually externalizing the system on the land. During the day, at the bases of these ridges, the lift station can be landscaped with compact stands of trees, creating an oasis that demonstrates the life-giving power of the cargo carried in the lines. At night, when the drive across the landscape can be quite monotonous, the lift station can be lighted to create a focal point in the darkened landscape. The traveler counts off the illuminated ridges, assuring himself, “Only a few more before I get home.” It is a point on the horizon, marking time and distance and extending a fragment of the city into the desert. Thus, the monotonous landscape takes on meaning and texture.

The Third Ritual: Pools of Collection

Each aqueduct delivers its water to a reservoir. Like the water cisterns and fountains of Rome, which collected, stored, and distributed the water from the aqueducts, the Los Angeles reservoirs can represent both urban-entry landmarks and neighborhood fountains.

Located at the outer edge of the city, reservoir pools perform a utilitarian function by distributing the aqueduct’s water to the homes and gardens of the city. They also represent a transition from the linear aqueduct axis of the Lines of Transport to the spreading grid of the distribution system. A transition from the open, expansive scale of the surrounding mountains and desert to the more articulated individual scale of the irrigated city — from wilderness to civilization. Paralleling the terminus reservoir, the major interstate freeways breach the surrounding mountain walls of Southern California and Los Angeles. At this point, where water and traveler pass into the garden, the terminus pool can be developed into a formal entry space. This pool would be emblematic of both the land it is entering and the journey taken to get there.


The Pools of Collection, Terminus City Gateway Pool.

Like the previous two rituals, these junctures can celebrate each aqueduct differently by representing the unique qualities of the particular system they serve — for instance, their geographic and historical origins. To the east of the city, the Colorado River Aqueduct greets those who have just crossed the desert. To the north, the terminus pool can be formed to greet the traveler who has traversed the mountain pass from the agricultural grid of the San Joaquin Valley. Finally, the terminus pool represents a potential gateway to the presently inarticulated sprawl of Southern California cities.

Spread out over the landscape of the city are Pools of Collection which could articulate distinctly different areas in the environment. As part of the distribution system, each terminus pool passes water into a series of smaller distribution reservoirs. These Pools of Collection are interrelated as parts of a larger distribution system, yet each should be distinct. Physically, they could be seen as landmarks, perhaps as super-scaled fountains like their antecedents in ancient Rome.

The Fourth Ritual: The Grid of Distribution 

Fed by the Pools of Collection, the Grid of Distribution transports water to the individual consumer. It further reduces the scale, breaking down into a fine-grained complex of pipes and pumping stations that bring water to each house and garden.

Los Angeles and its environs are created by three overlapping grid systems: one from the Owens Valley Aqueduct, one from the Colorado River Aqueduct, and another from the California Aqueduct. Each is operated by a separate agency, but they are tied together to provide supplementary water as needed. Historically, city development has responded to the grid pattern of each system. At the smaller scales, growth has clustered around the major supply lines of the distribution system. Field patterns of agriculture have become large blocks of residential neighborhoods. At a larger scale, the shape of the cities of Southern California has followed each aqueduct system. The Owens Valley Aqueduct system caused the city of Los Angeles to extend northward from the original pueblo site rather than to the coastline in the west. The Colorado River Aqueduct allowed development to fill in the valley extending from the coastline on the western edge and eastward to Riverside. Rather than follow the Jeffersonian or Spanish grid, the city of Los Angeles and other cities of Southern California follow the Grid of Distribution pattern of irrigation and water distribution.

The Grid of Distribution is the lifeblood of the city. It could be said to represent the dialogue between the natural environment and its man-made settlements. To make its importance evident, Water Parks could be placed throughout Los Angeles and other communities to commemorate the rapport between man’s irrigation system and the ecology of Southern California. Each park would have three functions. The first would be to exhibit the wise utilization of water in a dry climate. The second would be to commemorate the bringing of water to the specific neighborhood. The design of each water park would reflect the origin of its water, such as the Colorado River, for example. The third function of the Water Park would be that of civic landmark. Each park would be site-specific and at the same time regionally tied, thus giving further definition of space to the Southern California plain, devoted not just to the domestic landscape, but to one of community.

The Fifth Ritual: The Private Spring

The homes and gardens on the grid plan of the San Fernando Valley sit like private oases. Faucets, sprinklers, appliances, and other fixtures provide pleasure, life-sustaining fluid, and cleanliness, with minimum inconvenience to the individual. Even in the arid climate, water to quench one’s thirst is never far away. The city is made up of millions of these Private Springs, each catering to individual ritual patterns.

While bathing in a household spring, there is little to remind one of the water’s sources. Actually, the faucet and water fixtures can be seen not only as utilitarian conveniences, but as connections to the community and to the distant landscapes at the end of the water aqueduct. Water in Beverly Hills is actually drawn from the Colorado River or the San Joaquin Delta. Across the street in West Hollywood, the tap water comes from the Owens Valley.


Left, Reservoir Sink. Right, Grand Canyon Sink.

