UCLA Landscape Architecture Students Excel

To end the year on a positive note –there be no bemoaning star architecture today, or censuring city government – I take heart in some graduate student presentations I recently juried for UCLA’s landscape architecture program.

Of course, I’m prejudice, having taught a city-scaping studio there for several years in the past, and having embraced and extolled the extension program’s praise-worthy emphasis on real challenges in real communities.

For me, it also was a refreshing departure from the many design schools where I juried in the past, and the architecture award panels on which I had sat.

Too many of the projects I felt tended to mimic the conceits of the current crop of celebrity architects, or ignored the context, culture and climate of the proposed project.

What made many of the student projects so appealing was that they were particularly site and user sensitive, with several addressing the challenge of derelict locales in under-served communities.

These included a master plan for an evolving Echo Park, with the design by the student Brian De Paz incorporating safety, comfort, health and a sense of place. I particularly liked his treatment of a small, odd shaped vacant site into a modestly landscaped mini park, a friendly place to sit.

Another of note was a plan to link Burbank’s transit center to the surrounding fragmented neighborhoods, Designed by student Tricia O’Connell, the linkages were not just paths, but greenways featuring sitting and play areas, to encourage connecting people as well as places.

Most noteworthy was a project by student Elisabeth Miller-Weinstein labeled Dominguez Crossing. Her ambitious project proposed transforming a swath of vacant land in the adjacent communities of Gardena, North Torrance and the Harbor Gateway into a web of appealing urban trails.

Actually, the land is not exactly vacant, but existing train, electrical transmission and storm channel rights of way. Satefy precautions of course will have to be enhanced for these easements, as the existing public agencies are sure to insist.

But much of the encompassing land is indeed vacant and raw.  just awaiting some imagination and initiative to be turned into useable open space, and the backbone of a linear park celebrating the history of the communities .

Miller-Weinstein’s very professional plans detailing the project’s scope and a timetable indicate a trail network of no less than 10 miles and 50 acres of designed open space, a much needed amenity in the sprawling and wanting south Los Angeles urban expanse.

It is the type of student project that renews one’s confidence in the future of the landscape architecture, and its vital role in the panoply of the design profession. Deserving credit was the studio instructor, Meg Coffee, and program director Stephanie Landregan .

To be aired Dec. 19 on 97.5 KBU and everyhere on radiomalibu.net

 

 

 

 

 

Architecture As A Social Art Subsumed by the Architect As A Social Animal

I don’t think it’s cynical to state that the noble pursuit of designing spaces and places for human endeavor is being corrupted by the cult of star architecture.

From my long tenure as an urban design critic, I see the scramble among a select gaggle of professionals to be anointed, as increasing insidious and insistent,.

This is no thanks in part to a celebrity obsessed media, and so I declare in my weekly commentary for 97.5 KBU, everywhere on radiomalibu.net and on cityobserved.com. and other websites.

And so we have tomes such as Paul Goldberger’s “Building Art: The Life and Work of Frank Gehry,” reading more like “The Art of the Deal” by Donald Trump, with architecture as a social art subsumed by the architect as a social animal.

If anything, the read reveals Goldberger’s transition from when he was a solid, if not stolid, critic in his early years for the New York Times, and then the more fastidious New Yorker, to his present vain-glorious gazing at Vanity Fair.

As for the ever-grasping Gehry, noted is his transition from an aspiring architect of modest talent, to a self-aggrandizing, celebrity-schmoozer who sadly believes his own press clippings, and to hell whomever doesn’t.

But Gehry with the gift of a grifter does know how to massage the media, as evidenced by Goldberger’s undiscerning biography, and clients as well, as evidenced by his hyped designs. Little is heard from the users or their advocates.

Granted, it is hard to blame some of the architecture elite for manipulations, given the competition in the profession for deep pocketed clients and prominent projects promising yet more publicity.

It is very much a merry, merry-go-round, unless of course it is not, and one fails to grab the gold ring, and hang on, resulting in what might be labeled, professional envy

Also, running an office is expensive, especially when the principals have to be out and about pontificating at endless forums and glad handing clients, while the actual designs are being produced by the talent in the back rooms.

I recall it was the august Philip Johnson, who was to the manor born, commenting that to be a successful architect, as he was in his time, you had to be a whore.

