"Zhentelmen, tzees vill nev-err flai"
and Other Weird Potpourri
It was 1987 in Los Angeles when things started to go down the toilet.
I was dabbling in architectural design and making a decent living, but all of a sudden, my clients seem to have gone a bit crazy. Cat-nip like crazy, and I was asked to work on projects that just did not make sense. One here or there, sure; some flakiness is part of the business and often you work your ass off on things you know will not see the light of day. And that's okay, as long you get paid. Yes, even architects are shameless whores sometimes. That summer was different because everything had a tinge of wide-eyed desperation and there was madness in my clients' requests. Not one, but all of them. And at that time I had about 20 clients. All big boys with lots of cash; oil companies, car dealers, landowners and stock market speculators. And they all mingled happily with ostentatious slum landlords who collected rent in their Rolls Royces from the piss-poor immigrant homes in the area. The location was West Of Harbor, a reference to a blighted area just west of the Harbor Freeway and within a stone's throw of the bling that Downtown Los Angeles seemed to have become with its shiny high rises shimmering copper and gold in the afternoon glow.
The contrasts were staggering. The Harbor Freeway was a solid canyon-like barrier between abject poverty and obscene riches. There was, however, some spill-over from the East side and an oil company headquarters shared the neighborhood with Latin American drug dealers and wise guys. Just down the road was the Pacific Stock Exchange next to an unlovely triangular tower occupied by the headquarters of Security Pacific Bank. Hard cash was flown to this 30-story building daily by helicopters from all over the city to avoid bank truck robberies.
Also in the area was a piece of land that was later acquired by the LA School District and a huge high school was built there. It was meant to be the District's jewel and it took years and millions to build. Just before the Grand Opening it became obvious that the school was built on a geologically unstable and poisonous ground that leaked various toxic substances into the classrooms. The building was abandoned and lawsuits started to hit the fan. Some twenty years later the campus is still empty and no one dares to even enter for fear of contamination. None of this should have been a surprise as the area was an old oil field and many pumps still operate right next to nice family homes.
The crazy season started with the Whittier Earthquake on October 1, 1987. It was hot that day and the skies seemed to turn an ominous crimson. My son was only seven months old when the quake hit and we lived in a two-story apartment building in Studio City. I was in the shower - it was about 7:40 am - and I ran to grab Benjamin to get out of the shaking building. By the time we made it outdoors, the shaking stopped and the only visible indication of any problem was the swimming pool that had waves one could surf on; that and every car alarm in the neighborhood was going off. There was very little damage to our apartment. My office building in Downtown Los Angeles, perched on spindly columns on a cliff with footings of unknown depth and quality, survived with only minor damage.
One of my clients was Dr. Silverstein of Beverly Hills, who owned close to a hundred apartment dwellings in the area; vast majority of them filthy slums with 15 people crammed into one room and gangs controlling access to the streets. Dr. Silverstein's bravado knew no bounds as he channeled Rambo to become invincible hidden behind the bullet-proof windows of his Rolls Royce with a 24-carat gilded grille as he glided through his tawdry dominion. It was the same Dr. Silverstein who engaged my professional services to inspect his properties for serious earthquake damage. Make no mistake, I was not qualified for the work as I am not a structural engineer, but I knew what to look for and what would indicate a serious structural problem that may be unseen within a building.
I knew I was on an assignment from hell when the Good Doctor sent one of his Samoan enforcers with me...to provide protection. Each place we visited was worse then the previous. Overcrowding, filth, poverty, crime, drugs and other forms of human misery were visible everywhere. It took me two weeks to cover the Doctor's apartments and my report included recommendations to fix some items that were not caused by the quake; like plumbing and sanitation issues, peeling plaster, rodent infestation, trash proliferation and so on. The Doctor just snickered...we'll get to that sometime. It was never done.
The nutty season continued with Black Monday on October 19th when the stock market took a major dive wiping out billions of dollars. The sky in LA shimmered with heat and we wondered if the apocalypse was approaching.
One of my clients decided that it was time to reduce the amount of smog in Los Angeles. Since LA is the only major metropolis that was designed specifically for the automobile, air quality was always a problem that seemed to have no radical solution. The Los Angeles basin is surrounded on three sides by the San Gabriel Mountains and a prevailing breeze blows from the ocean. This means that as the amount of pollutants in the air builds up during the morning, the heavy air is pushed against the mountains forming impenetrable brown-orange colored fog. Early in the 1980s some bright spark proposed drilling a series of huge tunnels through the granite San Gabriel range and installing massive fans at the entrance to the tunnels. When the pollution reaches a predetermined level, the fans are turned on and the pollutant-rich air would be flushed straight into the Mohave desert on the other side. This was a fine idea based on the age-old principle of opening two sets of doors creating a draft in a room where someone just cut the cheese. The scale was a bit larger...so what...in the dizzy eighties we had Lee Majors and the technology. When someone timidly asked just how will one drill tunnels through 100 miles of granite and quartz, the confident answer was "nuclear weapons, naturally". Yes, I can just see those mushroom clouds rising in the San Gabriel foothills spreading radiation throughout the basin. Alas, it was not to be and LA is just as smoggy now as it was then.
