Don't Get Comfortable

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When I first arrived in Los Angeles eight and a half years ago I must admit I didn’t really get it. The city seemed to poke its finger at everything I had grown to love about my former home, New York. What do you mean I couldn’t walk everywhere? Why was nothing seemingly more than 50 years old? And where was the grid? The order? The organization?

But over these years I’ve come to love and respect Los Angeles and the whole West Coast to an extent that I never thought I could. Sure, LA is not as walkable as New York. But its sweeping geographic scale is less restricted, open to cultural and economic diversity, and varied types of buildings and neighborhoods. It leaves room for strange and fascinating happenings in the margins. Yes, it doesn’t have the history of the East Coast (although it has more history than most understand). But it’s also historically unburdened by eastern rules and expectations, making it a fertile place for innovators. And yes, it’s chaotic and ad hoc urbanistically, but it’s the collision of people, culture, and buildings that makes it endlessly fascinating.

But even though LA has all of this, and one of the best climates in the world, the city should not get comfortable. Perhaps the most important lesson I’ve learned is that we’ve barely begun to tap the potential of not only Los Angeles, but also the entire West Coast.

For one, the West has one of the most talented design communities in the world. But very few build in the public realm here. Much comes down to an antiquated procurement system favoring the big and well-connected; developers that are often isolated from architectural innovation; a dizzying political bureaucracy that is frequently fractured, self-interested, and not as progressive as it thinks; and a population that spends more time fighting new development than distinguishing between the good and the bad. Meanwhile academic-focused research practices have neither the initiative to connect with the powers-that-be nor the knowhow to make a major impact outside of residential design and the ivory tower.

In LA, while preservation of landmark buildings has improved, the city’s hidden gems are often masked in ugly signage and other horribleness. Further unearthing this legacy will usher amazing dividends, as it did with the incredible movie palaces of Downtown LA’s Broadway. In San Francisco, on the other hand, we have one of the most advanced architecture communities in the country weighed down by a culture that wants to keep the city a museum.

Along much of the coast we have a lot of sunshine, yet relatively few buildings have solar panels. While in California it has virtually stopped raining, water-related innovations are almost nonexistent. Our public incentives are a good start, and the West Coast has some of the most stringent environmental standards in the country, but we need to go further to force the adoption of more sustainable practices.

One of my goals as West Coast editor has been to help us enliven our potential, pointing out systemic flaws that hold us back and bursting the bubbles that stifle innovation. I’ve witnessed improvement in all realms, and seen public officials and citizens begin to embrace a progressive design agenda. Major steps include more inclusive public competitions, walkable streets, new transit lines and parks, more effective preservation measures, improved affordable and multi-family design, developments in technologies, and the rebirth of neighborhoods like Downtown LA, Hollywood, and San Francisco’s Transbay.

And I have unending faith that the architecture and planning communities here will continue to make astonishing progress. As I move forward in New York and Los Angeles I’ll be doing my best to get these issues—and the talented architecture firms here—onto a larger stage; to sidestep the bubble of architecture through books, exhibits, videos, and print publications.

Taking my place will be Mimi Zeiger, who is more qualified than anyone I can think of to continue advocating for innovation and excellence. Mimi’s background in architecture, journalism, and criticism is second to none. Her judgment is superb, and she’s not afraid to tackle tough issues and to speak out when necessary. She’ll bring a fresh new angle to the paper in news coverage and critical content.

I’m honored to have served what I believe is the most talented group of architects in the world. I’ll still be serving you, even if I’m straddling both coasts in the process, and I’m thrilled to see where the road takes us next.

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