It is all very depressing, if you think of the effect it has on conscientious peers with a trace of talent and good intentions, desperate for attention, if not a little love, while trying to piece together a practice.

The bad books they have written about themselves and the mountains of monographs documenting their projects tend to be embarrassing, even if just circulated among family, friends and clients.

Still, hope springs eternal, and I appreciate and embrace design. When focused on those who will actually be affected by the crafting of spaces and places – the users– it can elevate the human experience.

12.9.15

MALIBU AND SANTA MONICA DIVORCE PROCEEDINGS

My latest commentary for 97.5 KBU, and everywhere on radiomalibu.net, a hot topic in Malibu. As I have noted previously, the more local the issue, be it planning, the public schools or whatever, the more engaged the public, the healthier the community.

If anything came out of the most recent Board meeting of the Santa Monica Malibu Unified School District, it was the resolve of Malibu for its own district, and the distressing recalcitrance of  the Santa Monica majority.

The meeting in Santa Monica I feel was very much a reflection of present community concerns, and a harbinger of an  inevitable political battle in the district.

In the middle of this morass is an evolving Malibu and no less than the efficacy of public education.

Scores of parents present and past, filled the district’s alien headquarters to urge and argue for a locally controlled district, joined in by City Council.\

But before they could testify they had to wait for several hours to listen to a district assistant drone on about a report that contended the separation of the two cities would result in fewer dollars for Santa Monica students,

This contradicts an earlier report that indicated there would be NO loss of funding for either district in a separation, and in fact both would benefit, though maybe not the Santa Monica district central bureaucracy.  There’s the rub.

Having occasionally in my maverick career indulged in institutional oversight, as an administrator and investigative journalist, the projections appeared cooked, in the charts of jumbled numbers and in their mumbled explanations.

Unfortunately, Malibu is frankly viewed by a gaggle of Santa Monica’s self-righteous board members as a cash cow for the district, while their own city continues to gentrify, marked by an increasing tax base and a decreasing student population.

If they are worried about losing students, and state subsidies, to bolster their bureaucratic budgets they could easily accept willing transfers from bordering Venice and West L.A.

And even if the district’s projections were correct, student needs should be the bottom line, not money, which incidentally does not necessarily translate into a better education system.

Malibu is essentially a small rural city; Santa Monica an urban entity, with a disproportionate voter ratio of 84% to 16%. As a result, Malibu is consistently on the short end of the stick for district resources.

Make no mistake about it, for all its pretensions and popular liberal image Santa Monica is innately conservative, yielding to a self serving bureaucracy, under a sham egalitarian banner.

Malibu citizens need to be able to rectify their own academic and administrative school issues in a timely, responsible and reasonable manner; and should not need to travel to another town to attend meetings to beg. SMMUSD is the last district in the state of California that joins two geographically separate cities, an anomaly in public school administrative policy.

The separation is a democratic imperative that cannot be denied, the arguments for are urgent, and also frankly ethical.

 

12.5.2015

 

The Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and Beyond

While combining pleasure and work surveying cultural tourism in Europe a few months ago, I could not help but wonder if there also were some lessons for my Malibu.

And indeed there was one in particular, a diverting arts and entertainment experience in Edinburgh that for years has been hyped by au courant friends and family.

The Scottish city, of course, is on a completely different scale, if not planet than Malibu, with a very successful history as arguably the world’s leading festival city.

Its International Festival was launched in the wake of World War Two, as a much needed celebration of the creative human spirit. It then flowered into a host of cultural happenings: music, dance, film, art, books, drama, you name it.

Most interesting for me, and harboring some ideas for Malibu, is Edinburgh’s aptly named Fringe Festival. Whatever engages and entertains, be it single performers or ensembles, is material for the decidedly democratic festival.

This year’s was a grand affair, hosting an amazing 50,459 performances of 3,314 shows in 313 venues across Edinburgh, in school halls, university auditoriums, a few aged theaters, churches, under tents, in public parks, private gardens, living rooms and on closed streets and dedicated sidewalks.

Everywhere you wandered in the ancient city there was a peek at a production. Nearly 2.3 million tickets were issued, at modest prices, half price near curtain time, and many free.

