Known as the “New City,” Los Angeles was one of the first established in America. The original Spanish settlement, “Nuestra Señora de la Ciudad de Los Angeles,” remains marked today by a tiny plaza opposite Union Station downtown, adjacent to a tourist replica of a Mexican open street market.
Absent of coherent form, the city extends to the limits of its natural boundaries and beyond; the San Gabriel Mountains to the north, Pacific Ocean to the west and south, the Mojave Desert to the east.
Even these have been transcended by development in the San Fernando Valley since World War II.
The capacities of existing freeways, consequently, have become stressed to gridlock. Overall the city image is one of massive sprawl, the consequence of the development of individual dwellings without regard to the shaping of districts or centers.
Neighborhoods do exist; the older city of Pasadena maintains civic character, as does Beverly Hills. Santa Monica, planned initially with wide streets, is visually distinctive.
Venice Beach and Culver City have both undergone extensive urban development, clarifying and making distinct their city images.
Districts are difficult to distinguish because their boundaries are visually incoherent; only repeated experience eventually orients the individual.
Some, like Beverly Hills, were given urban character when founded, which was further reinforced in the 1980s by the development of the City Center designed by Charles Moore.
Frank Gehry’s Santa Monica Mall complex, a huge graphic sign, orients one; it tends to function visually as a self-contained landmark, however, rather than being integrated into the total environment.
Its individual landmarks, such as the Los Angeles County Museum La Brea Tar Pits, distinguish Wilshire Boulevard, a major artery, more than by urban patterns, districts, or plazas.
MacArthur Park downtown and the old Wilshire shopping district do contain Art Deco buildings, and refer to historic moments of the city’s past.
What distinguished the region/city is its domestic architecture. Barnsdall was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The Greene and Greene Bros. in Pasadena, influenced by Japanese house design, propelled the Craftsmen’s movement, creating totally integrated designs of architecture, interiors, furniture, and fixtures of wood. They set a pattern for the vernacular California bungalow.
The Modernist R.M Schindler and Richard Neutra designed houses that integrated the natural surroundings with built structures; their signature open plans and flowing spaces became one of modern architecture’s hallmarks.
Irving Gill, influenced by mission architecture and the adobe style developed houses with arcades and passageways connected to gardens. Clearly, the beauty of natural surroundings and the great climate was a presence felt and responded to in the works of these architects.
Frank Gehry created a formal vocabulary of the fragmentation aesthetic in Los Angeles, a metaphor of the city and of the times. Chain-link fencing, a democratic statement, is also a comment on the ordinary industrial landscape, the utilitarian surface.
“The City of Angels” is so in pockets, in the canyons and mountain passes, along the beach in Malibu, and in large scale on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, where overall the landscape design of Frederick Law Olmsted prevails.
Here development was shaped and controlled, resulting in a unique combination of domestic dwellings in relationship to the natural context.
In the gilded neighborhoods of Bel-Air, Brentwood, and Beverly Hills, the urban patterns are circuitous, and landscape designs isolate and define an individual’s domain, offering the sense of privacy and remove from the society of “flat-land.”
America’s romantic aspirations, that of the lone individual in relation to a vanishing frontier, are played out here.
On rare clear days, after a Santa Ana wind has driven the pollution out of the basin, the air is clear, as it must have been when the early Spanish settlers first discovered and named the site.
The light is complex. Essentially that of a desert, it is harshly bright, flattening building surfaces until they appear as cardboard backdrops.
A nearly shadowless environment, the Sun is almost perpendicular to the Earth at noon in midsummer, allowing maximum reflexivity.
The atmosphere is influenced by geography. Mountain ranges create a basin of the vast area, and ocean air, cooler than the desert’s, is trapped beneath its heat, causing a thermal inversion.
The layer of air beneath this is very stable, causing a visible clarity -- now only in the absence of smog.
Color, induced by material structures that permit the indirect reflection of light, as cellular structures do naturally, would greatly enhance the built environment.
The intense reflexivity of desert light, in the environmental context of the Los Angeles basin, permits the use of color in the urban pattern to a far greater extent than now obtains.
In this brilliant environment, paradoxically, color is eschewed; for the most part choices for exterior surfaces of houses are beiges, tans, neutrals or pastels, pallid and timed responses to the bright effusion of regional light.