Before the bus even rolled out of the Art Center campus in Pasadena a little past 9 on a recent Saturday morning, local urban theorist Norman Klein began giving the 10 students on board lesson No. 1 on understanding Los Angeles: The most prevalent visions the world has of this megalopolis -- the tourist play land, the capital of celebrity -- are manufactured myths.
“So what is this place?” Klein asked through the bus microphone. “How do you begin to see things? Can you spot the ironies, the splits, the breaks, the tears? Is it possible to be able to see the layers hidden behind these obvious layers, the layer of film imagery and the layer of this kind of tourist imaginary city.”
Klein, who teaches at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, then dove into a short course in Los Angeles’ boomtown history, how transplanted boosters sparked a rather crooked process by which a riverside Spanish village in arid Southern California turned into a relentlessly expanding metropolis.
This was the fourth bus tour that Klein and Art Center College of Design faculty member Peter Lunenfeld organized for the incoming students in the center’s media design graduate program.
The goal is to introduce new design students to the idea that Los Angeles can be a wellspring for creative inspiration if they know where to look, and more importantly, how.
So the students -- from such places as Dubai, Portugal, Colorado and Santa Monica -- spent the day visiting public sites that typify the instructors’ view that the city is a reflection of postmodernism’s highest internal ironies. Or, as Klein put it, evidence of his contention that “Los Angeles is the most photographed and least remembered city in the world.”
For example, the group peered through the Burlington Arcade on Lake Avenue in Pasadena, a mini-mini-mall designed to look like a 19th century European shopping “arcade,” complete with bright red London phone booths. “This is a failure. Let’s look at a failure,” Klein said, referring to the faux British architecture as he pointed to the “For Lease” signs in a few empty shop windows.
They walked the open squares of Chinatown, modeled after the inauthentic Chinatowns of New York and London, and not nearly as Chinese in any true sense as the cities in the San Gabriel Valley. “You’re looking at a living set,” Lunenfeld said, “that has nothing to do with China but with an imaginary China-ness.”
And they saw One Rodeo in Beverly Hills, where an artificial cobblestone pedestrian avenue lined with upscale boutiques and cafes was deemed an ultimate made-up public space. The students snapped photographs, took notes and ogled the handbags in the new Prada store during a discussion of the merits of Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas’ store design.
“I’ve never been here before so I had no idea what to expect,” said Angel Lin, 23, of Boulder, Colo. “I had that superficial L.A. Hollywood idea, but all these layers we’re uncovering -- it’s resources, inspiration for our designs.”
Lin said Chinatown gave her the cultural creeps. “It’s surreal. It’s definitely from a movie or a comic book, what the foreigners think of China. They take all these icons and jam it all into one place. It’s freaky.”
Klein and Lunenfeld said any visceral reaction from their students to a public site in Los Angeles is a good one. It means the new surroundings are already affecting them and in turn will affect their art.
It takes no time for new art students in cities like New York or Paris to get out into the streets and draw ideas from the dense and pedestrian-oriented urbanism that surrounds them, the teachers said. But the life of Los Angeles -- the sprawl, the frequent confinement to an automobile -- can make it difficult to immediately know and become inspired by the city. “To teach in Los Angeles you have to be mobile, so a bus becomes part of the research,” Lunenfeld said
Thus, the research involved noting the waves of gentrification along Sunset Boulevard in Echo Park and Silver Lake -- not without pointing out good coffee shops and eateries. It included gastronomical field work -- otherwise known as lunch -- at the Grand Central Market downtown. It meant a stop at the Anderton Court Shops, a little-known Frank Lloyd Wright building on Rodeo Drive.
The students, growing weary near day’s end, stopped at the structure’s spiraling outdoor walkway. Lunenfeld said the building’s design is reminiscent of the architect’s Guggenheim Museum in New York City but was built four years earlier. “Why is it that in a city that’s all about branding, why is this building unmarked?” he asked.
No one offered an answer, but with the designer name store signs seen from the top of the Anderton Court building, the irony was clear.
Design, the teachers said, should be about engaging the confusion of the modern world, about trying to mold the future. What better place to do that than here, they asked, where immigration, imagination and a collective obsession with media and technology swirl around the unmistakable subtext of Los Angeles’ ubiquitous Latino culture?
In the future, Los Angeles is “not going to look more Mexican; it’s going to look more Los Angeles, but in a strange way,” Klein said. “L.A. is the second-largest city in Mexico, but what does that mean? What does that mean for the future? New York was the largest Jewish city in the world, but it didn’t end up looking like Poland.”
Amy Shepperd, 30, a New Jersey native who left her job in Manhattan as a website creative director for graduate school in California, arrived with the usual Southern California cliches. She said the bus tour gave her a better impression of the city. “I know what’s out there now,” she said. But still, “it’s weird.”
By 5 p.m. the bus made its way back up the hill to the Art Center campus, the students fighting drowsiness. Klein, energized from the tour, urged them to begin thinking about projects.
“Now your head starts working ... you can do something interesting,” Klein said. “Now you have some contradictions.”