The challenge was what to see: an acclaimed company performing an act from a London bound play, a comedy team from Germany doing mime, a Korean dance troup, juggling ballet dancers, acrobatic office workers, standup comics, stand down story tellers,, and buskers everywhere, behind every bench and bush, and on sidewalks and streets, to be sure each spot dedicated and subject to scheduling

It was all doable, because performances were limited to an hour or so, and if you were alert to the buzz, you might score the best of the fest.

The result were wild and wonderful, in part made so because the festival amazingly is open all; absolutely anyone so inspired can stage a show or event, though helping would be having a producer and securing a venue and a time slot. There are no auditions, no second guessing by bureaucrats or politicians. It’s about having the hubris and hustling.

Can something like the fringe on a thumbnail scale work in Malibu?

There are certainly scattered spaces and places that can be transformed temporarily into performance sites, schools, churches, city hall, shopping plazas, parking lots, indeed Legacy, Bluff and Trancas parks. For sure not in the crowded summer, but anytime else, thanks to our weather.

Malibu already has the cache. All it needs is the creativity and flexibility.

If the Cultural Arts Commission can ease its bonds with the city’s innately conservative council and faint hearted city government, and tap its laudable commitment, become transparent, and inspire the city’s many talented incipient residents, it can happen.

Speaking as a former if briefly Disney Imagineer, needed is imagination. It is also what the ever candid Scots in Edinburgh would say.

 

 

A Community Garden as a Central Park for Malibu

Let’s face it, Malibu as the manifestation of a city, a town, a village, or however described, is a mess.

Of course, there is the ocean. There are concerns about water quality, access and views, but it perseveres.

The PCH is a perplexing problem, and will be forever as long as people drive.

The Civic Center is definitely not civic or centered, rather several disconnected shopping malls, and an isolated library and city hall.

And in the marrow of this mess is Legacy Park, my latest commentary heard on 97.5 KBU, and everywhere on radiomalibu.net

An anxious Cultural Arts Commission and entangled City Council are waiting for a team of consultants to come back with a detailed plan for revitalizing the 17 acre expanse. In the interest of accuracy the word should not be revitalizing, because the overgrown area of undergrowth has never been vital and not particularly friendly or frequented.

Less we forget, it is in fact the earthen roof of a city blessed water treatment plant serving the adjacent high-end stores and pricey residences, packaged by avaricious real estate interests and sold to an undiscerning city council. Some have labeled it perhaps more accurately as the leech field, and with derision, Lunacy Park because of the thinking by the city that hyped its approval.

It is most certainly a design challenge, worthy of the consultant team of Hodgetts and Fung with an assist by Calvin Abe landscape architects, which recently presented a rough draft plan to the commission.

Displayed and illustrated by select photographs was an array of sketchy alternatives. They included expanded water features, functional art works, and a web of pathways to the adjacent library, country mart, city hall and the proposed Santa Monica college extension.

It was very much a laundry list of features, which some felt were too art and urban oriented. Reiterated by several commissioners was that the park should be as natural as possible, consistent with an ecological theme appealing in particular to locals and children. The commission gave its preliminary approval, but directed the consultants to go back to the drawing boards, and return in a few weeks with a more focused plan.

This also gave me some time to walk the forlorn site, keeping in mind its constraints of no structures or ball fields, which had been negotiated away by a past council. The challenge is somehow craft it to be local and green, with a smattering of art.

As I wandered I recalled the sage advice of a landscape architect I once worked with, Dan Kiley, who said a site will tell you what it wants to be. Just pick up some soil, rub it, close your eyes and think how the site be used

The vision that appeared was a community garden, a collection of small plots tended by locals, producing an abundance of vegetables, fruits and flowers, for themselves and for sharing, connecting to the environment, and each other in a singular commonalty, sustaining the park with people and purpose.

As for the art the commission would like, it can mark the gateway to the garden, the seating, or lighting, things that can be used use and delight us. And given its size, there also could be room for a passive, wildlife friendly native landscape, and perhaps a dog park, hopefully better designed than the one at Trancas Canyon. Maybe also a multi use field, if the city could find a legal loophole through the constraints.

But the focus of Legacy I feel should be a community garden.

Think about it; envision it.

