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Building Type: Introducing a weekly column on architecture

It’s easy these days to think of California as a republic unto itself, declaring its political and cultural independence at every opportunity, zigging as Donald Trump’s America zags. But the state’s biggest city has  at least one important thing in common with the country as a whole as we move into 2017: a sense of upheaval and dramatic flux, of old assumptions turned inside out.

Los Angeles is in the midst of its biggest construction boom in decades. County voters just passed (with 71% approval) a sales-tax hike that will raise a staggering $100-billion war chest for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. It’s no exaggeration to say that a new Los Angeles — taller and less suburban, with a dramatically expanded transit network — is taking shape.

Its emergence, though, has provoked a backlash that from certain angles looks a lot like an existential crisis. On the same Tuesday in March that will see Mayor Eric Garcetti facing no real opposition for reelection, L.A. voters will consider Measure S (once known as the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative), which calls for a two-year moratorium on major new development projects.

Its backers say new construction is out of control — and out of scale with historically low-rise Los Angeles. What they can’t quite bring themselves to say is that the measure itself is an expression of mourning for an L.A. that is already dead, a city of single-family subdivisions, highway construction, discriminatory zoning and free parking that worked (to the degree that it ever did) only as long as the region continued to sprawl voraciously at the edges.

A few days from now in Washington, a New York City real-estate developer — a man who has feuded publicly with architecture critics throughout his career, campaigned on a promise to build a border wall and may spurn the insufficiently gilded White House as a primary residence — will be sworn in as president. His strongest electoral support came from parts of the country that have been drained of jobs and investment as America’s coastal cities have boomed.

Los Angeles is rediscovering its sense of civic ambition even as Trump seems ready to turn the country inward and exploit, if not provoke, tensions with foreign powers. L.A. is a city on the verge in a nation that may begin to feel consistently on the brink.

For all those reasons it seems a good moment to announce that I’ll be appearing every week in this space, writing a column that will consider contemporary architecture on the broadest of terms. Some weeks I’ll look closely at a single new building or architect’s body of work, other weeks at a book or museum show on architecture or the production design of a new movie or TV series. The column will be a place to communicate with Times readers, publish Q&As with the most intriguing figures in the field and flag upcoming architecture events.

Subject matter won’t be hard to come by: In the next few months alone we’ll see the opening of the new Wilshire Grand tower in downtown L.A. — the tallest building on the West Coast, if only thanks to its spire — and the Marciano Art Foundation on Wilshire Boulevard. Over the course of 2017 we’ll hear (or need to press for) updates on redesign efforts at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Union Station, Silver Lake Reservoir and Pershing Square. This year also marks the 20th anniversary of the opening of Richard Meier’s Getty Center and Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, as well as the 150th birthday of Frank Lloyd Wright.

Airbnb, Y Combinator, Google spinoff Sidewalk Labs and other tech giants have launched initiatives that will move them directly into the realm of architecture and urban planning. And in making plans to spend that $100 billion, Metro will take its place among the most important patrons of public architecture and urban design in Los Angeles history, hardly a role the agency has embraced so far.

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As much as it will have a natural Southern California and West Coast focus, the column is also meant to boost a national and international conversation about contemporary architecture. The profession finds itself at a pivotal moment, having finally moved past the obsession with celebrity architects and icon-making that defined it for the better part of two decades. Now a rising generation of architects is shaping new priorities for the field, paring down the forms of their buildings even as they broaden their social, political and environmental goals. Their work needs more attention and sharper analysis.

There’s no manifesto here to launch the column, no call for a radical rethinking of architecture criticism. But it’s become clear in recent weeks that we desperately need, at the very least, to get a better handle on the relationship between power and place: between metropolitan centers like Los Angeles and London, which increasingly see themselves as city-states, and the pull of nostalgic, often baldly racist nationalism; between a vision of infrastructure vulnerable to being looted by profiteers versus a sturdier notion of public works; and between two very different contemporary expressions of the collective, the hopeful kind we’ve recently seen filling the streets of Seoul and Mexico City and the trollish kind capable of flooding, if not drowning, online culture.

If your definition of the field is elastic enough — and I hope to use this space to stretch mine as far as it will reasonably go — architecture can help you think in new ways about every one of those issues. In that sense it’s a sort of universal key. Or at least a way to pick more than one lock at the same time.

christopher.hawthorne@latimes.com

Twitter: @HawthorneLAT

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