Domestic habits tie into the whole system of water rituals from the Point of Intake down to the individual faucet tap. Therefore, the design of the individual spring could reflect, through its image and usage patterns, the form and significance of the larger aqueduct system. The citizen is reminded daily of his debt to the entire water system. The Private Spring can achieve these ends by:

  1. Shaping the home and garden into patterns reminiscent of the components of the water system.
  2. Redesigning water usage fixtures to recall the origin of the water sources, such as a sink shaped like the delta reservoir of the Colorado River.
  3. Re-adapting the garden to plant material and patterns that utilize and represent irrigation techniques. The Private Spring terminates a long line of water transportation and thus, in many ways, is a representation of all the issues and physical patterns of the water system. If the Private Spring is designed properly, it can be a source within the city from which residents can reflect on the balance of water usage in their city in relation to other rural and urban areas.

Conclusion: Urban Places 

The Pools of Collection, the Basilica of Origin, and other points of ritual along the water aqueduct system provide just a few examples of possible public activities that can be associated with the water system in Los Angeles. It is hoped that the design alternatives in this article will stimulate interest in the potential of developing urban places in the arid western city.

These design exercises emphasize that each aqueduct is part of a unique system, constructed to carry out the same tasks: the transportation and distribution of water. Each system must convey water a long distance from its source and also represent its historical and geographical origins. It is this collision between the utility of water transport and its contextual response that creates a set of structures that are simultaneously universal in principle and specific in response to locale. For example, each aqueduct might have a Basilica of Origin, but the articulation of that building would be different for the California Aqueduct than for the Colorado Aqueduct, since the former has its source in the lush river delta, and the latter is located on the edge of the desert.

The aqueduct system of Los Angeles… and the five ritual sections of the water celebration are design elements that provide inspiration for the future planning and shaping of the city and its architecture in the western oasis of Southern California. This exploration, which is not typically part of the architect’s repertoire, redirects traditional elements of architecture into new relationships. The West is a gigantic unyielding landscape: it should be used as an architectural context from which to develop the future shape of the city.


California Aqueduct, San Luis Reservoir, aqueduct storage.


Share this article:

Concrete Rivers and T.R.E.E.S.

in: ARCCA Archives / 0 Comments
Share this article:

[Originally published 4th quarter 2001, in arcCA 01.4, “H2O CA.”]

Author David O’Donnell is T.R.E.E.S. Project Associate at TreePeople, where he writes grant requests, produces newsletters and educational materials, and puzzles over the arcana of California water issues. He is none the worse for his recent physical contact with the Los Angeles River, from which he collected water samples as part of the effort to establish legally permissible levels of various pollutants.

One of the ironies of modern urban life is that municipalities spend millions of dollars each year to contain and dispose of stormwater, millions more to acquire the fresh water they need. The irony is especially pronounced in the American West, where scant rainfall can be nonetheless destructive and population centers are often far removed from adequate water supplies. Though the average viewer might require interpretive signage to understand them, some of the results are observable from any of the landmark bridges spanning the Los Angeles River. Most of the year, a trickle of water flows down the narrow center groove of the river’s concrete box. But during the rainy season, the box sometimes fills almost to overflowing with a juggernaut of water, lethal to anyone foolish or unfortunate enough to enter it.

The river can be deceptive as well as dangerous. Most of that dry-season trickle is effluent from L.A.’s sewage treatment plants. Accordingly, very little of it originates in the watershed of the river that’s carrying it. Instead, it has traveled hundreds of miles from one of the three places that provide 70 to 85 percent of Los Angeles’ fresh water: the Central Valley, the eastern Sierra, and the Colorado River. Only 15 to 30 percent comes from local aquifers.

The concrete box, often referred to as the river’s tomb, came about as a direct result of floods that regularly devastated the basin, notably in 1914, 1934, and 1938. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the County Flood Control District were charged with one of the largest public works projects ever undertaken: to contain the runoff from the 100-year storm and free the low-lying environs of the river from the threat of flooding.

The project was completed in the late ‘60s. Within twenty years, there was reason to suspect that the system of retention basins, channels, and levees might, in some places, be capable of containing only a 25- or a 40-year storm. The designers had simply been unable to imagine the rapid urbanization of the watershed and the proliferation of hardscape that took place after the war. In particular, they had thought that the upper watershed, the San Fernando Valley, would remain largely agricultural. The reality is that about two thirds of the surface of the City of Los Angeles, including the Valley, has now been covered with impervious materials. Less exposed soil is available to absorb stormwater, which therefore runs through the streets and into the flood control channels. The lost opportunity for groundwater recharge is also an issue of major concern in an increasingly tight water market.

The persisting threat to property values and human life could not be ignored. In the mid-‘90s, the Corps of Engineers and the county Department of Public Works (heir to the Flood Control District) proposed the LACDA (Los Angeles County Drainage Area) Project, which would answer the threat by topping the levees along the river’s lower twelve miles with concrete parapets. The ultimate futility of fighting the effects of concrete with more concrete provoked debate about the underlying watershed management issues, and, in May 1995, three environ- mental groups sued to stop the project.

The suit, filed by Friends of the L.A. River, Heal the Bay, and TreePeople, was unsuccessful; the LACDA project is scheduled for completion late this year, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency is gradually eliminating building restrictions and flood insurance requirements over large areas of the floodplain. But one condition of the settlement was that the County Department of Public Works investigate alternatives, such as the ones advocated by the petitioners in the suit, to traditional stormwater management. An active and increasingly influential Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers Watershed Council, in which Public Works is an important participant, was one outgrowth of the controversy.

