Monday, July 04, 2005

Thom Mayne, Nicolai Ouroussoff, and Caltrans

Thom Mayne had a few minutes of fame when he won the 2005 Pritzker Prize. His entry had just won the competition for the design of the state capitol of Alaska, and there was a public outcry against building this avant garde capitol. Many architects suggested that he won the Pritzker not because of the quality of his work but because the architectural establishment wanted to boost his reputation in the hope that there would be one state capitol in the avant garde style. Fortunately, Alaska ignored the Pritzker prize and dropped the capitol project.

Thom Mayne’s most important building is the headquarters of Caltrans in Los Angeles. Caltrans, the state department of transportation, is much reviled by environmentalists because it loves to build freeways.

New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff’s description of Thom Mayne and of this building is very revealing:

"Thom Mayne has never been a shy architect. Yet underneath the tough veneer lies a strong current of social optimism. …The new Caltrans District 7 headquarters, which covers a city block downtown near City Hall, … will house the state agency that oversees the ribbons of freeway that rank among the city's most spectacular engineering achievements. Like those freeways, the building is monumental. Its glistening metal skin and hulking form evoke the relentless faith in the future - in social mobility, individual freedom, eternal youth - that made Los Angeles one of the most radical urban inventions in American history."

“Relentless faith in the future” is a beautiful phrase - a perfect description of Caltrans and of the avant garde’s futuristic bias. Even though we all know that the freeways have just generated worse congestion - even though studies have shown that 5 years after a major new freeway is built in California, 95% of its capacity is filled with traffic that would not have existed if the freeway had not been built – Caltrans relentlessly pursues its failed vision of the future.

“Radical urban inventions” is another revealing phrase. Like Ouroussoff and the avant garde, Caltrans has acted on the principle that any radical innovation is necessarily a good thing. Fortunately, most people no longer agree, and even Los Angeles is moving to build more rail transit and transit-oriented development – moving away from its radical innovation of being the first city built around freeways and toward an urban form that is more traditional and more human scale.

But “social optimism” is the wrong phrase. The idea that we are going to keep relentlessly building freeway-oriented cities – places as congested and inconvenient as Los Angeles, places where you cannot get a quart of milk or a cup of coffee without driving - does not sound to me like an optimistic view of the future.

Ouroussoff often redefines the word “optimism” in this way: if you do not want to move toward an ugly dehumanized future as quickly as possible, then you are not optimistic.

(For a picture of Thom Mayne’s overbearing, sterile Caltrans headquarters, see The best description of this building is Henry Miller's phrase: the air-conditioned nightmare.)


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