Beyond Buildings


Towards a Dirty Urbanism: Planning and Messiness in Westwood

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I think it is time for dirty urbanism. But this I don’t mean pornographic planning or soiled streets, but rather a form of urban planning that recognizes and amplifies what the Venturis once called the “messy vitality” of everyday life in our environment. Dirty realism would not envision clean, perfectly functioning urban environments which in any case could never come into being, but rather places that work and even thrive, even though they might be messy, jammed with traffic, and and blighted by crime, conflict, and real dirt. They might, I other words, look like real cities.


I was spurred to these thoughts when I took recently part in a panel in and about Westwood, the mixed-used neighborhood to the south of UCLA’s campus in Los Angeles. Organized by Professor Dana Cuff and CityLab, an active and experimental offshoot of UCLA, it discussed two plans for the area’s future: one by Neil Denari, and one by Roger Sherman with Edwin Chan, both commissioned by CityLab.


Both took as their starting point the arrival of a subway station at Westwood’s southwest corner, which will occur at some point in the next decade, if all goes well. Denari envisioned a cluster of high-rises that would feed off the expected influx of commuters and students using this new form of transportation. He imagined a car-free zone of stores and restaurants feeding off the office towers.


Sherman and Chan concentrated on building on the presence of the Hammer Museum, an active exhibition venue run by UCLA and the Geffen Theater in the neighborhood. They proposed that other museums and arts facilities should migrate from the campus to create a cultural cluster. They sought to move parking out of Westwood’s center and dreamed of a “zocolo,” or marketplace, near its core. As Denari pointed out during his presentation, both visions were compatible and could be layered over and next to each other.


The problem CityLab had asked the designers to solve was that Westwood has lost its ability to attract and retain retail and entertainment venues. Once an active hub of movie theaters (I remember going to glamorous premieres there), as well as the site of many small stores, it is now a collection of chain stores and restaurants lost in a sea of vacant storefronts, with only two movie theaters left. Paradoxically, the growth of UCLA’s medical center to the north and office and condo towers to the east means that its southern edge has some of the worst traffic congestion in Southern California. Meanwhile, the perception of high crime, based on gang-related violence more than a decade ago, deters tourists and regional visits.


The proposals, which would solve those problems, are intelligent and well thought out. I merely questioned whether Southern California needed another mixed–use node, or, to use Joel Garreau’s now almost twenty-year old term, Edge City, when it already has so many. I also wondered whether the subway would be the deus ex machina the planners envisioned. Finally, I doubted whether the cultural institutions could and should really go there. There are other nascent cultural clusters a few miles away, notably around the ever-expanding Los Angeles County Museum of Art, while UCLA also needs its own cultural anchors.


It seems that Westwood’s real strength is its messiness. Its street pattern is a planner’s nightmare, but creates a great deal of complexity that could be intriguing. Its mix of neighbors--from doctors and patients to wealthy residents who don’t even want students parking in front of their houses to office workers and the largest Persian community outside of Iran--could actually use the area at different times of the day for different uses. Above all, the tens of thousands of students need a messy place where they can gather, party, shop, and misbehave.


The question these projects and the discussion raised was not how to solve the problem, but how to use the contradictions and unsightliness to let a neighborhood--one that would more actively use its historical and physical resources, as well as encourage the growth of UCLA and new modes of transit--evolve in ways we might not be able to predict or plan for, but only encourage. Making sense of parking made sense to me, as did trying to attract retail and entertainment around a civic square. Creating monuments, suppressing car traffic, and planning new towers, however beautiful, did not.


The problem with dirty urbanism is that it is hard to plan for and even more difficult to envision. Perhaps we need to look back at Complexity and Contradiction and Learning from Las Vegas for inspiration on how to do that, and to think about punk and Post Modernism as providing messy models. Post Modernism, after all, is coming back, neither as comedy nor tragedy, but as PhotoShop and Facebook. The messiness of social connection emerging in the ether and the etherization of commercial and social connections are the real point, and I will turn towards that model next week when I review the Victoria & Albert’s Post Modernism exhibition.




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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.