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Why I'm leaving The Times for a job at City Hall

Why I'm leaving The Times for a job at City Hall
Los Angeles is building new infrastructure and public spaces at an unusual clip. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

As the architecture critic for The Times since 2004, I've filed stories from Japan, Colombia, Portugal and the United Arab Emirates, among other spots around the globe. But I think it's fair to say that the main and animating subject of my work has been Los Angeles itself and the major civic transformation that's underway here.

It's precisely the scale of that transformation — how much hangs in the balance as L.A. tries to establish a coherent post-suburban identity and deal with a severe housing and homelessness crisis and the specter of climate change, among other challenges — that explains why I've decided to leave after nearly 14 years.

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I'm not going far. Just across the street to City Hall, in fact.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has asked me to fill a new post called chief design officer for the city. In that role, beginning next month, I'll be working in the mayor's office to raise the quality of public architecture and urban design across the city — and the level of civic conversation about those subjects.

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In its basic outline, the job will resemble the other "chief" positions in Garcetti's administration, including chief sustainability officer and chief data officer. In other ways, it'll be something of an experiment, an effort to produce better architecture, urban design and what we once called "public works" for Los Angeles.

Sometimes that effort will take the form of a design competition, a public forum (like the ones I've organized with Occidental College in recent years) or a campaign to persuade talented emerging architects to pursue civic projects.

At other times, it will mean supporting a creative zoning change or the work of city officials in a range of departments — Planning Director Vince Bertoni, Gary Lee Moore and Deborah Weintraub of the Bureau of Engineering and Transportation Department General Manager Seleta Reynolds, among others — who have been promoting good design for years.

Though I'll be tackling a range of projects, my work will have a clear central focus: the public realm. It's a caricature to say that Los Angeles has never valued the design of its public spaces (or even worse, that it has none). It is true, however, that in the decades after World War II, Los Angeles — like many American cities — pursued a new and largely privatized kind of urbanism, dependent on both the freeway and the single-family house, while increasingly neglecting its public side.

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That has changed in marked fashion over the last decade. Thanks not only to ballot and bond measures but also to shifts in how people live and get around the region, Los Angeles is re-embracing and reinvesting in its public spaces and arguably its very public-ness. Several of the major initiatives we've taxed ourselves to pay for over the last decade — to build transit lines, parks and housing for the formerly homeless — touch on or even promise to reshape the public realm.

In certain areas — the design of Metro stations or public schools, for instance — the city's role as architecture patron is indirect, relying on the power of persuasion as much as anything else. The fragmentation that has long characterized the political structure of Southern California has also been plain to see in the way we produce our public architecture.

Yet taken together, these various initiatives, along with the arrival of the Olympics in 2028, make up the biggest investment in what we might broadly call civic design that any American city has made in decades. And to a substantial degree, the money to build this new infrastructure, park space and housing is in hand or has been approved.

The question then is how to spend it. If there's one message I want to underscore in my new position, as I've tried to do in this one, it's that good design, even ambitious design, can be a mechanism for efficiency. For saving money, not wasting it.

This is perhaps more true in Los Angeles than any other city. From the bungalow courts of a century ago to the designs of modernists Irving Gill and R.M. Schindler; from the Case Study houses of the 1950s and 1960s to early work by Frank Gehry, Charles Moore, Thom Mayne and Craig Hodgetts and Ming Fung; from Deborah Sussman's designs for the 1984 Summer Olympics to recent architecture by Barbara Bestor, Koning Eizenberg or Productora (a Mexico City firm that recently opened a downtown L.A. satellite), to name just a few, what links quintessential Los Angeles design is a marriage of optimism to pragmatism, of experimentation to economy.

Rather than ceremony or polish, what distinguishes this work is verve: a determination to use everyday materials to make something bracingly new.

L.A.'s new civic architecture should be built in the same spirit. One encouraging recent model is the Los Angeles Public Library building campaign; though not without its missteps, it produced neighborhood libraries across the city that value good architecture (and its role in building community) without fetishizing it.

I'm not naive about the obstacles I'll face (though of course I won't understand the full range of my naivete until I get started). Writing a column is a far cry from the daily work of nudging huge public-sector agencies to see good design as fundamental to their missions.

