Best (and worst) of 2008: Architecture

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China stood astride the architecture world this year. Its Olympic class of landmarks offered a dizzying range of styles -- some sleek, some daring and some thoroughly conventional -- and at least three individual buildings destined for a place in architectural history: Herzog & de Meuron’s Bird’s Nest stadium; PTW Architects’ National Aquatics Center, home of Michael Phelps’ triumphs and universally known as the Water Cube; and the Moebius strip-inspired CCTV headquarters by Rem Koolhaas and Ole Scheeren of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, which won’t be entirely complete for another several months but already ranks as the most significant piece of architecture of our young century.

Soaring Chinese ambition, its sizzling economy (which has since dramatically cooled), bold use of new engineering and the rise of world-famous starchitects came together to produce a group of buildings -- avant-garde and unapologetically monumental at the same time -- the likes of which we may never see in China, or elsewhere, again.


In this country, 2008 was dominated by presidential politics, and the campaign was not without its startling architectural moments. When Barack Obama decided to move his convention speech to 71,000-seat Invesco Field, he stole a page from McKim, Mead and White, emerging onto a stage lined with a colonnade and meant to look like a cross between the Lincoln Memorial and the White House. We’ll never know for sure how many votes the backdrop won or lost for Obama, but the set design likely ranks as the most ambitious use of architectural symbolism in the history of American presidential politics.

After his November victory, Obama quickly announced he’d be creating a new Office of Urban Policy, a reflection of his roots in Chicago and an encouraging sign that cities will move back onto the Washington agenda. Combined with Obama’s promised infrastructure package, which may pour billions of dollars into cities for bridge, tunnel, roadway and transit improvements, the new urban czar will no doubt provide a shot in the arm for civic design and city planning.

The election provided a similar boost for Los Angeles, as two transit measures -- L.A. County’s Measure R and California’s Proposition 1A -- won approval. Both promise to have a real influence not just on how we move around the city but also on the vitality and maturation of L.A.'s shared spaces.

The most significant building in Los Angeles was not a completed structure at all but a proposed one -- and one, moreover, that has been laid low by the credit crunch. Jean Nouvel’s so-called Green Blade condo tower in Century City, announced with slick fanfare and spectacular renderings in February, offered an engaging picture of lush density, seeming to bridge the gap between high-rise and garden living. Like many big-ticket projects now on hold, it may never find financing. But simply as a design it was a psychological breakthrough, helping us imagine a future of verdant high-rise living.

The restoration project at the 1911 Huntington Art Gallery had none of the celebrity power or glitz of a Nouvel design, but it was a revelation all the same. Overseen by the Earl Corp. and San Francisco’s Architectural Resources Group, the preservation work has clarified the building’s dual role as a house-turned-museum more effectively than ever.

In San Francisco, Renzo Piano rebounded from his disappointing Broad Contemporary Art Museum building at LACMA with the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park. Full of inventive, sustainable-design strategies and topped with an undulating green roof, the academy, ungainly and even unresolved in places, offered an honest, compelling snapshot of a profession still struggling to bring together its high-design avant-garde with its ecological true believers.


Will it surprise you to hear I am nominating L.A. Live? I mention the downtown mega-development again not to pile on but to clarify the role of criticism in and about this city. Among the scores of e-mails I received after panning the project’s sterile second phase in early December was a handful of notes wondering why I had even bothered.

Wasn’t L.A. Live, certain readers wondered, somehow naturally immune from such criticism? Since it didn’t aspire to the status of great architecture, wasn’t I missing the point?

For decades we’ve had that attitude about unabashedly commercial stand-alone developments. We’ve assumed that they somehow stood outside the realm of ‘real’ city-making, whatever that means in a place such as Southern California, and therefore weren’t worth sustained critical attention. But what happens when we wake up, as a city, and realize that to a large degree we’ve constructed an entire metropolis out of such monuments? It’s time to admit that we are L.A. Live, and L.A. Live is us -- and that a little self-analysis might be a productive thing in the end.

-- Christopher Hawthorne

Top photo: CCTV headquarters in Beijing; credit: Goh Chai Hin / AFP/Getty Images. Bottom photo: L.A. Live; credit: Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times