Monday, July 05, 2010

Book Review: L.A. Under the Influence

L.A. Under the Influence: The Hidden Logic of Urban Property by Roger Sherman
University of Minnesota Press, 2010
Paperback, 240 pages

Architect Roger Sherman contends "that property stakeholder negotiations not only shape a city but also influence the development of its smallest common increment: the individual parcel." Via a number of case studies in Los Angeles he argues that architects should find influence in the negotiating process, taking part in it instead of focusing on a form and making the site and its surrounding conditions yield to it. His brief history of architecture and politics places the architect's will and vision ahead of that of the client or the state, a situation he'd like to remedy. Yet I'm curious how most architects will react to a book with case studies that are devoid of architecture with a capital A. What Sherman presents is the L.A. vernacular of residents, business and industry colliding in unexpected ways. When design does enter the picture it is secondary to the juxtapositions that arise from the stakeholder negotiations that are evident in the results.
As stated, Sherman focuses on Los Angeles but the idea he pushes could be applied to just about any American city, given the importance of property ownership and the concomitant desire to make the most of it throughout the country. L.A. works well because the case studies are "in your face," like the cover's collision of bank, cafe and oil rigs. While presented with fairly dry writing, the case studies are fascinating, such as how a Hollywood agent managed to built a regulation Wiffle ball court in his backyard, or more accurately his yard, his neighbors, and a city easement behind both. But I yearned for at least one example where capital-A architecture actually confronts the situations Sherman discusses. Does none exist, at least in L.A.? The closest example in the book is a small shop tucked next to the Pacific Design Center (PDC) by Cesar Pelli. The shop was a hold-out, a stubborn owner who did not see the benefit in selling his property; the designer merely planted trees around the building a reconfigured an entry sequence slightly. Nothing major was done in to accommodate the shop, and now it is gone with the PDC unscathed.
The PDC example illustrates the norm for most projects that hire an architect: work with us or pay the consequences. Any reciprocal benefits on both sides are shelved in favor of the "big guy's" plans. This is some sort of negotiation, but not one that recognizes the other owner's desire to use their property for the most benefit, except for selling, of course. And that is the gist of Sherman's argument: "creating affiliations between otherwise conflicting interests" in the recognition that each owner has rights that should be respected in the negotiations.
I'm reading Sherman's book-length argument as a ruling by New York's Court of Appeals allows private land to be taken by eminent domain for Columbia University's expansion project in Manhattanville. This is a large-scale example of not being good neighbors, not allowing the architectural plan to evolve out of negotiations. Not only does it displace property owners, it leads to the creation of a segregated campus, homogenous in expression and devoid of qualities that make good neighborhoods, namely diversity and a mix of uses and people. Sherman's book may focus on individual parcels of land, but its argument can be applied to examples like Columbia as well. If anything Sherman is advocating for urban-design thinking in architectural projects, just not the type that leads to overtaking a neighborhood in the name of progress and expansion.