Art of Photography as Social Commentary

Family, friends and fans, a new arrow in my quiver. In addition to my planning and design commentary City Observed on 97.5 KBU FM heard Saturdays locally , and on radiomalibu.net everywhere, there is Arts and Entertainment Observed, a new broadcast feature heard Sundays. The first focused on the art of photography as social commentary. It follows:

At the Skirball Cultural Center off of the 405 a particular searing pictorial commentary on one of the more shameful, egregious –it is hard to find the appropriate word for it –outrages of World War Two. And sadly perpetrated by United States, replete with cloying rationale by President Roosevelt.

The incarceration of tens of thousand of United States citizens, men, women and children, –who happened to be of Japanese descent — in a barren dust bowl 220 miles northeast of Los Angeles for no other reasons other than they looked Japanese, was a flagrant violation of civil rights and the constitution.

No matter, following the attack on Pearl Harbor, they were ripped from their homes and possessions. Of local note this included several Malibu families who owned nurseries in the civic center area.

They lost their land that probably would have made them among the largest landowners in Malibu today, and we would no doubt have something very different than the crass clutter of shopping centers.

Lending particular note to the exhibit is that most of the photographs were taken by the already then renown Ansel Adams, best known for his stunning landscapes.

He was asked to document the outrage by no less then the camp director, a friend from the then and still progressive Sierra Club. The photographs are captivating, as are the artifacts documents and newspaper articles of the day, reflecting the prejudices and hysteria of the that prompted the incarceration, and the artifacts of coping within the camp.

Also shown are photographs by Dorothea Lange and Toyo Miyatake. A recognized and respected photographer, he had worked with Edwin Weston, and was nonetheless incarcerated.

Another incarcerated artist but at a camp in Utah was Mine’ Okubo. Her sketches and paintings from that trying time are shown in another gallery at the Skirball , and is entitled Citizen 13660.

That was her family’s assigned camp number, and the title of her subsequent book depicting the harsh life in the camp.

Okubo later participated in a redress action that extracted an apology and reparations from the U.S. government.

The exhibit at the Skirball runs to February 21st.

Coincidently, at the nearby Getty, also running to Feb. 21st, are the photographs of Ishiuchi Miyako, entitled Postwar Shadows.

Included are haunting images of objects that survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, and despondent post war scenes of life under the American occupation.

Also at the Getty is an exhibit entitled The Younger Generation, Contemporary Japanese Photography.

All of the artists are women , which is interesting in respect to the subject matters, but also from the perspective that Japan is very much a male chauvinistic society. It is known there as “girl photography.”

 

11.15.15

 

 

L.A. River Continues to Roil

My latest commentary for 97.5 KBU, heard everywhere on radiomalibu.net. and can be read on cityobseerved.com:

The L.A. River continues to roil, as it has since several months ago when it was revealed the irrepressible and much honored Frank Gehry had been surreptitiously anointed to master plan the entire 51 mile expanse of the mostly raw water way.

Seemingly ignored by the powers that be – namely the city’s star struck Mayor Eric Garcetti and the LA. River Restoration Corp. ‘s cipher Omar Brownstein –that the celebrity architect had not been even remotely involved in the last 40 years of dogged grassroots efforts to improve the river, and is known primarily for his singular structures and definitely not city planning nor landscaping.

That the mayor mistakenly identified Gehry the Olmsted of L.A. –he is a legendary landscaper –even embarrassed the usually imperious Gehry, who recently was feted by the equally imperious Getty that once rejected him. How the wheel turns in a capricious L.A. of short memories.

Even as a critic of Frank’s past failures of form over function   –how buildings look rather than work – I warily welcomed him with the hope his involvement might bring needed attention, and funding, to the river.

And optimistically, perhaps he and his noteworthy team, including a famed Dutch hydrologist, might generate some interesting design iterations. Though instead of looking at computer models, I suggested maybe they should tour the river, that if it is to be revitalized, it will happen in a series of small, contextual site sensitive projects.

But Frank apparently just could not be content with the Getty honors, a cluttered of a warehouse of models  exhibited at LACMA, a career-crowning, celebrity studded book by the critic now fawning biographer Paul Goldberger, and the constant veneration of peers and the public.

He succumbed to that constant equation that for me explains much about our celebrity obsession, that personalities in the public eye are the sum of an equation of megalomania, divided by paranoia.

