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Right Here, Right ‘Now’

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Thom Mayne slid his lanky 6-foot-5 frame into a seat at a downtown cafe and proceeded to rant about the traffic. He’d just driven from Santa Monica, where Morphosis, his cutting-edge architecture firm, is surrounded by the clutter of the entertainment industry’s burgeoning Westside development. On his way in, he’d battled freeway and surface street logjams for an hour and a half.

He was late and mildly manic as he rushed into the restaurant to meet Richard Koshalek, who is president of Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design and architectural historian Dana Hutt, also from Art Center. Bad traffic was an apt catalyst for the evening’s conversation. The trio had come to talk about “L.A. Now,” a two-volume book, exhibition and film series about Los Angeles that they and a group of architects, designers and photographers, with students from four local universities--Art Center, UCLA, Southern California Institute of Architecture and California Institute of the Arts--have been developing for more than a year. Due to appear in late November, the project is the first major collaboration between Los Angeles’ leading design schools, and Koshalek hopes it will set a precedent.

“L.A. Now” is a snapshot of the region today, compiled in an edgy book of facts, graphic charts and imagery drawn from myriad sources and published by Art Center. Photographers, too, have documented the region, and their images are spiced with quotations from a library of literature about L.A. It will also include a series of urban design proposals by students, among them a plan to graft a version of New York’s Central Park onto downtown L.A. and in the process transform the concrete-lined length of the L.A. River into parklands, a proposal to put public schools in and along Metro Red Line subway stations and a plan to create a high-speed monorail linking a downtown passenger terminal to LAX.

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Mayne, 57, dominates any setting, and his enthusiasm for this project was apparent from the minute he started to talk. His friendly manner, however, was often overwhelmed by his tendency to talk nonstop, hardly catching his breath or taking a bite of food. L.A. is his home turf and a challenge to be conquered, and “L.A. Now” has been a means of reconnection for a man who has worked mostly out of town in recent years.

Born in Connecticut, Mayne has lived here since about age 10, and he knows the place like any near-native, although he says he has become even more engaged as a result of the project. “We were interested in making a book that could only be about L.A.,” Mayne said. “L.A. has a very particular component, it’s a residual of Hollywood--it celebrates the now. It’s definitely the city of the ephemeral, and it’s a historical place, but it somehow balances hedonism and Puritanism. It’s Midwestern to its core; about half of the people in my office are from outside the country, and they’re amazed at the deep social conservatism here.”

Looking at a place as insider and outsider is what architects do when they’re developing any project, and “L.A. Now” has given a large group of people who like to do this kind of analysis some facts to support their theories about the city. Mayne said he impressed upon the students that there was no place in this project for the kind of ego statements designers are famous for. “L.A. Now” would be a collaboration, with no single author.

The book, edited by writer Frances Anderton, is being sent to printers in Germany this week. Its November release will coincide with the project’s other elements--the exhibition of the students’ projects, symposia and showings of related documentary films, to take place in a downtown building destined for demolition.

What started as a millennial concept has evolved into a layered collaborative analysis of a region that is unwieldy, diverse and forever in flux. “It’s just an insane project,” said one of the student collaborators, UCLA architecture graduate Ed Hatcher. He worked on the books and is the author of the LAX/downtown parking proposal. “It’s a massive project that absorbed a lot of energy. But it definitely affects your work, in the broader implications it brought out.”

Hatcher, who is from Seattle, said his previous vision of L.A. was “the postcard kind.” Now he’s had a glimpse of the big picture and believes that the project will offer that larger vision to others as well.

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For example, a chart first published in Wired magazine shows that the amount of electricity needed to power Los Angeles would take care of 35 Nicaraguas. A government list shows that L.A. consumes 818,349 chickens per day, 22,798 cows and 11.2 million bowls of rice.

“There are at least a dozen streets in Los Angeles named Central,” author Bernard Cooper wrote in last year’s “Guess Again: Short Stories,” one of many quotes about the city in the book. “From an urban planning standpoint, this defeats the very idea of the plaza, the city square, the convergence of far-flung neighborhoods into a single place. Naming more than one street Central is like calling all of your children Fred.”

