This subcommittee was chaired by Gerdo Aquino, chief executive and principal, SWA Group landscape architecture and planning, and Kelema Lee Moses, assistant professor of Art & Art History at Occidental College. Its other members were Ken Bernstein, principal city planner, Office of Historic Resources and Urban Design Studio, Los Angeles Department of City Planning; Linda Dishman, president and chief executive, Los Angeles Conservancy; Adrian Scott Fine, director of advocacy, Los Angeles Conservancy; Brenda Levin, president and principal, Levin & Associates Architects; Christina Morris, senior field director, National Trust for Historic Preservation; and Shannon Ryan, senior city planner, Los Angeles Department of City Planning.
This subcommittee’s deliberations began with some basic questions about the phrase “historic preservation.” Is it too closely associated with architecture and built form, we asked, to complement the broad and small-c catholic scope of the larger Working Group and its recommendations? What, precisely, is meant to be preserved? By whom, for whom, and on what basis?
We also discussed some of the ways in which preservation has earned a complicated reputation—the extent to which it has been seen, fairly or not, as a force for obstruction. In what ways could the goals of preservation be brought more closely in line with a vision for Los Angeles that sees civic memory as something to be excavated, even actively confronted, rather than simply protected or cordoned off? Can the work of preservation help us ask key questions or surface difficult or buried histories in Los Angeles even as it protects individual or connected sites of importance?
It seemed fitting to seek a dynamic, evolving definition of these terms, one that the City should continually revisit and analyze anew. We talked about preservation as a platform or venue to tell stories and share histories, recognizing that those histories will not always be in harmony or alignment with one another. We imagined a structure that would allow preservation to look forward as well as back, helping us imagine a future Los Angeles where histories of many kinds, not just architectural, are given full voice.
We agreed that one way to open up these definitions and challenge old assumptions is to underscore the links between preservation and climate action. The embodied energy of existing buildings, the cost in dollars and in climate terms of new construction, the ways in which preservation might further the cause of sustainability and vice versa: these were among the subjects we touched on. Moreover, new strategies to adapt to warming temperatures in many parts of Los Angeles will be strengthened by detailed knowledge of earlier approaches, whether they are Indigenous, from the Spanish Colonial period, or more recent. This was long a city whose architecture was designed to provide extensive shade from the sun essentially as a matter of first principles. We can climate-proof Los Angeles in part by studying, debating, and adapting some of those strategies. Preservation can be as much about recovering knowledge as about keeping structures upright.Links Between Preservation and Climate Action
It is also important to stress the links between preservation and climate action. The embedded energy of existing buildings, the cost in dollars and in climate terms of new construction, the ways in which preservation might further the cause of sustainability and vice versa: these were among the subjects we touched on. Moreover, new strategies to adapt to warming temperatures in many parts of Los Angeles will be strengthened by detailed knowledge of earlier approaches, whether they are Indigenous, from the Spanish Colonial period, or more recent. This was long a city whose architecture was designed to provide extensive shade from the sun essentially as a matter of first principles. We can climate-proof Los Angeles in part by studying, debating, and adapting some of those strategies. Preservation can be as much about recovering knowledge as about keeping structures upright.
Next we sought to define and discuss the second half of the subcommittee’s charge: the work of maintenance and care. These terms and some important recent scholarship exploring them through the lens of architecture and preservation were familiar to some of us and less so to others. A superb overview01 https://placesjournal.org/article/maintenance-and-care/?cn-reloaded=1 of the subject by Shannon Mattern, published in the online journal Places and entitled “Maintenance and Care: A working guide to the repair of rust, dust, cracks, and corrupted code in our cities, our homes, and our social relations,” was shared with the full Working Group before its initial meeting in November of 2019.
“Values like innovation and newness hold mass appeal—or at least they did until disruption became a winning campaign platform and a normalized governance strategy,” Mattern writes in that essay. “Now breakdown is our epistemic and experiential reality. What we really need to study is how the world gets put back together.”
That last phrase is key. One answer to the questions posed at the beginning of this section might be to insist on a reparative, rather than a merely protective, kind of preservation. That would allow us to avoid the more obstructionist impulses in the field’s history and to wrap together preservation, maintenance, and care within a single set of values and policy choices.
Mattern’s work is also helpful in clarifying the ways in which notions like care and maintenance can be caught up in complex understandings of class and gender. The renewed focus on these categories in the architectural academy has brought forth important critiques of earlier movements in the field, especially modernism and its various offshoots and heirs. Mattern’s Places essay is accompanied by an embedded video clip of a 2014 piece called Routine Maintenance, by the artists Nadia Hironaka and Matthew Suib. It imagines that Continuous Monument, a speculative 1969 design by the Italian firm Superstudio, has been built and, as a result of having to operate in the real world, requires upkeep by a presumably superhuman, or at least tireless, window washer.
The subcommittee spent time discussing and acknowledging the extensive work that the City, particularly its Department of City Planning, has done in recent decades to catalog, analyze, and safeguard historic resources and community assets that include, but are certainly not limited to, significant works of architecture. The SurveyLA initiative02 https://planning.lacity.org/preservation-design/historic-resources-survey from DCP is especially impressive in this regard and has become a model for other cities. Described by the department as “the first-ever comprehensive program to identify significant historic resources throughout the City of Los Angeles,” this collaboration with the J. Paul Getty Trust was a multiyear effort that covered nearly 900,000 parcels of land and 500 square miles.
