The City That Never Was: How LA Almost Became New York
February 4, 2013
Pereira & Luckman’s 1952 proposal for LAX would have united LA’s ad-hoc midcentury airport under one giant glass dome.
As modern metropolises go, Los Angeles and New York couldn’t be more different. But it only took a few failed proposals from the early 20th century to send LA into a self-reinforcing spiral of freeways and sprawl. If a couple of prescient planners had had their way, the city might have grown into a model of urbanism besting the Big Apple (or at least Portland), with hundreds of miles of subways and elevated rail, thousands of parks linked by parkways, and even a raised bicycle freeway connecting Pasadena with downtown.
If the Dobbins Cycleway, as it was called, had been approved in 1900, today hundreds of thousands of Angelenos would be cycling to and from work in a bumper-free paradise. ”It’s a very popular commute,” says Sam Lubell, the West Coast editor of the Architect’s Newspaper and a co-curator of the upcoming show “Never Built: Los Angeles.” On view from July 11 to September 15 at the A+D Architecture and Design Museum, the exhibition is part of the megashow Pacific Standard Time, a four-month-long fest of architecture exhibitions and events that kicks off in May. Lubell and his co-curator, the writer Greg Goldin, have launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise the remainder of the money for “Never Built.” Help them succeed, and come July you’ll experience the LA that never was through 3D animations, models, and installations—including an 11-foot-tall rendition of Frank Lloyd Wright fils Lloyd Wright’s 1931 proposal for a Catholic cathedral made from 65,000 LEGOs. Read more!
A 1965 proposal for the Santa Monica Offshore Freeway, which would have linked Malibu and Santa Monica with a freeway built on landfill.
Conceived as an alternative version of LA that visitors can walk through, the show will be organized by a floor map that replicates the layout of the city and guides viewers to the would-be locations of the unbuilt projects. A monorail based on a 1963 plan by the German transportation company Alweg—just one of several monorail proposals that failed over the years—will zip through the space. Spanning more than a century of failed schemes, the show ranges from ambitious proposals that would have remade the city as we know it to recent starchitect-designed buildings that fell victim to the recession. Like a shadow of real LA, unbuilt LA is a veritable zombieland of visionary projects by architectural luminaries and their progeny. Frank Lloyd Wright and son Lloyd Wright, the Olmsted Brothers (whose father was Frederick Law Olmsted), Frank Gehry, John Lautner, Thom Mayne, and Steven Holl are all among the undead. Standing above their unrealized ambitions, a giant graphic-printed column will re-create the Tower of Civilization, a proposal for the 1939 World’s Fair that would have loomed over both the Eiffel Tower and the Empire State Building.
Lloyd Wright’s 1925 master plan for downtown Los Angeles, crowned by a civic center with rooftop runways.
One proposal that would have drastically changed the face of LA, says Lubell, is Lloyd Wright’s 1925 civic center proposal for downtown. With a master plan that created a classical symmetry of civic buildings stepping up the hill, downtown LA would have been a civic monument in its own right. “It would have been like an Acropolis,” says Lubell. “There’s nothing like it really anywhere.” Underground speedways would have made the surface car free. “On the top, he wanted to have airplanes landing and taking off from the rooftops,” adds Lubell. “I don’t know how he would have pulled it off.”
Left: A 1930 parks plan by Frederick Law Olmsted’s sons, the Olmsted Brothers, and Bartholomew and Associates would have transformed LA with a system of thousands of urban parks. Right: In 1925 Kelker and DeLeuw mapped out a public transportation system with 41 miles of subway track and about 240 miles of elevated rail.
If Wright’s plan recalled the classical mode of city-making, the Olmsted Brothers’ proposal for thousands of parks connected by parkways looks, even today, like an urbanist utopia the likes of which we’re still striving for. The city’s Chamber of Commerce commissioned the plan from the Olmsteds in 1930, and it went under consideration. “But then they saw it was much more ambitious than they had ever thought, and they made it disappear,” says Lubell. “It would have without a doubt changed the way the whole city developed. [The city] would have been organized around a series of parks, and it would have been able to contain sprawl in different ways.”
Frank Gehry’s 1978 proposal for an arts park in San Fernando Valley featured solar panels and gigantic fruit.
Perhaps the most loopy design in the show is Frank Gehry’s scheme for a suburban arts park in San Fernando Valley. Tricked out with amphitheaters and a manmade lake, the plan promised a sprawling cultural park embellished with late ’70s novelties, like solar panels on the bandshell. The bandshell’s crown jewel, though, was its tower. “Literally the top was going to be a giant pineapple,” says Lubell. “He said it came to him in a dream. That’s why he put the pineapple on top.”
The Tower of Civilization, proposed for the 1939 World’s Fair, would have loomed over both the Eiffel Tower and the Empire State Building.
In 1947 Frank Lloyd Wright drew up plans for the Huntington Hartford Sports Club. With auditoriums, lounges, tennis courts, and a pool, this complex of cantilevered biomorphic forms would have virtually dangled clubgoers off the side of Runyon Canyon.
The show includes a model of Sunset Mountain, a daring 1966 proposal by DMJM that treated a 60-story building as stairs going up the side of the mountain.
This 2007 building by Morphosis would have attached to Julia Morgan’s Herald-Examiner Building.
The Firestone, designed by B+U in 2009. This mixed-use office building for Downey, California, was a casualty of the recession.
All images courtesy of Sam Lubell and the A+D Architecture and Design Museum