Despite all the data between its covers, “L.A. Now” is not an almanac, however, and it comes with a disclaimer: “This book,” the first volume states, “should not be used for bets and wagers.” According to the book, the L.A. regional population of more than 13 million is 3.8 times the size of Oklahoma and 20.4 times that of North Dakota. But how true will those 2000 census numbers be tomorrow? And will the Fortune 500 companies listed as headquartered in Southern California still be here when this book comes out? If the picture can’t be pinned down, is it worth making?

Such questions are the foundation of “L.A. Now.” The project was conceived by Koshalek, who, as longtime director of the Museum of Contemporary Art and now as president of Art Center has been an aggressive advocate for architecture and downtown revitalization. He enlisted Mayne, whose firm is, among other things, a contender to redesign the campus of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, as well as a new Caltrans building downtown.

With a short deadline and what Koshalek called a “shoestring budget” raised from local foundations, developers and L.A.’s Community Redevelopment Agency, “L.A. Now” was a labor of love.

UCLA and SCI-Arc architecture students compiled research and developed their own projects; Art Center photography, film and environmental design students created images for the books, designed the exhibition and documented the project’s process. CalArts graphic design students designed the books under the guidance of Lorraine Wild. A team of Morphosis architects--led by Julianna Morais--also participated.

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The students sought to assemble as many perspectives on the region as possible, including comparing two years’ worth of photos published in the glossy Los Angeles magazine to the same years’ images in the grittier L.A. Weekly. The radical differences between the two, he says, represent the city’s split personality.

“L.A. has a sleaziness, most of the money here is not only extremely new money, but it’s also often from various dubious means, whether it’s film, or it’s drugs or it’s real estate. They’re all the same,” Mayne said. “There’s a dramatically different culture here, and it finds its way all the way down the food chain.”

One telling illustration is a photo series Edit Kozma shot over two months along a straight line from the beach to the desert, each image taken a half-kilometer apart. There is a drama and yet a plainness to the way the mountainous terrain evolves into suburban sprawl, dense urban fabric, more suburbia and again into rural spread, with pockets of enormous luxury and worn-down industrial waste along the way.

This is one way the book differs from the coffee-table books on Los Angeles that already fill so many bookshelves. Artistic in its design, it has some of the feel of an academic study or a bureaucratic report, but because it was made by architects, designers and urban planners, every aspect is stylishly presented.

Koshalek’s goal was to use “L.A. Now” to break through the cloistered atmosphere of academia. “My feeling is colleges have to have convictions, but they also have to have civic responsibility,” he said.

For Hatcher, the project was a learning experience and a tool for future exploration. “Being an architecture student, you’re always looking for facts. Now, instead of making architectural guesses, you can actually see what’s happening.” Hatcher, who received his master’s this spring, is now working at Morphosis.

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Patrick McEneany, of the L.A. firm Greg Lynn FORM, was in his final year at UCLA when he joined Mayne’s class. He moved to L.A. from New York seven years ago. In collaboration with his fellow UCLA student, Susan Wong, he picked up on the much-explored theme of how to turn the banks of the L.A. River to green parkland. They have proposed “a 900-acre project that would reclaim abandoned industrial areas, and link two of L.A.’s largest parks--Elysian and Griffith--via the landscaped and expanded banks of the Los Angeles River.” They propose using funds that have already been allocated by voters for parkland.

“Within the realm of a graduate design project, it’s at a visionary scale,” McEneany admitted, but they wanted to get some discussion going. Mayne said they’ve shown this and other projects to city leaders and hope that the exhibition and related town-hall style meetings in November will bring such ideas to larger audiences.

For students especially, there were some hurdles. The various schools’ terms don’t coincide, for one, so students had trouble coordinating schedules. And students’ skills varied. “We had to accept the limitations of working with students,” said book designer Wild. In the end, she said, a group of three students laid out much of the book on her dining room table, working frantically into the summer months when other students had moved on.

For Wild, one of the most sought-after art and design book designers in the country, the process was frantic but rewarding. “It sent me back to looking at a lot of the literature of the city and helped me come to grips with the history and culture of L.A.,” she said. “It’s really hard to depict.”

Mayne, for his part, is not letting “L.A. Now” go, even as he reviews final proofs. “I’m not sure I can ever leave this,” he said as he finished dinner surrounded by downtown’s bright lights. “I’m still working on the title. I’m realizing that ‘L.A. Now’ is way too definitive. I’m realizing that I’m still collecting pictures. It’s gotten to the point that I read the newspaper differently. I’ve decided that if this first edition sells well, I’m going to put a second edition out.”

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