You won't recognize L.A.

Times Staff Writer

YOU can breathe now, Angelenos. Our future isn't "Blade Runner," after all -- although you might consider liquidating your local holdings before 2022, when the Big One, according to one line of fanciful expert thinking, is scheduled to do it for you.

The History Channel asked seven professional architectural teams from L.A. -- plus one student team of utopians from Harvard -- to create a design for the Los Angeles of 2106, with the one judged best copping a $10,000 prize and the chance to pocket another 10 grand going head-to-head over the Internet next month with the winners of identical "City of the Future" competitions in New York and Chicago.

The prize went to Eric Owen Moss Architects for the least speculative, most doable proposal of the bunch: a plan to revitalize the eastern end of downtown L.A. by building atop railroad tracks and freeways while filling the concrete-trapped Los Angeles River into a center for tourists and parkland. Honorable mentions went to the Office of Mobile Design and the team of Xefirotarch and Imaginary Forces, for visions involving bioengineered buildings made of living plant matter.

Moss' plan, along with the New York and Chicago winners, will be posted in coming weeks on the History Channel's website, www.history.com, along with commentary from star architect Daniel Libeskind. The public can vote from Jan. 2 to Feb. 2 to determine the winner.

Almost in whiffing distance of that pool of Pleistocene extinction, the La Brea Tar Pits, the future-gazing teams went at it Tuesday on the main plaza of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in a contest that's an offshoot of "Engineering an Empire," the History Channel's Monday night series about how ancient civilizations were built. They had four hours to set up displays and 15 minutes each to explain their theories to a panel of five judges that included Thom Mayne, the 2005 Pritzker Prize-winning architect, and Gail Goldberg, head planner for the city of Los Angeles.

The Harvard Graduate School of Design's concept, dubbed "Nephopolis -- City of Clouds," called for a mist-enshrouded L.A., mist being a by-product of household desalination devices in every home that will completely rejigger a formerly thirsty but famously sun-drenched climate.

Or we could turn the entire L.A. Basin into a giant water-treatment plant. A natural, attractive one, of course, in the vision of George Yu Architects. Using a wooden topographical model that he acknowledged was positively "medieval" compared with some of the other, video-driven displays, Yu etched a landscape elaborately engineered with man-made hillocks, gullies and purification systems to trap and filter rainwater and channel it into reservoirs.

The L.A. office of EDAW / DMJM Design, a huge, worldwide firm, proposed making the most of a seemingly disastrous situation: the destruction of L.A.'s low-lying coastal areas, thanks to global warming and a 25-foot rise in sea level. Adios, everything between Long Beach and San Pedro. But hello to oodles of new waterfront property, as L.A. turns into a Bay Area South, with a huge, crystalline tower and platform out in the surf, serving as a transportation center receiving both air and sea traffic.

Griffin Enright Architects predicted that we'll be living in "Aerotopia," a city of airborne mass transit where vehicles swoop through a citywide grid of linked circles resembling old-fashioned plastic six-pack containers for canned beer and soda.

Rather than try to unify L.A., the team of Roger Sherman Architecture, CityLAB and Robert Somol posited the city's fragmented nature as part of its "inherent DNA" and proposed a landscape of radically different zones affording a range of living styles.

Xefirotarch and Imaginary Forces gave it the old Hollywood try: Their presentation was a short sci-fi film in which a designer in 2106 looks back on how primitive old ways -- "the city was boring, a bunch of dead buildings" -- gave way to "Chlorofilia," the process of turning the built environment into a sort of futuristic kudzu that would be alive and ever-growing, with a mind of its own serving human needs. Birthing these intelligent plants, we are told, requires, alas, a mutation that could take place only after the L.A. we know is wiped out by the great quake and flood of 2022.

Living nature -- a pair of baby turtles, an orchid plant, alfalfa sprouts, beans and a tulip bulb -- was the main prop in the display by the Office of Mobile Design. It posited a bioengineered future in which buildings made of "biomatter" -- hydrated with amply available desalinated water fed through a grid of aqueducts -- will be living things that can adapt like plants to changes in climate and time of day. Beautiful people and plastic surgeons, beware: Physicality in the 22nd century will be so easily malleable that "notions of physical beauty no longer apply," as team member Jennifer Siegal put it, and the populace will occupy itself with deeper concerns as "the lines between community, spirituality and entertainment are blurred."

Amid gripes that the contest rules gave them only 20 minutes to reach a decision, two jurors, Bryan Thompson, an auto designer for Nissan, and Allison Arieff, a designer and journalist, threw their votes to Mobile Design.

But on this day of lavishly expansive futurizing, the majority of Mayne, Goldberg and Mara Marks, a professor of urban studies at Loyola Marymount, opted for the architectural equivalent of sensible shoes: The Eric Owen Moss plan requires no unproven or unperfected technologies (or mutations), and the architect said it could be put into motion immediately, given some undetermined billions of dollars and an unprecedented harnessing of public opinion and political will.

Fill up the Los Angeles River and make it a waterway for recreation, beauty and agriculture; place three dams across it, each one housing a hotel. Raise parkland and a light-industrial zone over the railroad tracks on each side of the river. Build huge water towers to capture the sun's heat and convert it to usable energy, and dot the cityscape with giant Times Square-like electronic signboards. Add housing on both sides of the river, merging the historically Latino Boyle Heights with a burgeoning downtown. Leave the freeways as they are -- but use their margins and the airspace for housing and other needed structures.

"Los Angeles has always grown laterally, but you can't do that forever," Moss, director of the Southern California Institute of Architecture, said after Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa presented him with a gigantic $10,000 check. "You use the city you have -- conserve the infrastructure, and build on it."

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