Agreeing to an interview by my alma mater, the ever august New York Times, the paper of record, Gehry proceeded to dismiss criticism of his involvement, and further denigrated its his critics, telling them to “grow up.” He also suggested that if they wanted to help the revitalization they should become worker bees, with the assumption he would be the queen bee.

Meanwhile, Gehry might happily have had a filter put on his mouth, but the diatribe unfortunately keeps echoing.

The long time river advocates no doubt he was referring to include I assume Lew McAdams, who selfless efforts have been absolutely vital to raising the awareness of the river. He is definitely not a jerk; vain maybe. Neither is Mia Lehrer, the river’s principle professional designer to date. She may be covetous, given the convoluted city politics. But not a jerk.

If Gehry needed to identify the jerks to date, let me suggest the vain glorious Mayor and his sycophants, an ever development and headline hungry pack of river rats. As if the revitalization of L.A.River did not have enough challenges.

10.31.15

 

For an Independent Malibu School District

In that thin strip of a seaside rural village labeled Malibu where I live, the struggle continues to nurture an idiosyncratic identity., and the subject of my latest KBU commentary

No, I am not referring to Measure W, and whether the city should impose constraints on proposed development in its fractured civic center.

As I have commented in the past, planning and development in Malibu has been politically vulnerable, bureaucratically bungled, and frankly haphazard. Major surgery is needed. Not band aids.

More critical and immediate in my opinion is the future of our public school, whether enough signatures can be collected by November First to advance the drive for a separate school district. 4,500 signatures are needed.

The group known as AMPS, advocates for Malibu Public Schools, will be circulating petitions for signatures all this week and next weekend at the shopping centers. Or you can sign on–line. Just contact them at www.ampsmalibu.org. or call 310 734 2021.

The 20 miles of beaches may lend Malibu an identity; the ocean sunsets a touch of romanticism; the backdrop of mountains drama; a resident celebrity a hint of enigma.

But it is the public schools, Webster, the Point, Cabrillo, Malibu middle and senior highs, that are the soul of the city, where one senses its egalitarian spirit. Democracy perseveres here.

Yes, there are problems– I like to think of them as challenges –but more pervasive is their vitality.

My opinion is Influenced by being a parent of four children who all attended public schools, be it in New York, Santa Monica, or for the last several decades, Malibu.

Wherever, the schools were integral to our sense of community.

They were our principle concern; their ranking, their scores, the buzz among parents: All weighed heavily in finding homes in select neighborhoods. In our case, it was north of Wilshire, 30 plus year ago, Point Dume nearly 20 years ago..

Beyond the personal, there are many reasons for an independent Malibu School District:

It will prompt local accountability.

No longer will Malibu be a step child to Santa Monica, separated by a long stretch of the PCH.

No longer will Malibu at best be represented by only one member on the local school board.

And studies have shown that it will actually improve the financing of both districts: NO increase in tax burdens for either city; NO increases in school operating costs

A separate Malibu School District also should have a special appeal to the real estate community, the exclusivity giving them yet another sales point. It most certainly can be expected to give prices a boost.

It’s a rare win win for all, especially the children.

 

 

Traffic Continues to Challenge Misanthropic Malibu

In my half century plus of journalism that has included the NY Times, LA Times, NPR, Fox News and others, I found the more local the news the more reader response. And so it is with my weekly commentary on 97.5 KBU and radiomalibu.net, which I’m also posting here:

Traffic concerns continue to be an issue on my Point Dume neighborhood, as they are in most, suburban and exurban communities.

Here in misanthropic Malibu, the City Council was primed to approve a street paving contract, until local radio KBU raised concern. These included why humps for certain streets and not others, and whether they are the best solution to the Point’s traffic woes.

It appears that the city was responding to petitions gathered on select streets from residents concerned about speeding, in particular the cul de sacs Grayfox and Wildlife, where not incidentally there is gated access to the hallowed beach below.

Presumably the traffic was locals with keys or meeting people with keys, looking for parking or ferrying people. Ah, the blessing and curse of being on a beach key street.

Not on the list for speed control measures were the more traveled and perilous Dume and Cliffside drives.

And there was no mention of Grasswood, where residents had testified before the city and circulated petitions not about speeding, but how parking on beach days there made the street impassable, in particular for emergency vehicles. Apparently they did not get enough signatures.