The client's idea was actually more modest in its scope and there was even a modicum of logic in it. The nucleus was a STOL airport. STOL stands for Short Take Off and Landing - an airport for smaller aircraft that can land on a relatively short runway. Downtown is the financial and business heart of the city, but the nearest airport, Los Angeles International is about an hour away. On a good day, with benign traffic! So, my client thought, why not bring the airport closer to the city; people will not have to drive so far, save gas and we'll have less smog. Except there is no room in the middle of the LA to build an airport! My client solved this like the Gordian knot puzzle. The Freeway! The Harbor Freeway cuts through downtown, mostly below-grade with local streets and on/off ramps bridging over it. It's an urban canyon of sorts. And, if there was a deck over the freeway, one could, reasonably, put a runway on it. This runway would be within walking distance to the major downtown hotels and office towers. It would also be within wing clipping distance to some of the same towers, but that didn't seem matter. There was a STOL fervor that gripped the city. A committee was formed consisting of City Planners, environmentalists, aviation experts, traffic consultants and assorted know-it-alls. These were all serious people and I wondered why I was the only one who regarded the concept as DOA. Was I missing something or was this turd of a project actually ingenious? Eventually I was proven right. It was during the endless meetings that produced nothing except more meetings that one of the international "experts" sitting next to me spoke up, quietly but with a clear resolve. As he was French, he said:
But the mania and associated bullshit continued unabated. Some sharp fork in the LA City Council drawer thought that it would be appropriate to erect a monument...to immigration. Here's the thought process: first there was the statue of Liberty welcoming immigrants on Ellis Island in New York, the Arch of St. Louis followed decades later celebrating the gateway to the West, now it was LA's turn as most of the immigrants passed through it from the South and the Pacific Rim countries. It was pig logic at best; almost amusing, except for its naked crassness. The location was yet another "deck-over-the-freeway" this time the 101, the Hollywood Freeway that bisects Downtown in the other direction. This monument was to be within spitting distance of some of the worst slums on the West Coast; those entirely occupied by illegal immigrants from Mexico and other South American countries, most of whom didn't have a snowballs chance in hell in becoming legal and who perpetually lived in fear of "La Migra". But they were going to have a monument....it was civic arrogance and unbridled political ambition at its nastiest.
In the interest of full disclosure, I assisted with one of the competition entries in full whoring mode. I recall a meeting about the entry when some 20 people looked at a layout peppered with little symbols that made no sense. I just did not understand what they meant, so I asked: "What are these little squiggles?". The silence was deafening and then someone whispered to me, "We don't know yet, but it doesn't matter". Those buggers were counting on the expectation that no-one would ask the rude question I had. It was surreal.
The winning design was from a New York firm. Here's the description:
Verbose bullshit of the finest kind! The fluid and transient clearly refers to the multitude of homeless people who roam nearby streets often publicly relieving themselves in the context of some episodic architecture. Anyway, the Steel Cloud was never built and the Hollywood Freeway remains open to the sky offering tantalizing and brutal glimpses of the Twin Towers County Jail as one drives through. Maybe that's what episodic architecture actually means.
Those were colorful days. Another exciting project was yet another tunnel - an old disused tunnel from the days of the trolleys that ran under the Harbor Freeway. One of my clients owned the tunnel and the land nearby and decided that the tunnel was an important part of his project as a bus route between the two parts of Downtown. It was a hopelessly hare-brained scheme that came to a quick end when we discovered that the tunnel ended abruptly at the footing of Bonaventure Hotel. A tunnel to nowhere.
By that time I was really fed up with architecture. I'd spent a lot of time figuring out parking...if we built a 40-story tower, where would people park and what to do with all the cars at 5 pm when the parking structures disgorged 5,000 cars onto already crowded streets and freeways? There were no easy answers. The City had perpetual wet dreams about public transport, subways, cable cars, electric buses, people movers, Jetson-mobilesÉ
On the bright side, I met a lot of people; planners, architects, engineers, City people, and was sometimes offered a permanent job. This was a great surprise to me since I was not trained in anything...I was a gifted amateur. Once a principal from a well-known civil engineering firm took me to lunch and told me he was impressed with my recent work on a complex street design. He offered me a highly desirable position and when I explained I did not have any training or the right education he said, " You draw and think in three dimensions. Titles don't matter to me". But I couldn't accept, because I didn't have a Green Card at the time. So I made excuses. The offers were tempting as they carried security and benefits, but I remained the perennial outsider.
Ultimately, it did not matter. In 1988, the real estate market started to dive and suddenly there was no interest in the kind of development I'd worked on. Today, the west side of Harbor Freeway is still undeveloped, with vast empty spaces filled with trash where we had demolished homes. In Los Angeles, the cycles of prosperity and poverty seem to move faster than anywhere else in the world. A community can go to the dogs very fast...never to recover.
All in the context of episodic architecture....
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© 2007 Karel Kriz and Bouncing Czech Productions