Another was TreePeople’s T.R.E.E.S. Project. The organization had been a reluctant petitioner in the LACDA suit; its strength was working with public agencies to inspire communities and individuals to take responsibility for the quality of their environment. Tree planting was, and is, the focus for that inspiration. But where TreePeople views trees as watershed management infrastructure, agencies and the general public tend to see them simply as decoration. The T.R.E.E.S. (Transagency Resources for Environmental and Economic Sustainability) Project promotes strategic tree planting and a range of other watershed best management practices (BMPs) as sustainable alternatives to river channelization and other practices that treat only symptoms and do nothing to replenish scarce resources. The LACDA controversy had also made it clear that infrastructure agencies were working independently on related problems in the watershed, with little communication or sharing of resources. There are substantial economic, environmental, and social benefits to be derived from a cooperative approach to designing and maintaining our urban landscape. The purpose of the T.R.E.E.S. Project is to demonstrate the feasibility of such an approach and to facilitate the cooperation.

The first step was to point the way toward redesigning urban sites to function as watersheds. A 1997 charrette brought together for that purpose some of the nation’s foremost landscape and building architects, engineers, hydrologists, urban foresters, government officials, and community leaders. They worked intensively for three days on plans for five representative urban sites — a single-family home, a multi-family dwelling, a high school, a commercial site, and an industrial site — with an eye to addressing the area’s environmental concerns. Among those concerns, each typically addressed by a separate authority, are wasteful use of potable water, stop gap flood control policies, water pollution from storm runoff, costly water importation and the desertification of exporting areas, high rates of energy consumption for cooling, large amounts of green waste using up landfill space, urban blight and its destabilizing consequences, and youth unemployment.

The tangible outcome of the charrette process was a collection of designs for retrofitting individual properties to function as watersheds. Each site design addressed several of the environmental issues in question, each with a specific mix of BMPs. The results were published in 1999 under the title Second Nature: Adapting L.A.’s Landscape for Sustainable Living. But the participants also came away with a new inspiration: we can indeed achieve sustainability, beautify our environment, and employ citizens as its caretakers. And we can do so at less than the cost of current piecemeal strategies that fight, rather than work with, nature’s cycles.

The Hall House, a private single-family residence in South Central Los Angeles, was the first of the five sites to be built. It has been retrofitted to capture and retain onsite the runoff from a 100-year storm event and to reuse all the site’s green waste. Some of the water is stored for irrigation; the rest is available for direct groundwater recharge. The yard waste is recycled as mulch, eliminating the need for transport to and space in a landfill (green waste accounts for 30% of the household waste stream). The watershed BMPs employed at the site include a roofwater washing unit that diverts the contaminated “first flush”; a partially buried 3600-gallon fence-line cistern; a vegetated and mulched swale; retention grading in the front and back yards; and a dry well that filters runoff from the driveway before returning it to the groundwater.


Cistern collection system – A cistern collects rainwater from rain gutters and stores it for irrigation during dry months. The double cistern at the demonstration site is made of polypropylene, a plastic that is plentiful in Los Angeles’ waste stream and is recycled locally by ARCO. The water is pumped out by an electric pump on a timer system to irrigate the yard.


Vegetated / mulched swale – A swale is a low-lying or depressed stretch of land. It is used at the demonstration site to create an attractive and functional space that also performs a vital function in waste reduction. This mulched swale is composed of recycled greenwaste from the property. It is designed to slow the flow of stormwater and to filter pollutants, so that the water can be absorbed into the earth and the toxic substances removed. A swale can be used in any residential setting and may be composed of grass, vegetation, or mulch. If made of grass, it requires irrigation in dry months and regular mowing.

TreePeople and the USDA Forest Service are conducting a two-year study to record weather information and monitor the performance of the BMPs at the home. A weather station, flow meters, and a data logger have been installed at the demonstration site, and an adjacent property is the control site. The push for sustainable watershed management having moved from the naysaying to the investigative stage, the data gathered here will help determine which BMPs suit which conditions, how well they work, and how they might be improved.


Driveway drywell – This drywell system serves the dual purpose of retaining and cleansing rainwater, giving it time to percolate into the ground rather than carrying motor oil and other pollutants into the storm drain system and out to our beaches and bays. Rainwater flowing down the drive- way runs through the grate into a box containing sand and crushed rock that capture pollutants.


Retention grading – The front and backyard retention grading is essentially a “sunken garden” that holds rainwater until it can be absorbed into the ground. This type of grading works best in highly permeable soils (Los Angeles type 2 and 3). At the demonstration site, the runoff from the front roof panels is directed into a six-inch depression in the front lawn, while one quarter of the back of the roof drains to the back yard. These structures are capable of handling a 10-inch flash flood that could occur during a 100-year storm event. During a more intense storm, excess rain- water would flow into the existing storm drain system. The grading can also be placed over coarse aggregate rock to achieve a higher infiltration rate.

Influenced in part by the Second Nature charrette and the demonstration at the Hall House, the L.A. County Department of Public Works recently tabled plans for a $42 million storm drain, intended to solve a chronic flooding problem in a San Fernando Valley sub-watershed. Instead, it has lent its support to retrofitting the entire 2700-acre Sun Valley watershed in accordance with T.R.E.E.S. principles. This turnabout presents an ideal opportunity to show that new watershed management protocols can control flooding by addressing causes instead of effects. At the same time, they offer multiple benefits to draw participation and funding from a range of agencies: improved water quality (by reducing polluted runoff), augmented water supplies (through increased groundwater recharge), greening of the community (with tree planting and retention/detention basins that double as parks), creation of jobs in retrofit construction and BMP maintenance, and improvements to the general quality of urban life.

