3 Quotes this week

Los Angeles is 72 suburbs in search of a city.” Dorothy Parker

Tip the world over on its side and everything loose will land in Los Angeles.” Frank Lloyd Wright

I love Los Angeles. I love Hollywood. They’re beautiful. Everybody’s plastic, but I love plastic. I want to be plastic.” Andy Warhol

Los Angeles – design city of the present

 Last week's Design Notes looked at Los Angeles. Established in just 50 years from 1920s to the 1970s, it then appeared to be the city of the future, especially through the eyes of Reyner Banham and his ‘four ecologies of Surfurbia, Foothills, the Plains of ID and Autopia’.

More recently, critics such as Mike Davis, with his books including City of Quartz, have seen it crashing back to the present, discussing its negative aspects, the deep social inequality and the physical degradation wrought by its car-based culture and freeways.

Los Angeles is no longer a city of the future. Look to Osaka or Freiburg or Curitiba for that - cities using a real ecological base, not the parsing ecologies identified by Banham. But if we seek solutions to some of the here and now issues, then LA has much to teach us. It is very much a leading city of the present.

Many architects and urban planners think it is the world’s armpit, but Los Angeles has always had a deep design-based culture, even if not recognised. The city thrives on being a hotbed of innovation. Think:

  • Housing experimentation led by the ‘big name modernists’ in the 1920s and 30s,
  • Refined for the everyday in the Case Study homes;
  • The invention of Hollywood, then it look, first by set designers, later by digital artists
  • Creating a world of theme parks through the invention of Disneyland;
  • The urban graphics and photography of Ed Ruscha and Dennis Hopper;
  • Pasadena ArtCenter College of Design, arguably the world’s best auto design school.
  • On that last point: cars made in Modena, Detroit or Seoul are often designed by LA grads.

LA can be both endlessly frustrating but equally fascinating and quite instructive. Here are a few of my favourite snapshots to chase.

The Metro

"The deep stranglehold of the freeway has been broken in the last 15 years with the development of the LA Metro system connecting the major ‘villages’ within Los Angeles. Its intended expansion by 2040 is quite remarkable. Even more so is the sight of Metro carriages speeding fast past the stalled freeway traffic. If the home of the freeway has effectively abandoned them in favour of electrified public transport, what lessons does that have for us?

Communal courtyard houses

In the late 20s Nina and Arthur Zwebell, a design/build husband and wife team, innovated a cross-cultural typology new to LA: housing grouped around a courtyard in a Spanish mission style. The houses are modest, facing landscaped court that gives communal access to the front doors, sometimes with a private outdoor space to the rear. Think Naomi Watts’ character exiting one in the movie Mulholland Drive.

The Spanish influenced aesthetic, from Baja California, is climatically appropriate: dark shaded porches and balconies, solid walls (albeit stucco on wood frames) with small, deep revealed openings, high ceilings and cross ventilation. Always sought after and a typology now returning, and one that would be eminently suited to temperate Australia, substituting an updated Federation / Queen Anne (or FedQA) for the SpanMiss.

Medium Density Housing

It's surprises many to know that the housing density in LA is twice that of Sydney or Melbourne, largely due to low rise walk-ups and modest scaled apartment buildings or condominiums. The revival started in the 1980s with the work of Rebecca Binder (and others) whose creativity was somewhat obscured by shadows cast by Tom Mayne, Eric Owen Moss et al.

The typology is carried forward today in schemes by Lorcan O'Herlihy and BrooksScarpa, amongst others. Many of these projects have a modesty of form and a lightness of touch that seems to be missing in`Australian schemes.

Housing the Homeless

All big American cities have many homeless. They live in the urban cracks, which are vast in LA: culverts under freeways, abandoned lots, streets in downtown. There’s an almost complete lack of public housing, but philanthropic organizations stepping in to fill that void. One architect, Michael Maltzan, has designed several of these housing schemes, always with wrap-around services, such as this jagged roundish scheme close to the freeways in downtown.

Maltzan had come to LA to work with Gehry on Disney Hall (another design marker), went solo, worked on some glamour homes which brought him into the orbit of the rich, who are often philanthropically minded, which led to the commissions for homeless shelters. Would that we could see a progression for some of our best architects in an arc like this.


LA has been a pioneer in the development of the modern, stripped back contemporary hotel. It can be said to start in 1999 with The Standard on Sunset Boulevard, developed by Andre Balzas, with no nonsense finishes, more crisp design, less of the usual flourishes.  When extended to The Standard Downtown the young, dynamic ethic was carried through to the rooftop bar with Blade Runner projected onto the blank side of a nearby building. The Ace Hotel, started in Seattle, fits right into the ethos in Downtown LA, as it has at the Ace Sydney.


Two books on the under-regarded architect of first-past-the-post modernism in 80s LA, through to the stripped modernism of the 00’ties. Very much worth hunting down. I was, and remain, a big fan.

Signs off

LA downtown is often used as a film set. What you thought were the brownstones of New York, is in fact downtown LA. The 19th C Bradbury Building features at the end of Blade Runner, where Ridley Scott’s vision of the future was a giant complex city with flying cars. The Australian version from the same early 80s was the wild car-based antagonistic culture of Mad Max, the semi-deserted outback.

Next week

Is there any future for the architectural profession in Australia?

Tone Wheeler is an architect /adjunct prof UNSW / president AAA.

The views expressed are his.

These Design Notes are Tone on Tuesday #188, week 46/2023.

Past Tone on Tuesday columns can be found here

Past A&D Another Thing columns can be found here

You can contact TW at [email protected]