City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Postopolis! LA, day one / Los Angeles

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(Photos to follow when I get some bandwidth)

Los Angeles is clearly wrong. It’s utterly fascinating. I love it.

I arrive at LAX, this time after a mere 7-hour delay due to the baggage handlers’ strike in Sydney (My luck is not in these days. Though it’s all further grist to my mill that commercial aviation is brittle, as Richard Sennet might say, to breaking point.)

The jetlag’s not too bad. The 18-hour time difference actually seems to displace less than the 11-hour Aus-Europe shift. The cultural disorientation is vast though, most immediately wrought by the radical urban form and then unfolding more discreetly across numerous small signs. It’s an amazing place.

Save a brief visit a few years ago all my understandings of LA were largely vicarious, derived from  Raymond Chandler, James Ellroy, Ed Soja, Mike Davis, Michael Mann, hip-hop, West Coast jazz, Grand Theft Auto San Andreas, Zappa, Beefheart and Van Dyke Parks, Laurel & Hardy, Case Study Houses, Charles and Ray Eames, Arts and Architecture, Chinatown, Barrio Nuevo, Joan Didion, Blade Runner, Rudolf Schindler, film noir, Rudy Vanderlans, Suzanna Licko and Emigre magazine, California Über Alles, Frank Lloyd Wright, Neil Young, Ry Cooder, Joni Mitchell, Ed Ruscha, William Gibson, Reyner Banham, David Hockney, lame TV and most films. When you experience a city for the first time you are primed by the existing cultural output of that city. With LA that’s more than most. But even a weekend in LA was a sudden revelation, as if all these elements had been re-animated and exaggerated, and then rapidly overtaken by the reality of it all.

This time however I felt a little more prepared, as nearly 2 years in Sydney has given me an personal understanding of what 300 days of sunshine per year feels like, what a car-based infrastructure of asphalt does to public space, the dry scrubby terrain of the bush, the incipient threat of fire, spotty copses of palm trees and eucalypts set against perfect blue skies, the cerulean Pacific and long white beaches within reach, a fistful of dollars and shopping malls, the preponderance of ‘California bunglows’ as we call them in Australia but also thrusting central business districts in glass and steel, pervasive deployment of sunglasses, and some subtle similarities in culture which shifted Australia closer to the US and further from Europe throughout the latter half of the 20th century.

It still shocks. It’s still so radically different for the European. The flight descending over the city, through the yellowy haze and over endless brown and grey grids of low-rise – so different to landing amidst Sydney’s greenery and deep blue harbour – and then the slow drive from the airport – was it a 10- or 12-lane highway? One loses track – through flat plains of housing with downtown impossibly distant on the hazy horizon. It looks like the Emerald City, which is hardly surprising when you think about it.

You can immediately see why it appealed to Reyner Banham, as it’s so radically different to England. Progressive through constant reinvention, in a particular way that cannot occur in the UK. Yet I often find it appalling too. You’re disarmed and charmed, then despairing and confused, often within seconds of each other. There’s no reason for this city to be here at all, and yet it’s this constantly growing and transformed mass of humanity. The constant contradiction of LA is almost overwhelming.

As soon as I get here, it’s down to business (I’m here for Postopolis! LA – see below), but then later, a late night walk with Bryan Finoki is becoming something of a PostOps tradition, though it wasn’t the magnitude of the 80-block walk we did in Manhattan. We were searching for food, this time heading downtown from The Standard hotel through into what’s known as the ‘Historic Core’, which is an odd name for a bit of the central business district but somehow apt for LA.

This area is fascinating. As with most of downtown LA at this time of night, it’s easy to see where George A. Romero would get visions of zombies stumbling around deserted city streets. Aside from the rats in a small park nearby, animation is supplied by lost tourists, drunk people and the homeless, but otherwise the streets are essentially empty. The homeless people are far more visible than in Australian cities – more at the levels of London. It’s heartbreaking to be reacquainted with the human fallout from what Saskia Sassen called the ‘trickle-up’ effect. But this is America in a peculiar mode, on the day the government intervenes to remove the aptly-named Rick Wagoner from GM and the Los Angeles Times wonders breathlessly if this might be evidence of some peculiar overseas practice known as ‘industrial policy’.

The global financial crisis may indeed put the brakes onto this local downtown’s transformation. For as we walk around it is clearly being transformed, and in the classic manner, too: loft conversions of industrial-era building stock. It may have taken LA longer to get to this stage, after an abortive attempt in the mid-1980s, but it’s here certainly now and the downtown is (apparently) quite different to that of a few years earlier. The next few years will be interesting. It’s still very quiet, eerily so for an American city. Though there are variations here too, with cardboard cities around the corner from lofts, and the outer edges of the core butting up against livelier bits of town. LA, even the downtown, is too complex and variegated to pinpoint so easily.