Agencies, elected officials, civic groups, non-profit organizations, and businesses convened as the Sun Valley Watershed Stakeholders Group late in 1998. Its stated mission was “to determine the feasibility of solving the local flooding problem while retaining all stormwater runoff from the watershed; increasing water conservation, recreational opportunities, and wildlife habitat; and reducing stormwater pollution.”

The Group’s overall watershed retrofit plan was first presented to the public in August 2000. County Public Works Deputy Director Carl Blum and TreePeople President Andy Lipkis presented a vision of a green and sustainable Sun Valley, where stormwater would be transformed from liability to asset. The stakeholders would pool their resources and retrofit the watershed with retention basin parks, cisterns, strategic tree planting, permeable pavement, and groundwater infiltrators. Other strategies, such as pavement removal in schoolyards and parking lots and the widespread use of mulch, would also be part of the mix. A successful demonstration project at this scale would constitute a milestone in watershed management and could be expected to draw international attention.

Recently, having determined that its general plan was indeed feasible, the Group amended its mission statement to reflect a new resolve: it now intends to solve the flooding problem. Current movement is on two tracks. One emphasizes outreach to the community and education on watershed issues. Its purpose is to develop the public support necessary to ensure the project’s success. The other is the implementation of pilot projects in the watershed. They will lay the groundwork for the retrofit of the entire watershed, which is expected to take 10 to 15 years.

The narrator in John Shannon’s detective novel, The Concrete River, observes, “Few people in L.A. noticed the natural features that were still there beneath the grid of streets — like the slope a mile north of Rose that had been the north bank of the floodplain. He had once enjoyed knowing things like that, the broken geography under the asphalt and the lost flora and fauna.” It’s true we don’t usually notice these natural features until we’re rudely reminded of them, but the folly of ignoring them is becoming increasingly evident. The broken geography may not be completely reparable, the specific flora and fauna restorable, but they provide clues toward a more sustainable city, if we’re willing to follow them.


Share this article:

The L.A. River: Recent Books Briefly Noted

in: ARCCA Archives / 0 Comments
Share this article:

[Originally published 4th quarter 2001, in arcCA 01.4, “H2O CA.”]

Author Tom Marble, AIA, is a partner with WhiteMarble, a multidisciplinary design firm in Los Angeles.

Blake Gumprecht, The Los Angeles River: Its Life, Death, and Possible Rebirth (Johns Hopkins University Press; $40)

Patt Morrison, Rio L.A.: Tales from the Los Angeles River (Angel City Press; $30)

David Manning, Riverbed (Ridgefield Press; $19.95)

Blake Gumprecht’s The Los Angeles River and Patt Morrison’s Rio L.A. are part of a long tradition in the literary history of Los Angeles, depicting the city as a sort of Paradise Lost, where greed and selfishness win out over charity and compassion, and where all has gone to hell in a handbasket. This tradition extends as far back as the city’s founding but acquired real definition in the latter half of the twentieth century with the work of Carey McWilliams, Kevin Starr, and, more pointedly, Mike Davis. Gumprecht and Morrison follow their illustrious predecessors, paying homage to them and expanding upon their work in new and interesting ways.

The basic version of the Los Angeles River/Paradise Lost myth common to both books goes something like this:

In the beginning, there was the river, and it flowed down from all the mountains, spreading out in swamps across the basin, giving water and life to all. Native Americans came to this place and gathered in villages near the river — but not too near, for they soon learned of the awesome power of the typically docile river during wet winters. The rain would begin falling and not stop; it would wash down the mountains in torrents and flood much of the plains. It could be relentless and unforgiving, but the native Gabrielino quickly learned its rhythms.

When the Spaniards arrived in the late eighteenth century, it took them a few seasons to understand and respect the river. Once they did, they corralled the Gabrielino into a corner of one of their former villages, and forced them to dig a series of zanjas or ditches to divert water to the Spaniards’ orchards and fields. Even after the Americans took over, Los Angeles relied on the abundance of the river to sustain itself. The fate of the young city became inextricably linked to its flow and was subject to its whim, shifting from drought to flood and back to drought without rhyme or reason. The Powers-That-Were demanded a more reliable water supply, and they got it through a man named William Mulholland.

Mulholland is said to have remarked that when he saw the river for the first time, his “whole scheme of life was woven.” Ironic, then, that Mulholland would commit, if not the original, then certainly the most fatal sin against the river: by initiating a program to transport water hundreds of miles, first from the Owens Valley and later from the Colorado River and the San Joaquin Valley, Mulholland rendered the Los Angeles River useless as the life source of the budding metropolis. In doing so, he robbed it of any symbolic value it may have had to the inhabitants of Los Angeles and paved the way for further humiliation in the coming decades.

Even before Mulholland, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a succession of real estate booms had pushed development across the Los Angeles basin; the river had retaliated with a succession of devastating floods that rallied public sentiment against it. It was the arrival of the automobile, however, that would cause the fundamental shift in the Angeleno perception of space. No longer a city made up of villages nestled between tributaries of a temperamental waterway, its future would be formed by a paved, plaid overlay of streets, boulevards, and highways designed specifically for car travel.

