MICHAEL MALTZAN /
OF THE PUBLIC
It is particularly difficult to try and discuss either the concept or the form of public space in a city like Los Angeles. It’s questionable in what form it might exist here, or if it even exists here at all. The reality is that public space is rarely a concern or mentioned as a concern in discussions about life in Los Angeles. That’s not because it isn’t an important concept, rather it is because it has not become a part of our consciousness. One first needs to be aware that a form of public space exists in order to have a context and reference to debate or argue for it, making it difficult as an architect, a landscape architect, or a planner to advocate for something that resides outside the vocabulary.
That doesn’t mean that the possibility of the public in life isn’t important in Los Angeles. How it is constituted though, and on what terms it exists, is likely just different from what we believe to be the space of the public in more traditional cities. Of course the public realm is under extreme pressure from increased privatization even in those established cities. It is a question whether true “publicness” is still possible anywhere. Perhaps Los Angeles is just being more honest about our contemporary ambivalence to this historic space-type.
The traditional space of the public, often located in a physical or psychological center of the city, provides no useful historic precedent for us in Los Angeles. With a staggering proliferation of distinct and autonomous neighborhoods, districts, ethnicities, economic destinations, and political geographies, all arranged like informal and sprawling puzzle pieces on the regional map, the potential for the space of social connection is perhaps more likely to emerge on the coterminous borders and seams between the many distinct demographic silos that propagate the region.
The presence of this “in-betweenness” is the result of a collective space characterized by parallel and simultaneous activities rather than the space of interconnected common purpose. These are places where we are engaged in the same activity as a group but isolated in our individual spaces. This phenomenon occurs in many of the spaces that are most characteristic of this city. Whether it is the space on the freeway next to hundreds of other commuters but staring only straight ahead of us, or on a broad tapestry of blankets at the beach next to each other but all gazing west toward the expanse of ocean, or all sitting in the movie theatre looking at the screen but not at one another, we are most accustomed to occupying a space of parallel and disconnected experiences.
In the project for the Star Apartments, we have attempted to utilize this phenomenon through the making of an expansive, horizontal common layer of space suspended between the upper and lower levels of the building. This activity precinct condenses a broad range of physical, intellectual, individual and community functions next to and visible to each other. This space attempts to produce an active “landscape” that has the potential to also create social overlaps between those specific activities.
The emergence of social media as an enabling agent for collective activities is making its reach and impact felt significantly in dispersed cities. Arguably, the speed in which “occupy” communicated and sprang up in multiple cities was more indicative of our emerging future than the traditional “occupations” of physical space that resulted. These new networks of connection put an emphasis on how the future of public space is continuing to evolve in support of civic conversation.
The map of buildings we have been designing for the Housing Trust in Los Angeles begins to create in their shared and complimentary activities across multiple sites a new kind of connective network that has the potential to create a temporal form of urbanism, linking individual points into a layered social network and influential civic institution. It depends not on physical space in the traditional sense, but a mix of choreographed movements and itineraries to become visible and connected within the city.
This full reality colors how we approach the question of “public” in all of our work here, and in other cities. For instance, in Los Angeles there is a greater expectation of “public form” rather than public space, and the spectacle, or at least the iconic, is more the connective currency that enables a sense of the shared and common ambitions. The insistent form with the power of its presence is an important tool in the designer’s arsenal. For a culture which cultivates ambivalence toward formal space, the vividness with which we constrain our forms helps to first promote an inquisitive social impulse that can lead to subsequent layers of deeper engagement with the civic or public function it supports. In this way the architectural object begins to take on a function similar to public space.
While this arrangement is normally most visible in buildings of substantial civic importance, it is just as relevant across a wide range of programmatic and social types. At the Carver Apartments, a fundamental goal of the project was to create a stronger sense of visibility and connection between two very separate communities – those individuals less privileged within the building and the individuals passing by as commuters along the adjacent elevated freeway. While a physical connection was not possible for obvious reasons, the form of the building creates strong visual interaction through the unfolding spiraling of the drum-like form as well as a series of large occupiable “porch like” spaces arranged around the facade. The potential of connection between two communities is made possible first through the form of the building, but then one’s attention turns to the fact that you are visible to each other.
All of these propositions continue to be experiments and speculations. As long as Los Angeles continues to be a test of contemporary urbanism we can dream about how these forms might indicate other avenues of producing the possibility of the “public” in emerging urbanisms.
Originally published in Lotus International, Issue 152 (Spring 2013)