Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Los Angeles Urban Design and the Location of the County Museum of Art

[Note: Tom Duff points out that methane is odourless, and that I probably smelt sulfur dioxide around the museum.  So I have changed this post to reflect that except in the case of the exploding methane detectors, where I am sure it was methane that was referenced.]

Many people who are not from Southern California do not understand Los Angeles (aka El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles). They look at it with unpracticed eyes and see a rotting heap of garbage, smog, corruption, greed, racism, oppression of the poor, a failed public education system, unplanned and impossible traffic, a failed transit system, pot holes, drug dealers, crime, cheap and bad architecture and very shallow people.

But that is not all that there is to LA, not at all. I believe that Los Angeles is pure and unspoiled and completely true to its values. I believe that a city is created by thousands or hundreds of thousands of decisions made by its people over many, many years. And that these decisons made by these different people in different roles at different times create a kind of gestalt, a framework in which to fit the individual pieces. When you understand this, then one can see the patterns and beliefs that shaped a decision and so bring order to what may otherwise appear to be chaos.

In other words, Los Angeles is exactly the way that the people who live here want it to be. It represents their morals, their desires, their beliefs and their values. It represents who they are honestly and in a straightforward fashion for all to see.

So now I am going apply this thesis of urban design theory in order to explain a specific decision: the location of one of my favorite places in Los Angeles: the Los Angeles County Museum of Art or LACMA.

Why is it where it is? Why isn't it in scummy downtown Los Angeles, or in the crime-invested park next to USC? What is it doing conveniently located to people who live on the west side, people who live in Hancock Park, people who live in the Valley, people who live in the beach cities? Why is it located where the air is often clean and crime is low and parking is convenient yet where real estate is certainly not cheap? How did "they" let this happen?

LACMA is an anomaly in many ways. It is an institution esteemed across generations in Los Angeles and it has affected many people's lives in a very positive way. I used to attend film programs there in the Bing Theatre and that is where I have seen many notable screenings of animation of various types on film projected from pristine prints from the UCLA Collection. The plaza in the center of the common area of LACMA is the closest thing that the region has to something that feels like NY City: people hang out outside in a well-designed space, listen to music, talk about art, watch people and have a soda. Although the collection is uneven, it certainly is not the Metropolitan, it has its strong areas and it has curated some important exhibitions over the years which have toured the country and probably the world.

Notice the probable Hasselblad square format.  I saw some originals from this or a similar photoshoot in the cafe of the Bing theatre and they were all in this square, probable 6x6 format.

When I was very young my mother used to take me to art classes there. I smile when I remember the Calder mobiles, the smell of petroleum byproducts, visiting my grandmother, having lunch above the Folk and Craft Art museum at The Egg and I.

The smell of petroleum byproducts?

Yes, you see LACMA is located right next to, and actually on top of, the La Brea Tar Pits. Tar and various other petroleum byproducts ooze, bubble and outgas all around the park. There used to be moats, shallow sidewalk shaped pools of water, around the main buildings of the art museum, on the ground floor, where the art classes were, and you could watch the sulfur dioxide, or whatever it was, bubble up through the water. I loved it. You had to be careful not to walk with bare feet on the grass because of the tar that oozed up, but otherwise it was great fun if you were a kid.

Mommy!  Look!  Elephants playing in the Tar Pits!

In fact, most of the area around the Tar Pits can only be developed with special restrictions and with special monitoring and controls because of this geology. The Fairfax district, right next door, used to be a neighborhood for many elderly jewish men and women. And every few years a few of them would blow up, because, unfortunately, the methane detectors in the basement of their apartment buildings would sometimes fail, the methane would accumulate, and then BOOM, another few old people would explode. Everyone felt bad about it, but we all understood, growing up here, that methane detectors are expensive and it would not be economical to expect them to be working all the time. 

When a major and ugly development a few blocks away was built it required a major amount of special zoning exemptions to get permission to build where they did because of the special restrictions and requirements of building on what is essentially a low grade oil field.

So I am suggesting that the answer to the riddle of how it is that LACMA came to be where it is has its origins in the restrictions on commercial use of that site.  They would not be permitted to put commercial buildings there, not at the epicenter, not right on top of the Tar Pits themselves, so they just made it a park and put the art museum there.

And that, I propose to you, is how it happened. If they could have put another cheap, shitty mini-mall there they would have, but they couldn't.

True to their values.  Pure and Unspoiled.   

Today, whenever I smell petroleum byproducts, I think of my childhood and of my mother taking me to the art museum for classes and it reminds me of happier times.

See the following for a discussion of the deeper meaning of the La Brea Tar Pits

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