When it became clear that a massive restructuring of the city was required, the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce vowed to do it right. They hired Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., the son of the mind behind New York’s Central Park, and urban designer Harlan Bartholomew to make a survey of and proposals for parks, playgrounds, and beaches, with special consideration for the automobile. The resulting Olmsted Bartholomew Plan, finished in 1930, outlined a system of linear parks wide enough to control the river in the worst flooding, yet lushly landscaped for recreation. Integral to this system were parkways — roads with wide, planted medians that moved traffic rapidly in an idyllic setting.

The vision was as compelling as it was complete, but it was ambitious — the estimated cost to implement the plan was said to have been over two hundred million dollars. The report seemed to vanish overnight. “How Eden Lost It’s Garden,” in Mike Davis’s recent book, The Ecology of Fear, summarizes the issue, suggesting that real estate developers were upset with the plan because it forfeited too much privately-held, developable land to the city; that the onset of the depression made any sizable allocation of public money suspect at best; and that Los Angeles Times-prompted dissension within the Chamber itself prevented agreement. Without a single strong, persuasive leader to promote the plan, it was doomed to obscurity.

Referring to the Olmsted Bartholomew Plan as a “window into a lost future,” Davis brings the plan back into public consciousness. It was republished recently in Eden by Design (Greg Hise and William Deverell, eds., Berkeley: UC Press, 2000) and achieved the status of a kind of talisman, a magical document that promised redemption for sins against the river but that, in its rejection, condemned Los Angeles to a darker fate. Within a decade of its publication, federally funded flood control channels were being built by the Army Corps of Engineers, pouring a concrete lid over the 51-mile long Los Angeles River from Canoga Park to Long Beach.

Gumprecht and Morrison both pick up the story at this point and attempt to divine a final chapter. Morrison uses clever graphics, an abundance of photographs, and florid prose to persuade the reader that deliverance is upon us. Describing several grassroots efforts aimed at making the river more natural, she ends with a plea to “parole” the river from its concrete prison, to return it to a natural state, presumably along its entire length. I appreciate her enthusiasm for the project and her inventiveness in articulating a plausible scenario. She stops short, however, of a vision of true redemption, for, if the fall occurred when the city decided that the river could no longer quench the thirst of unbridled growth, wouldn’t salvation require a complete repudiation of the aqueduct system of Mulholland and his followers? The concrete straightjacket restraining the Los Angeles River would have to be removed, certainly. But, in a Paradise Regained, wouldn’t all development within the broad, ancient floodplain have to be sacrificed as well?

Blake Gumprecht is more measured. He piles fact upon dry, academic fact in a sober, yet nonetheless fascinating, way. Where Morrison appeals to one’s emotions, Gumprecht makes a pragmatic argument. In offering no easy answers, he suggests that the river is acceptable just as it is, with no resolution, no redemption — and no happy ending. Unlike Mike Davis, who sees conspiracy in his morning cup of coffee, Gumprecht confronts the cold, hard fact that it was not the clandestine machinations of an evil power structure that ruined the Los Angeles River incrementally over decades; rather, it was the utter indifference of an entire populous that let its paradise slide, bit by bit, into the inferno that now defines it.

David Manning’s new book, Riverbed, is a revealing counterpoint to these two books. In his latest noir tale set in a parallel-universe Los Angeles, the former LAPD detective follows the case of missing anthropologist Evangeline Rice, whose body is discovered after an El Niño storm deposits it in a remote stand of sycamores in a fictitious Riverside Park.

The story is mundane cops-and-robbers fare, but it comes to life in its descriptions of the settings, all of which magically occur along the length of the Los Angeles River and its tributaries. Manning invents a credible version of what the city would be like if it had been designed with today’s awareness of watersheds and ecosystems, with an effective master plan firmly in place. He imagines his victim as an important force in a progressive Arroyo Seco/Occidental University culture thriving along the banks of that ill-fated river. He summons from extinction a society of dire wolves — whose curious carcasses so densely populate the La Brea Tar Pits — living within the marshy woodlands of the Las Cienegas Park (in our universe, Beverly Hills). He envisions schools of trout making their way up the river from the Ballona Slough to spawn in Tujunga. And he suggests that in such a world one could take a raft and float down the entire length of the river, never once encountering even a hint of civilization, save the occasional bridge.

So striking are his descriptions that they totally overwhelm the story, the plot of which now escapes me. In fact, this particular novel was instrumental in curing a bout of insomnia that had afflicted me since I began researching the Los Angeles River. I found it somehow fitting that such a depiction of paradise left this reader uninterested, indifferent, and ultimately bored. Because, in the end, how engaging would such a Los Angeles River be without the pathos that its tragic history arouses?

We tell stories to naturalize the horrible. We use them to reconcile our bad behavior with the image of goodness we have of ourselves in our minds. For the native Angeleno, it is customary — no, essential — to engage in a little therapeutic myth-making from time to time; how else could we live with what we’ve done to our river, to each other, and ultimately to ourselves? Thanks to Blake Gumprecht and Patt Morrison, perhaps now we can acknowledge our sins, forgive one another, and move toward a more realistic redemption.


Share this article:

At Flat Land and Deep Water: California’s Ports

in: ARCCA Archives / 0 Comments
Share this article:

[Originally published 4th quarter 2001, in arcCA 01.4, “H2O CA.”]