Even as the City has taken significant strides to protect its historic resources and to expand the definition of preservation to include community assets of several types, there is of course more work to be done. This subcommittee identified several strategies to pursue. One was lowering barriers to entry in this civic conversation—the group suggested the City move to dismantle procedural hurdles to participating in official discussions of historic preservation. These ideas echoed suggestions elsewhere in the Working Group report that City agencies look to move from acting as gatekeepers when it comes to civic memory to thinking of themselves as facilitators giving voice more broadly to community history.
Other recommendations included looking for new ways to digitize historic resources; produce, collect, and make available oral histories; and pursue new forms of reaching audiences, such as podcasts and more sophisticated use of social media. One model project in this regard is the Los Angeles Public Library’s “Shades of L.A.: A Search for Visual Ethnic History.” Launched in 1991, this initiative involved collecting copies of thousands of family photographs. One goal, according to the Library, was “broadening the LAPL Photo Collection’s representation of ethnicities within the city.”03 https://www.lapl.org/collections-resources/photo-collection/shades-la
We considered the range of ways in which the City might strengthen protections against prohibited demolition of significant works of architecture. This is a particularly acute issue when it comes to residential architecture, given that such a high proportion of landmarks in Los Angeles, relative to other American cities, are in the form of houses tucked away in the private realm. We looked to case studies in New York City and San Antonio in particular, and discussed monetary and other penalties for this kind of unsanctioned modification and demolition. The strongest such protection would be a kind of “scorched-earth” ordinance whereby developers who illegally demolished buildings would be prohibited from constructing anything on the same parcel for a period of 5 or more years.
We also discussed the possibility of the City extending Historic-Cultural Monument status to cover the body of work of an important architect or firm—Paul R. Williams, an architect discussed elsewhere at some length in this volume, was mentioned as one example worth considering for this kind of action. There is also the potential to protect schools of architecture or a particular building type in this fashion. Could the bungalow courts of Los Angeles, for instance, be better honored and protected if they were categorized collectively in this way?Moving Past the Clean-Slate Solution
Our group discussed the importance of finding new ways to center Indigenous histories, voices, and building traditions in discussions about preservation in Los Angeles. Not unrelatedly, we also took up the question of the City’s tendency to pursue tabula rasa design solutions—the way Los Angeles tends to prefer wiping the slate clean and building anew when faced with aging, fraught, or poorly maintained buildings and civic spaces.
Pershing Square, located in downtown Los Angeles and among the oldest and most important public spaces in the city, came up as an example of this latter habit. While many of us admire the design by the French landscape firm Agence Ter that prevailed in a 2016 design competition to reimagine the site, perhaps too little attention has been paid to the origins of the landscape scheme the new plan would replace. Completed in 1994 and designed by a team led by the Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta and landscape architect Laurie Olin, it is undoubtedly a flawed proposal. It exacerbated the Square’s already lamentable physical and visual separation from the sidewalks around it. It has not aged especially well and it can feel deserted even on days when the rest of downtown is thrumming with energy.
But have we been too quick to write it off completely? The Legorreta design when new was a brightly colored and deeply optimistic extension of Spanish Colonial and Latin American design traditions that go back more than two centuries in Southern California. It represented the first self-conscious decision by modern Los Angeles civic leadership to cloak an important public space in the design language of what is now, in a phrase popularized by James Rojas and others, known as Latino Urbanism. What’s more, the decision to hire Legorreta came just as Los Angeles was seeing immigration from Latin America, and from Mexico in particular, reach its peak.
It is of course also worth pointing out that Pershing Square has been through many such reinventions; the design competition won by Agence Ter is only the latest. For nearly a century, in fact, Pershing Square has been symbolic of the Los Angeles tendency to avoid doing the difficult but important work of fixing public spaces and important buildings in favor of seeking an entirely new solution. We would welcome a broader public conversation on these issues, beginning with an examination of the best next steps at Pershing Square.Blind Spots and Cycles of Taste
The discussion of Pershing Square led to a broader consideration of the ways in which the architecture and landscape architecture of the recent past can be uniquely vulnerable to the kind of inattention, disdain, or misunderstanding that can set the stage for neglect and even demolition. We were especially interested in examining this question in relation to the rich collection of landmarks in Los Angeles from the 1980s and 1990s, which (in addition to Legorreta’s designs) includes the early work of so-called L.A. School architects Frank Gehry, Craig Hodgetts and Ming Fung, Morphosis, Eric Owen Moss, Elyse Grinstein and Jeffrey Daniels, and others. Having fallen out of fashion with the broader public in recent years, this work may soon find itself in the crosshairs of demolition. Already a small building at UC Irvine by Frank Gehry has been razed without any significant public debate or consternation. What would it take to bring new awareness to this architecture and what the best examples of the period meant when they were new? Could we start by working to extend SurveyLA, which now ends at 1980, through the year 2000?
This notion grew organically from the rest of the subcommittee’s deliberations. Throughout, the focus was on finding ways to broaden the definitions of preservation, maintenance, and care that guide City policymaking to make them more flexible, more dynamic, more inclusive, and more responsive to contemporary understandings of historic resources and community character. We share the sentiment expressed elsewhere in this report that our ideas and recommendations are offered as as the basis for further community engagement and civic discussion, rather than the final answer on any topic. We are aware of the ways in which preservation movements, fairly or not, have gained a reputation as vehicles for conservatism for its own sake, as opposed to conversation in a more active, creative, and thoughtful manner. We are eager to move past this assumption and find new ways for preservation, without abandoning its own protocols and forms of expertise, to act in concert with broader projects of reckoning.