On day one of the conference (Tuesday) I go for a longer walk during the warm winter day. I’m heading for a couple of buildings, and some sense of the surrounding area. Within a couple of hundred metres I’m lost, up onto a podium, and then down into a strange leftover bit of urban junkspace underneath two freeways. Laughably there are some benches provided here. I then walk through a tunnel built for cars, a dark busy road with extraordinary sound (un)design, and with a cursory gesture of a footpath thrown in alongside. Walking around LA is difficult at the best of times but I didn’t expect to be dissuaded by the infrastructure quite so easily. (It gets better later, folks.)

I press on, and emerge amidst car parks – I’d love to map how much of central LA is devoted to car parking space – and the Walt Disney Concert Hall up a short climb. I saw this well-known Frank Gehry building last time but wanted another look. There are elements of it I love, particularly the outdoor landscaped garden, where the trees in the northern hemisphere’s spring throw perfect shapes and silhouettes against the building. The garden is not fully public, disappointingly, as it has opening hours. But it’s a lovely space. The building itself is intriguing but I’m underwhelmed by it overall. Again, it’s difficult to get into – unlike elements of, say, London’s Festival Hall it doesn’t really offer much to the casual public visitor, nor much of a programme outside of performance times. That’s the wrong way to handle such a potentially important bit of civic architecture these days. There’s a restaurant of course, but that’s a little ‘sealed’, and compared to the Sydney Opera House on an average week-day, it’s practically deserted.

Formally there are some great moments, and of course it’s easy to frame it beautifully against the clear blue sky, though it integrates/frames the surround
ing city less well. I’m interested in connections between buildings to create civic relationships, and this doesn’t do much of that. In fact, the mirrored metal has had its shine removed on one entire side of the building, in order to prevent heat gain in the apartments opposite (you can see the ‘join’) and the temperature around the foyer must be about 5 degrees hotter due to the reflected winter sun.

There’s a new Accura parked on an advertising stand in one of the foyers and it’s impossible not to see the similarities in form between car design and architecture here, though the car is arguably far more advanced.




Still, it sits atop a hill which has room for development all around. When a few of these parking lots get reclaimed for genuinely useful urban life, the building might feel very different, as the Guggenheim Bilbao does within its urban context.

Walking down E 1st Street, I wander past the LA Times building (including the fantastic globe in the deco foyer, not a patch on the former Daily Express building but good all the same) and towards the massive Caltrans building by Morphosis (Arup worked on this too).

This building dis where Gehry’s Walt disnae. I’m genuinely excited by this building. While it could use a bit more colour, perhaps a touch more wit to leaven an appearance some locals have unfairly likened to the Death Star, it’s a defiantly early 21st century building. In fact, it reminds me of the Pompidou to some extent, a defiantly late 20th century building. Where the Pompidou fore-grounded its late-20th century service infrastructure, Rogers and Piano declaring the importance of flexibility in the interior space, the modular nature of the building, and the services of the time dominating the form on the exterior, this building is entirely oriented and constructed with 21st century service infrastructure in mind i.e. here, the facility for natural air cooling and inherent thermal capacity dominates the form, rather than air-conditioning. It’s tall and thin to enable natural ventilation; its ‘windowless’ appearance (actually a tight metal gauze laid over large windows) enables protection from the Californian sun. Again the wit and colour of the Pompidou isn’t here, but this is firmly progressive building indicating building types and a more sustainable services infrastructure.

It’s a hulking structure, admittedly, but closer up there are some lovely details, not least the fine mesh, but also wood-blocked concrete. Outside, there are several good, linked public spaces – an open courtyard with street furniture inviting people to sit, an internal courtyard under the large atrium through the middle of the building, and what looks like a bank of stepped seating. Compared to LA Live, this is (ironically) a more carefully thought-through place for people to hang out. Compared to the percepitble heat gain generated by the Walt Disney Concert Hall, this is a more thoughtful approach to the climate, too.

That’s how I felt about the buildings – I also took photos of the Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Caltrans building.

I then wander back via Little Tokyo and the Toy District, where I see a bit of real life for the first time. The latter in particular is fascinating, and some evidence perhaps of Mike Davis’s Magical Urbanism thesis of a few years ago. It’s all low-rise shop units, packed full of every flavour of tat you can imagine. A bit scruffy and low-rent but absolutely full of life. The streets here are almost pedestrianised too, or at least Mondernam-style ‘shared space’, due to the activity spilling out on them. People are selling everything everywhere, talking and laughing, playing music. While I don’t need "cigarette lighter for a dollar" right now, this bit of downtown feels like a city.