Co-author Louis J. Di Meglio, AIA, is an associate at Jordan Woodman Dobson, an internationally known architecture and engineering firm in Oakland, specializing in maritime planning and architecture; co-author Lourdes M. Garcia, AIA, is Vice-President and Director of Design at Jordan Woodman Dobson and an adjunct professor at CCAC.

Take off something you’re wearing… look at the tag… look at where it was made… how do you think it got here?

Ports are crucial to our economic growth and wellbeing, our quality of modern life. From the time of our earliest settlements, they have provided a means to be supplied with goods (imports) and to collect goods for outside trade (exports). Originally thought of as rough, dirty, industrial areas, unattractive to commercial or residential development and utilization, ports today are considered desirable, vibrant components of the cities they adjoin. This paradigm shift has led to the competing interests of shippers and industrial users and recreational and commercial users vying for access to the same valuable lands. At the same time, the increasing size of port facilities raises important environmental issues. The conflicting needs of these several interests are being reconciled today with strategies for the future utilization of ports.

Ports require unique physical criteria: deep water adjacent to low-lying flat land at the edge of our oceans or rivers. This meeting of flat land and deep water is rare along the California coast. The topography of the coast limits the development of deep-water ports to a few areas, fixing the location of major industrial nodes. In California, the major ports with these characteristics are San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles, Long Beach, and San Diego. Other areas where these features are present to a lesser extent are Port Hueneme, Humboldt Bay, Sacramento, and Stockton. The Coastal Act limits port development to these areas, but, historically, the population/economic base along these nodes was the basis for port establishment and growth.

Originally, ports were mud flats served by small skiffs. Piers and wharves were developed to reach ships anchored in deep water to allow more efficient transfer of cargo to shore. Before the advent of containerization, ships were small. Cargo consisted of loose, palletized or break-bulk loads. Loading and unloading cargo were labor-intensive operations. Infrastructure requirements included finger piers, on-dock transit sheds, warehousing for storage, and rail lines, which influenced surrounding land use patterns. Due to the small radius of delivery service, a large amount of land was needed to service a port. Manufacturing and distribution districts (fisheries, shipbuilding, foundries, etc.) grew in close proximity to the waterfront, as did housing districts for port workers. A relatively small percentage of area was accessible to the general public. The traditional port environment was considered a most undesirable place to be.

Containerization has significantly changed the characteristics of industrial ports. Break-bulk and palletized cargo have been superseded by universal cargo containers that are essentially self-contained ‘mini-warehouses’ for dry or refrigerated goods. Operations are now mechanization-intensive, not labor-intensive. Vessels are larger, requiring large concrete wharves operated by giant wharf cranes, forklifts, and mobile, rubber-tired gantry cranes that evoke images of Star Wars in all their articulated, robotic qualities. Covered storage facilities are no longer necessary; containers are now stored on large, outdoor, container “parking lots.”

Again, land use patterns are affected. Manufacturing and distribution can now be remote from the port, creating a large, extending radius of delivery service beyond the port and opening up the availability of port-adjacent land for other uses. Competing interests, at times with incompatible requirements, vie for this land. Wider cross-sections of people now live, work, and recreate in close proximity to ports. The demand for waterside access and amenities not specifically involved with port operations has increased, and interest grows for the restoration and adaptive re-use of warehouse and distribution districts. Such areas have been transformed into new waterfront commercial, housing, and recreational uses.

Environmental issues are also undergoing changes after containerization. Increased operations have led to tighter restrictions and tougher standards for air and water quality, to control the impact of storm-water runoff, vehicle and maritime emissions, and airborne dust. Increased truck and intermodal rail traffic brings additional crossing and freeway congestion, affecting near-port communities. Larger terminals are needed to accommodate larger cargo surges. Consequently, ports must create additional land area by filling between finger piers and out into portions of the bay, or they must remediate and reuse former industrial sites, such as oil fields and manufacturing areas. More cargo equals larger ships, which need deeper water, forcing most ports to dredge to accommodate the deeper drafts. In the face of such pressures, the preservation of sensitive environmental sites along with growth has become a major port policy issue.

Responding to the Paradigm Shift: the San Francisco Bay Ports

California ports have responded in creative ways to the forces applied by economic conditions and by public regulatory and environmental agencies. Continued growth of port cargo volume and the impact of potential growth in the Far East have ports scrambling for additional area for expansion. The Coastal Commission and San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC) play a major role in shaping future port development and waterside access projects, allowing increased input from diverse stakeholders. Competing interests for available waterfront land and the effect of new technology on land use distribution have affected land use patterns. In addition, the recent move from mechanization to automated/information technology will have a far-reaching effect on all facets of port operations, transportation systems, and labor utilization.

The forces directing growth in the case of the two Bay Area ports, Oakland and San Francisco, are increased cargo volume for Oakland (which has the advantage of easy rail and freeway connectivity) and maximum utilization of the waterfront for entertainment and commercial uses for San Francisco.

Port of Oakland

The Port of Oakland occupies 19 miles of waterfront on the eastern shore of the San Francisco Bay, with 665 acres devoted to maritime activities. It is in the midst of its Vision 2000 (V2K) expansion, the first step in a long-term plan to double the container terminal coverage from 500 to 1,000 acres, to meet regional and national cargo needs into the new millennium.