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What's more, I've agreed to fill this new position at a time of rising, understandable anxiety about the connection between new investment in neighborhoods and the displacement of longtime residents. Many design changes that might seem entirely appealing in the abstract — adding a protected bike lane or a corner park — look quite different when understood against the backdrop of decades of public-sector neglect, punishing inequality and racism or soaring housing prices.

An increasingly important element of successful city-making is knowing when the best design for a particular moment is no design at all (or an exceedingly restrained one). Not long ago, I heard Tamika Butler, executive director of the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust, say that she'll sometimes arrive in a neighborhood with the funding in hand for a new park — only to switch strategies after learning, in speaking with residents, that their needs lie elsewhere.

There's a lot of wisdom in the flexibility and humility of that approach. As Allison Arieff writes in the introduction to a new book of essays called "The Future of Public Space," "It once seemed obvious, easy even: add public space, improve quality of life. But it's not so simple anymore." And perhaps never was.

In other areas it will pay to be bold. While technology can be a force for civic good in a range of ways, I believe public agencies need to deal from a position of strength and resolve with tech companies whose business plans leverage the public square for private gain. On housing and homelessness, we need to be more aggressive in virtually every way than we have been, including the choices we make about where apartments are built and how we make our housing supply less rigid and more responsive to the needs of seniors and families with young children.

There's a strain (if only a strain) of the planning philosophy known as YIMBYism, for Yes in My Backyard, that tends to see all new residential architecture as a good thing, no matter how it looks, because it adds crucial units to our underbuilt housing stock. For the record, I think it absolutely matters how it looks.

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I want to promote new housing for the formerly homeless, for example, that is well-designed enough to offer a humane welcome to its residents and at the same time help convince neighboring homeowners that it's something worth embracing, as opposed to merely tolerating. Good design can be an end in itself; it can also be a means to a political, social or even moral end.

When it comes to new parks and green spaces, the city will need to pay attention not only to the sites themselves but also to what happens adjacent to them. L.A.'s far-sighted decision to buy more than 40 acres of the Taylor Yard parcel and open other areas along the L.A. River to public use, for example, risks becoming a hollow victory if those locations are overshadowed or overwhelmed — or worse, made inaccessible — by a phalanx of banal and oversize new apartment blocks.

Another key part of my work will be taking the energy generated by revelatory temporary events of recent years — Ciclavia, the immigration-rights protests of 2006 and the recent women's marches — and channeling it toward permanent improvements.

The first time we discussed the new position in detail, I asked the mayor what success in the job might look like from his point of view. His answer was that we'd have done well if, at the end of my tenure, we'd begun producing better buildings and better public spaces but also discussing design in a more sophisticated and nuanced way in Los Angeles. We'd have innovative public spaces and new landmarks to point to — a superb skyscraper on its way up, an impressive public building by a dynamic young firm, street design that keeps pedestrians and cyclists from feeling like second-class citizens — but also a more robust dialogue about architecture and planning.

No big city in America has fewer platforms and institutions for talking about those issues than Los Angeles. At the same time, given the investments and new infrastructure I've outlined above, no city needs those platforms more.

All of that explains why I'm stepping away from a job I have loved and felt lucky to have to try something new: because I stubbornly continue to believe in the public realm. (Not the quasi-public or the faux public, but the real thing.) Because a career spent writing about architecture and urbanism, while it's certainly made me cynical in some ways, has yet to rob me of my faith in the power of the collective spaces of the contemporary city. And because I believe Mayor Garcetti shares these values.

I hope you'll send me not just your good wishes or recommendations for my new post — your best ideas for the kind of buildings and public spaces we might try to build here — but also your caveats and warnings, your complaints and hate-to-break-it-to-yous. I've been a journalist for a long time (and sometimes, despite my better judgment, a journalist who checks his Twitter replies and even reads the comments below his stories). Believe me when I say I can take it.

And thank you for reading my work in The Times over all these years.

One final note: It's impossible to say for sure what a change in ownership will mean for this newspaper, but there's growing optimism in the newsroom for the first time in a while. I'll be rooting for everybody working here.

Twitter: @HawthorneLAT

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