Thoughts on Los Angeles
Partner Dennis McGlade and Associate Tiffany Beamer reflect on OLIN’s history in Los Angeles and what it means to practice sustainable landscape design in this iconic yet complicated Southern California city.
OLIN in Los Angeles
Dennis: Our commitment to Los Angeles began in the early 1980’s when we won the commission for the remodeling of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. We then began to design the first of two Playa Vista master plans. And so it went – old projects began to overlap with new ones. Later we were asked to work on the J. Paul Getty Center, which was a great honor and the start of a strong relationship with the Getty that continues to this day. We now have a small satellite studio in LA. Currently, our California projects include Constellation Park Plaza in Los Angeles, Plummer Park in West Hollywood and a master plan for Santa Barbara Botanic Garden.
In addition to our project work, we are and have been very interested in teaching in Los Angeles. Since OLIN’s inception in 1976 teaching has been an important part of our organization, so it was wonderful when we had an opportunity a few years ago to lead the first-ever landscape architecture studio at the Southern California Institute of Architecture; it is a very special school.
West Coast Influence on Landscape Architecture
Tiffany: After WWII, the G.I. Bill provided financing for homes for America’s military men and women, causing a significant population shift from urban centers to the suburbs. There was a feeling that these new landscapes should be functional and livable in the context of the ecological and cultural realties of a place, and designed for people. One could argue that in California in the 1950′s, this modernist style was developed and manifested itself into the “California Style.”
Author Marc Treib wrote, “Design in the postwar years looked forward to what could be rather than what had been. In its optimism it proposed, realized and tested ideas about what the new gardens should be: not just a composition of forms and spaces…but settings for human occupation. Thomas Church told us that ‘gardens are for people’ and Garrett Eckbo, quite wisely, termed these ‘landscapes for living.’”
The influence on landscape architecture in the decades following is clear – certainly in the mission statement of OLIN. Deep consideration for ecology, social purpose, culture, function and beauty is the foundation for the work that we do.
Working with the Landscape in Los Angeles
Tiffany: The scale of Los Angeles – of the state of California, for that matter – continues to amaze me. When you talk about LA, you are talking about over 400 square miles of space that encompasses an incredible mosaic of neighborhoods and cultures. When it comes to practicing landscape architecture in California (as opposed to the East Coast, for example) there are obvious differences related to plant palettes, material selection, climate, urban fabric and history. There’s so much to learn – I’ve never seen so many different palm trees in my life!
Another major difference is infrastructure: California’s automobile-influenced layout leads to an unusual conceptualization of distance, time and the physical relationship between two places. While Los Angeles does have a wonderful subway and bus system, and great efforts are in place to expand it, the car is king. Distances are not described in miles, but in minutes and hours. This mindset definitively affects the way we approach designing both intimate and large scale spaces.
The Future of Los Angeles
Tiffany: The two environmental challenges immediately facing Los Angeles are air quality and water supply. While California has some of the most stringent regulations on vehicle emissions, the sheer volume of cars and trucks on the road is staggering. There are 9.8 million people living in Los Angeles County, and everyone drives. The efforts to expand public transit are a great step, as is building more density into the city so that people can actually live near where they work. The renaissance in downtown LA is a great example of this. At a presentation at the 2011 ASLA conference, an urban planner from LA referred to this as “urban acupuncture,” which seems quite smart to me. Planting more trees, building new habitats, giving streets back to the pedestrian – it all helps.
As for water, it does rain in LA – just not often nor with any regularity. LA seems like a faux-oasis in the desert to me, a place that will need to enact deep and profound behavioral changes in order to adapt to the reality of dwindling water supplies in the American Southwest. Simply praying for rain is probably not going to do the trick. Landscape architects can be integral to this change by using our expertise in the kinds of systems that can drastically improve our surroundings. OLIN’s recent winning entry to the Living City Design Competition is a brilliant case study that illustrates this fact. Everything from living machines to high-efficiency buildings, rainwater cisterns and small vegetated swales are all part of our toolkit. The landscape architect is uniquely positioned to shepherd not only the appropriate design professionals, but the public, into a smarter future.