Since World War II, the former military base has restricted public access to the shoreline of the Middle Harbor. Recently, through the closure of the Army and Navy facilities, additional land has become available for expansion. The southern end of the waterfront development provides commercial/ office, entertainment, housing, and recreational facilities. Recent developments have focused on the adaptive reuse of warehouse and manufacturing facilities into offices and lofts. The north end of the waterfront contains the industrial port, intermodal rail yard, Middle Harbor, and the innovative Shoreline Park. The creation of the park, mandated by the BCDC as a condition of approval for the port expansion, returns the best piece of real estate to the public. The public will regain access to the San Francisco Bay, with magnificent views of San Francisco; Oakland citizens will have views to the working waterfront; and the environment will benefit from the creation of a new major habitat carved out of former finger piers.

Port of San Francisco

While cargo growth drives the Port of Oakland, tourism and recreation are the forces behind the development of the San Francisco waterfront. The port does, however, retain a small container facility, ship repair, and bulk cargo area at the southern end of the waterfront.

New waterfront development is strongly linked to the existing urban fabric through the reuse of former warehouse and manufacturing buildings, with plazas and open areas provided by new projects. The Embarcadero, a grand boulevard and esplanade, provides the connection to activities along the waterfront, which include entertainment areas, a cruise ship terminal, future recreational piers, and a ferry terminal and transportation node.

The common thread running through the two ports is the development of strong connections between the waterfront and nearby, “downtown” urban uses. Meanwhile, even though these are mature ports, enough adjacent land not in the downtown area has allowed for necessary expansion, and the radius of delivery service infrastructure has remained small, as in a pre-containerization port.

Overall, our California Ports face new challenges with precious few acres available for growth. Our ports are faced with finding creative solutions in the technology and land-use arenas to respond to higher cargo demands as well as providing waterfront access and amenities that respond to public and environmental needs. This new awareness of the waterfront is the beginning of a shift in the perception of desirability and necessity of developing urban experiences at our waterfronts.


Share this article:

Rising Water, Falling Land: The Evolution of the Delta

in: ARCCA Archives / 0 Comments
Share this article:

[Originally published 4th quarter 2001, in arcCA 01.4, “H2O CA.”]

Author and landscape architect Jane Wolff is an assistant professor of landscape architecture at Ohio State University. As a Fulbright Scholar and Charles Eliot Traveling Fellow, she has studied the history, methods, and cultural implications of land reclamation in the Netherlands, research that provides a framework for her investigations of the San Joaquin and Sacramento River Delta. In her Delta Primer: a Field Guide to the California Delta (William Stout Publishers, 2003), she developed methods that designers can use to encourage and frame public debate about contested landscapes. The drawings above are studies for Delta Primer.

If you stood in the middle of an island in the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta, where the Great Central Valley of California drains into San Francisco Bay, you might not know that you were twenty feet below sea level. You might not realize that the rational agricultural geometry around you ended abruptly at the meandering river on the island’s edge. You might not understand that the ditches running through the fields were dug for drainage rather than irrigation. You might not think that there was anything strange about the Delta until you saw an ocean-going freighter cruise by in the distance, eighty miles from the Golden Gate and fifteen feet above your head. If you climbed to the top of the levee that separates the island from the river, where you could see land and water together, you might wonder how the landscape became such a paradox. And if you didn’t know that a large part of the water in the river was flowing not toward the Pacific Ocean but toward farms in the Central Valley and kitchen sinks in Los Angeles, you might wonder why such a paradox is sustained.

In 1850 the Delta was still wild. The largest tidal estuary on the West Coast and the endpoint of California’s two great rivers, it consisted of low-lying islands among the distributary channels of the Sacramento and the San Joaquin. It was a landscape in flux: river channels moved, water levels varied, and land flooded and dried out with changes in the sea- sons and the tides. Its current history began that year, when Congress passed the Swamp and Overflowed Lands Act. That legislation made marshlands like the Delta available for settlement on the condition that they were reclaimed for agriculture.

Agriculture required infrastructure. The Delta’s settlers built small levees around the islands to stop seasonal flooding, and they drained and cultivated the interiors. These interventions had an unexpected consequence: the land began to sink. The region’s peat soils were extremely fertile, but they were unstable. The peat oxidized when tilling exposed it to air, and it blew away as it dried out. The ground began to subside at a rate of several inches a year.

To compensate, farmers made their levees higher. This, too, had an unanticipated result: the rivers began to rise. Because they eliminated the flood plain, the levees increased the volume of water in the river channels during the rainy season. The channels began to silt up with the alluvial sediment that had formerly replenished the surface of the islands, and the water level rose even when the weather was dry. Flooding became a constant threat rather than a seasonal one.

The consequences of infrastructure (and the need for more infrastructure to address them) became more extreme. The land fell so low that groundwater had to be pumped up and out of the fields. Levees, no matter how high, were subject to shrinkage, cracking, and failure due to hydrostatic pressure; they required constant repairs and additions. The cycle of intervention and reaction has become the Delta’s leitmotif. It is endless, and its results are irreversible.

Cultural demands on the landscape have expanded, and so has the infrastructure needed to realize them. Since the Second World War, the Delta has become the centerpiece of the system that delivers water to Southern California. Like the levees that made agriculture possible, the infrastructure that delivers water has had unexpected and devastating consequences. Its implications are bigger because the scope of the new infrastructure is greater; they are more tangled because the contemporary range of intentions for the landscape is more complicated.