But who is counting? As I stated before, as a planning professor, practitioner and commentator, public safety should NOT be a political whim, certainly not traffic.

Voters do not set speed limits. Politicians should not proscribe parking rules. Traffic controls should not be mandated by petitions. (What, the more signatures the higher the humps, or bumps?)

That is what traffic engineers do, at least good ones, based on voluminous studies, site appropriate paradigms and time tested field experience.

Unfortunately, Malibu city government and our city council do not have a history that inspires confidence.

You do not have to be for or against Measure W, to question the associated traffic studies accepted by the city; we as a city did not have to go the brink to save the trees on PCH, if Caltrans had been asked, as I did, couldn’t instead the highway just be narrowed by a foot?

Why did we have to rely on a developer’s consultant? Where was ours? Amiable as a few members are, this council just does not have the chops.

And so, at the last meeting despite the concerns of residents, including a petition, the council focused on the paving contract and went for a compromise. It approved the paving with humps for Wildlife and Grayfox, and threw a bone to Pt. Dume by calling for an open meeting to consider traffic issues.

It also asked staff and the city’s traffic consultant to review applicable traffic calming items, and to unearth a traffic study that was once done for the Point.

I recall the study being presented to the Point’s Resident Association and then being buried alive, by the then Barovsky dominated council.

It will be interesting what will happen, and not happen, at the yet to be scheduled meeting, and will it, or should it, make a difference,. Stay tuned.

 

Malibu City Government Hits a Speed Bump

 

Unfortunately our sluggish city bureaucracy and hapless City Council just do not seem to get things right, even when they are apparently well intentioned and not being held sway to special interests or specious reasoning.

The City Council is poised to approve next Wednesday the funding of a pavement contract including 26 speed humps plus , –for a total of $427,000 –supposedly requested by Point residents.

As a traffic-calming advocate, generally in favor of speed humps, I am perplexed. That there are traffic problems on Point Dume has long been evident to anyone who lives or drives in Malibu, on PCH obviously, but also on local streets.

There is speeding everywhere, mostly on the straight aways of Dume and Cliffside drives. Parking also is a problem, in particular around the Village Center every day and Grasswood Avenue where on select days it actually makes the street all but impassable for emergency vehicles.

As I have written in the past, I consider these safety issues, subject to professional planning reviews. They should not be grist for political motivated actions by municipalities. Certainly not Malibu’s which in the past has not been very perspicacious.

If you might recall, a gaggle of Grasswood residents went before the city’s Public Safety Commission, asking that something be done to make their street safe. The item was placed on its agenda; the commission took testimony –noting that it was the largest turnout in memory –and directed the city to come up with several alternatives.

The city came back with a temporary proposal to stripe the street to allow for through traffic, confining parking to the edges where possible. It was subsequently approved. Then came the poison pill,

Heeding the concerns of Laura Rosenthal, city manger Jim Thorsen said that before acting, a consenting petition was needed from a majority of the street’s residents, though how many was not specified. Neither the city nor the residents took the initiative, and nothing happened.

Then out of left field comes the proposal for the speed humps. Talk about being blind-sided.

If approved, the humps are to be installed on Fernhill, Portshead, Selfridge, Grayfox and Wildlife, forthwith. Not mentioned were the particularly afflicted streets of Cliffside and Dume drives, and not Grasswood.

And where exactly are the speed bumps or humps going, and the signs required to alert drivers?   They tend to vary greatly, depending on posted speeds, views corridors, street widths, that if not precisely sited could be the basis of law suits. As too often, is the city going to depend on a low bid private company to make the necessary design decisions?

As a concerned resident of Cliffside, I was not petitioned, nor to my knowledge were my neighbors. Neither did I read about it in the locals papers nor on the usually informative Next Door Neighbor website.

It is interesting to note a decade or so ago we had petitioned the city for speed bumps, but the proposal was voted down by the council, then led by an intractable mayor.

To repeat, I am in favor of anything that will slow traffic down.

BUT it seems to me that the council once again is acting autocratically.

A traffic calming plan for all of the Point is needed, including its main streets of Dume and Cliffside drives, The city’s planning process needs to be more broader and transparent.

The council continues to baffle. When will it ever learn, if ever.

 

10.10.15