Lately, my bedside reading has been Ada Louise Huxtable's The Unreal America: Architecture and Illusion. As a meditation on the themed environments of America, Huxtable actually turns the discussion on its head to talk about authenticity and preservation. Using Colonial Williamsburg as an example, she illustrates how historic preservation can be as guilty of sanitizing the past as places like the Luxor pyramid in Las Vegas. "Of course, we like our memories better all cleaned up," she writes. "The gritty and sometimes unlovely accumulations that characterize cities are the best and worst of what we have produced; they exert a fascination that no neatly edited version can inspire To edit life, to sanitize the substance of history, is to risk losing the art, actuality, and meaning of the real past and its intrinsic artifacts."
While I agree with Huxtable that true urbanity is greatly preferable, I don't think we have the luxury of waiting for it to happen. Our cities have a lot of "broken teeth" that need repairing in order to stay viable in the near future, both economically and environmentally. And I believe that architectural references (theming) and historic preservation techniques are levers that can be used, with skill and moderation, to create a sense of place in these new buildings without endangering our sense of memory.
Part of the problem with new development strategies over the past several years is that they fail to use these tools properly. In Los Angeles, it results in places like the new LA Live Entertainment Center, which is cold and forbidding; or The Grove, which is a very effective public space but overtly false and rejecting of its surroundings. Major redevelopments have long been accused of erasing history and building out of context, and rightly so.
Historic preservation and economic redevelopment have traditionally maintained separate camps. But what if instead they combined forces? Instead of ignoring history, redevelopment could use the preservationist view to enhance the existing history of a location and incorporate it into new construction. Preservation, on the other hand, could pry itself out of its reactionary niche and be proactive in helping build places that advance the historical throughline of cities rather than trashing it.
Los Angeles, so often misunderstood and even vilified by the rest of the world, is a city with many wonderful neighborhoods and a strong identity. The problem is that in between these healthy nodes is a lot of underused land, stuffed with badly-constructed minimalls and warehouses. An Historic Redevelopment team could be involved in identifying new nodes in underused areas, digging into the history, and then enhancing that area with strategic new development. West Los Angeles around the intersection of the 405 and the 10 is an area desperately in need of an identity and a gathering place.
It only takes a little scratching on the surface to find fascinating stories here in Los Angeles. A strategic approach to redevelopment and preservation could be a way to bring those stories forward organically and turn them into viable landmarks and new, smart neighborhoods.