The export canals have transformed the meaning of the Delta’s rivers. Before, they served as local transportation infrastructure for farmers and produce; today they are the center of a giant plumbing network that extends for hundreds of miles and serves a distant constituency. The large-scale export of water from the Delta began in 1951, when the Delta-Mendota Canal opened. Funded by the federal government, its purpose was to provide irrigation water for the Central Valley. An ancillary installation, the Delta Cross Channel, carried Sacramento River water to giant pumps that fed the canal. In 1973 the state of California opened another canal, the California Aqueduct, to take water from the Delta to Los Angeles and San Diego. It had its own pumping plant; next to the pumps, a new forebay allowed sediment to settle out of the water before it was sent to the south.

Water export caused unanticipated changes in the Delta’s fluctuating ecology. Sending vast amounts of water to the canals instead of the ocean allowed salt water from San Francisco Bay to migrate upstream. That threatened an old Delta interest, agriculture: salty water in the rivers would produce salty groundwater, and land could quickly become unfit for cultivation.

Beyond that, the force of the pumping changed the direction and quantity of the rivers’ flow significantly enough to confuse the native fish that migrate through the region. Instead of swimming toward the ocean they went into the pumps, and their population began to decline dramatically. That was unacceptable to a newer Delta interest, the environmental movement. Political pressure developed to reduce the ecological cost of the aqueducts. The California Environmental Quality Act of 1964 made the protection of rare and endangered fish species a condition of water export, and new measures were developed to satisfy the law.

Some of the environmental infrastructure was physical, and some of it might be called behavioral. First, enormous screens were installed to remove fish from the mouth of the pumps. Then, a protocol was developed to identify, count, measure, and record the collected fish; to take them in specially adapted tanker trucks across the Delta to a point just above the mouth of the Sacramento, out of reach of the pumps; and to put them back into the river. Even this well-organized, highly choreographed strategy has had unexpected consequences, though. The Delta has a large population of striped bass that were introduced for sport fishing. The fish trucks run on a regular schedule, and they always drop the fish at the same place. The prolific, adaptable striped bass wait at the drop-off point for the trucks, and they eat the fish that have just been rescued from the pumps. So far no interventions have been made to address this development: measures that could eliminate the exotic predators would also destroy the native species whose welfare is a legal mandate.

The interest environmentalists have in protecting endangered fish is not exactly the same as the one that farmers have in keeping their land dry, but both goals share an assumption that people can and should determine an agenda for the landscape and a system of infrastructure to carry it out. The difference lies in what’s wanted from the land: in the face of increasing urbanization and overwhelming technology, our society has begun to care about the idea of nature.

This concern has produced the Delta’s latest paradox: new nature. Unlike older conceptions of nature, new nature does not imply freedom from human control. Instead, it offers an image of the Delta’s past: subsided land is taken out of agricultural production and native wetland plants are grown instead.

New nature is closely tied to new infra- structure. Paying for new nature has become a way of buying more water for export. Funding for many of the projects comes from CALFED, a consortium of state and Federal agencies whose contradictory mandate is to meet the increasing demand for water in Southern California and to maintain and enhance environmental quality in the Delta. CALFED is currently studying the purchase of one of the largest new nature projects, which will transform four very low-lying agricultural islands in the middle of the Delta: two will become wetland areas and two will become reservoirs. In addition, new nature is helping to make possible the development of new infrastructure at the Delta’s perimeter. Developers in nearby cities and suburbs can pay for wetlands projects in the Delta to fulfill legal requirements for environmental mitigation.

Ironically, new nature depends completely on the levee system built to overcome wilderness: without the levees, the Delta’s subsided islands would flood. What uncontrolled nature would pro- duce today is a wild inland sea. It is possible to see unmanaged nature in the Delta: it exists at Franks Tract, a former island that was reclaimed for agriculture and cultivated until 1936. That year the levee was breached and the bowl-shaped interior flooded. Because the cost of repairing the breach and pumping the land dry again was prohibitive, the island remained inundated. The wind conditions in that part of the Delta created waves strong enough to erode the levee from inside, where it was not reinforced, and it deteriorated into small fragments overgrown with cattails and tules. The island has become an open lake with enough erosive force to threaten the levees that protect neighboring farmland. Its agricultural past is under water, and the marshy ecosystem that came before it is irrevocably lost.

There is no end game in the Delta. The cost and difficulty of maintaining the region’s infrastructure are only increasing. On the other hand, if the levees fail and the region is inundated, salt water from San Francisco Bay will migrate upstream. Giving up the struggle would mean losing things that our society wants from the landscape: fertile agricultural land, the remnants of a unique ecosystem, and, not least, the water supply for nearly two thirds of California. Building infrastructure that would guarantee and streamline the export water supply, like a peripheral canal to circumvent the Delta, threatens other uses like agriculture and environmental restoration.

The Delta’s difficult history and uncertain future rest on the same paradox: infrastructure assumes stasis, and the Delta is a system in constant flux. Instead of stopping the natural processes at work there, engineering has made them harder to predict. Trying to control dynamic situations has simply produced new dynamic situations. This messiness is what makes the Delta compelling. It shows us the possibilities and the limits of inhabiting, transforming, and using the landscape.

Share this article: