Hawthorne takes the helm of civic design in LA – but what about the politics?

Christopher Hawthorne tells DnA why he's leaving his position as architecture critic of the Los Angeles Times to become LA's first Chief Design Officer, and how he plans to navigate the bureaucracy of City Hall.

Longtime Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne has left the paper to take a new position, at the invitation of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, of Chief Design Officer for the city.

In his last column for the Times, he wrote about his aspirations for this position, emphasizing a “a clear central focus: the public realm,” as well as initiatives such as supporting young talent through design competitions, enabling better quality of housing and amplifying the design presented to us by the 2028 Olympics. He starts this job on April 16 and on April 3, DnA aired an interview about these goals — and the practicalities of achieving them in a city of complex politics.

You can hear that interview here:

We also exchanged a few questions and answers by email, and here they are:

DnA: Do you have a budget and if not, how will you operate?

Among my main charges will be making sure the money already in the pipeline for parks, housing, transit and other projects — money approved by voters through measures A, M, HHH, JJJ and other bond and ballot iniatives — is spent as efficiently and intelligently as possible when it comes to architecture and, in particular, urban design.

The goal is to look for places to save money or spend it more intelligently, not merely to spend it as some measure of sway. This is an important distinction, because there’s a strain of political thinking that argues that paying attention to design means loading unnecessary cost, constraint and delay onto any new project.

And yet the great tradition of innovation in Los Angeles architecture, as I argued in the piece announcing my decision to take this job, is based in a kind of experimental economy, of doing more with less. You can trace back in L.A. architecture, for more than a century, a sort of pragmatic avant-garde that includes Bernard Maybeck, the anonymous builders of kit-house bungalows, Irving Gill, Schindler and the Eameses all the way through Frank Gehry’s breakthrough early work, Hodgetts and Fung, Koning Eizenberg, Barbara Bestor and now a bunch of really intriguing younger offices in L.A.

To explain the idea a bit more, the Eames House was both more important architecturally and cheaper to build than, say, a massive Spanish Colonial villa that an earlier generation of architectural patrons would have found impressive, just as Deborah Sussman and Jon Jerde’s designs for the 1984 Olympics were both more representative of the host city and less expensive than equivalent efforts for other Olympics.

This is the kind of work I’ll be supporting and finding room for; the overarching question for me is whether we can bring the tradition of design innovation and nimble thinking that for many decades has resided almost entirely in the residential sphere into the civic realm.

Separately, when it comes to the projects that we launch directly from our office — and you and I will have plenty of chances to discuss those soon enough! — we’ll have to find funding either inside or outside city government and take advantage of partnerships with other cultural institutions in and around Los Angeles.

I’m confident we’ll be able to do that at a significant scale and with real impact.

DnA: It’s hard to be a chief in Los Angeles because there are so many fiefdoms, from the city council members who have great power over their own districts to the multiple departments that have a stake in city projects. Do you have thoughts on how to handle the politics of design in LA, harness competing power centers and fend off bureaucratic resistance?

It’s true that Los Angeles is unusually fragmented (to borrow Robert Fogelson’s term) in its political organization. And you didn’t even mention the complexity of the relationship between L.A. city and county when it comes to infrastructure and urban design, which is perhaps the most complicated layer of all.

Still, the question you raise is one that might be posed about any complex organization — including, ahem, a big daily newspaper, which is as full of ambitious people with their own fiefdoms as any organization I could name.

If I were walking into Los Angeles not having covered these agencies and council districts as long as I have I might find that particular part of the challenge more daunting. I’m certainly persuaded there’s room to operate; otherwise I wouldn’t have taken the job.

DnA: You say you will support individuals — like Gary Lee More and Deborah Weintraub at the Department of Engineering — and agencies that already promote good design for the civic realm. What can you add to what they’ve already accomplished? Moreover, does the private realm need more help? Will you have any say over the quality of housing and commercial towers that are currently being built?

When you pause to consider the scale of what we’re about to design and build in Los Angeles over the next decade or so, it becomes clear that even people as accomplished as Gary and Deborah are going to need as much support as they can get. And yes, the mayor and I have discussed a number of ways in which we can work to improve the quality of private development in L.A. as well, especially when it’s big enough to have a significant effect on the public realm.

DnA: You have mentioned the 2028 Olympics a number of times in relation to this position. Do you have a specific role? Will big players such as AECOM have to come to you for project approval?

The Olympics are an important touchstone because they offer us the kind of civic deadline — exactly a decade from now — that is rare for cities. Separately from the Olympic planning effort itself, which has been run in impressive fashion by Casey Wasserman and Gene Sykes in collaboration with the mayor, there’s a chance for us to think about what kind of city we want to be in ten years and how best to realize those civic goals; and we have great models like Sussman’s work to look back to. The Games are coming; let’s take advantage of that to sharpen our civic conversation and the level of our public design as well.

DnA: Will you have the power to veto designs and are you confident that you will give the thumbs up to tomorrow’s landmarks?

The job title is Chief Design Officer, not Chief Justice of the Los Angeles Supreme Architectural Court. Still, when there’s a proposal for a large-scale project that the mayor and I agree promises to do a major disservice to Los Angeles and its residents — because it’s bloated and inefficient or in certain cases because it’s not simply not well-designed or ambitious enough architecturally, or lacks a sense of place — we’ll seek a better outcome whether the client is public or private.

As for “tomorrow’s landmarks,” making critical judgments about architecture is something I feel pretty comfortable (and have a bit of experience) doing.