I’m in Los Angeles for Postopolis! LA, the second in our ad-hoc series of urban conferences, co-organised by the Storefront for Art & Architecture in NYC and Geoff Manaugh (BLDGBLOG), Bryan Finoki (Subtopia), Jace Clayton (Mudd Up!/DJ Rupture), Regine Debatty (We Make Money Not Art), David Basulto (Plataforma Arquitectura) and while we’re here in LA, ForYourArt.

For the first Postopolis! in NYC (May 2007), I wrote notes on a good proportion of the speakers and I’m trying to do the same here. For those that thought I would be ‘live-blogging’, well I never actually did that in NYC. There was always a delay, as I’d try to write something with a bit of distance and reflection, even if it’s only that afforded by 24 hours largely doing other things. So the same applies here, and expect notes emerging from now on for the course of the event and beyond.

For a real-time Postopolis LA experience, you will no doubt already know you can watch live streaming video on the Storefront site here and follow the Twitter feed here. There is also a Flickr pool here for photos and Gaia Cambiaggi is taking photos too.

And of course if you’re in or near LA, do come down – we’re coming from the rooftop bar at The Standard hotel in downtown LA. Entrance is free, talks start from 5pm, though do get here early to get a good spot and before the paid entrance on Friday and Saturday evenings.

The rooftop itself is a fairly amazing space, and while there were a few options here in LA, this is the place to do it. It pushes us up to the midriff of some of the surrounding skyscrapers, though barely the knee of others, and feels suitably cinematic. We must be, oh, 20 storeys up? Sirens echo through the streets below. Helicopters often buzz overhead, searchlights sweeping across the buildings (who are they looking for? Spiderman?), and as night falls the light show from the gang of skyscrapers surrounding us is quite something.

It gets very cold on the first night though. Properly cold. Not London cold, but Melbourne cold. Foolishly, I’d turned up without a jacket so my fingers begin to slow down over the keyboard by about 8pm. Will we ever get the temperature right at Postopolis? New York was so hot, and this first Tuesday night is freezing. Yet people rug up – sometimes literally, with rugs from the hotel – and we make it through a good first night.

Stand out speakers for me were Patrick Keller, Michael Dear and Jeffrey Inaba, though all are interesting. Notes to follow. There’s a great turn-out tonight – the rooftop is packed – so many thanks to all that turned up

As ever, the ‘show’ evolves throughout the evening. The audio needs constant tuning. We realise we need lights for the subsequent days, as the speakers disappear in the gloom later on. We start at 5pm, when the sun is still bright, and so use a plasma to display presentations until about 7.30, when it’s dark enough to use the projector. The streaming seems to be working OK, with hundreds watching. Amazingly, the whole thing is working via a cord flung down the facade of the building and in through a hotel room window to an ethernet socket …

Then we move downstairs to a slightly over-warm, under-lit room. Now the mics don’t work. This is part of the charm of the PostOps brand, one might say. Down here, the presentations are by Joseph Grima from Storefront for Art and Architecture, who has brought the whole thing together in his typically calm, capable and insightful manner, and Bettina Korek from ForYourArt who have been fantastically supportive and generous in co-hosting the event here. The bloggeurs, as Regine would say, then do a turn about their respective work. I won’t bother to detail these presentations, as you can read the blogs. We finished up late, nearly midnight.

I did particularly appreciate Joseph Grima’s ideas that Postopolis! is becoming like some kind of beneficient pyramid sales scheme, in that the 6 of us emanate out from the Storefront, and then we invite/curate a wider set of participants, and then communicate further to an even wider audience via the internet. As he said, “it’s like a Ponzi scheme for ideas … although as it’s ideas we can’t go bankrupt.”

Speakers for day one of Postopolis! LA:

  • Fritz Haeg Artist and Writer
  • Patrick Keller Architect and Principal, Fabric
  • Yo-Ichiro Hakomori Architect and Principal, wHY Architecture
  • Dwayne Oyler Architect and Principal, Oyler Wu Collaborative
  • Michael Dear Professor of Geography, USC
  • Jeffrey Inaba Architect and Principal, Inaba Projects
  • Joseph Grima Storefront for Art and Architecture / Bettina Korek ForYourArt
  • Geoff Manaugh BLDGBLOG / David Basulto Plataforma Arquitectura / Bryan Finoki Subtopia
  • Jace Clayton mudd up! / Dan Hill City of Sound / Régine Debatty we make money not art


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