Urban Design II: Los Angeles

Today’s topic will be the Urban Design of Los Angeles. The main tools will be top-down infrastructure (Ecology/landscape), fragmented sub-urban (suburbia) and places for experimentation (micro/temporary programs).

Los Angeles is a car city. It is the antagonist to New York, the incarnation of the battle between the East and West Coast. Hollywood is located in Los Angeles and Hollywood produces the modern understanding of America.

Los Angeles is also a (horizontal) grid city. The city grew out of property speculation with Asian migrants building the railways in hope of a better future. Architects came to Los Angeles to build a small bungalow or two. Los Angeles is multiple cities in one place (not geographically, but imaginary).

Los Angeles is also a Postmodern City. The modern idea ended with the Second World Ware. Postmodernity interweaves the past with the present and expectations of the future in contrast to Modern concepts of Communism, Scientific endeavour and Socialism.

Ed Soja describes Los Angeles as highly fragmented and inducing a feeling of being lost and being dislocated epitomised in the Bonaventura. Conventional understandings of a city are questioned by Los Angeles. Conventional standards of planning do not apply. Individuals, pressure groups and planning authorities vie for the decision how to develop the city. The non-planning has become a characteristic of the city. Frank Gehry is a product of Los Angeles. Los Angelites spend 1 month per year in their car.

Los Angeles is also plagued by skid rows (homeless housing in tents) and riots, both forming the character of the city. The Mexican past of the city mixes with the American identity and incoming Asian cultures (Korean, Chinese and Japanese).

The city of Los Angeles has a density of 3000 inhabitants per squarekilometer with 4 million inhabitants, whereas the county of Los Angeles drops to 900 inhabitants per squarekilometer at 10 million inhabitants. The greater Los Angeles incorporates neighbouring counties and the number of inhabitants rises to 18 million.

Top-down Infrastructure

Los Angeles laid down the grid and people were invited to come to Los Angeles. Real estate taxes drove the engine of Los Angeles. 160 administrative subdivision are contained within the 5 counties Greater Los Angeles covers.

Los Angeles was unexplored and presented itself as a desirable opportunity. Route 66 was the road from Chicago to Los Angeles that people travelled in pursue of happiness. Los Angeles was sold as an antidote to  the urban city by promoting the suburban. Trams connected the suburbs to the centre, but soon where complimented and overtaken by highways. Within 10 years in the 1920s Los Angeles grew with the incoming migrants from empty fields to full-blown city. As a side-note, this is happening in most major cities in developing countries from China over India to Nigeria. Los Angeles also planned quarters that enforced the segregation.

Los Angeles had no notable economy before 1920, but soon produced 25% of US oil and soon expanded its importance via the film industry.

The floodwater infrastructure cuts through the city and carries valuable water to the ocean. The hostile environment (swamp, desert, mountains) made occupying the area a difficult task. Vast and strategic infrastructure is necessary to work. Water is imported through massive aqueducts from Colorado. Electricity is imported with the longest high-voltage electricity line from the Pacific Northwest. The hot summer makes people use air condition on an incredible scale. The interstate highway connection to New York binds it to the rest of the US. The former Los Angeles River has been converted from meandering to a straight line. Most of the time it is an empty 8 meter gap in the city, but during strong down pours it may completely fill up with floodwater. Graffiti artists reclaim the floodwater systems by filling them with art. People reclaim the floodwater system with sports and recreation. (Reclaiming) Infrastructure will become a core task of architecture.

Fragmented Sub-urban

Suburbia was an attempt to decentralise cities in the face of nuclear threats in the cold war. Los Angeles has no strong centralised core, but equally spans into all directions. The fragmentation ensues as all suburban areas create their own nucleus.

Pacific Electric Railway connected the disparate suburbia and enabled movement, followed by the highway.  Industry gathered along the river and fragmented the city even more: industrial suburbs.

Hollywood is a suburb. The suburb was projected to the rest of the US with the help of the film industry. The suburb was also a dream where each hard-working American can have a house.

The suburban and exurban has become urban as the density of suburbia and the communication technologies removes any distance. Modern cities are hybrid, both urban and non-urban.

Places for experimentation

New architecture was tested in Los Angeles. Many architects went to Los Angeles to build bungalows and tested new approaches how to built. Los Angeles is the playground of architecture. The Lovell beach house was built in the 1930s and looks like contemporary 2010s architecture.

Lovell Beach House

Lovell Beach House

Architecture of single buildings is the first step towards Urban Design. Houses are the atomic elements of Urbanism. Frank Lloyd Wright becomes the greatest American architect and inspires many architects in Los Angeles giving the Urban Characteristic to the city. Architects pick up elements of the past, mix them with their interpretation and creating buildings for the future in the present. Los Angeles was the core of Postmodern Architecture in the US. Experimental Architecture becomes a core concept to create new architecture put forward by Gehry such as the Disney Concert Hall.

Disney Concert Hall

Disney Concert Hall



Urban Design I: Tools

Throughout the course Urban Design I several “tools” were introduced that impact urbanity.


Tools of this kind belong to top-down approaches and usually give form to the urbanscape in a radical way.

Megascale-planing (Berlin)

Berlin was an early example of a politically motivated re-organisation of administrative units. Berlin grew from nearly 2 million to 4 million people due to the administrative rearrangement. Infrastructure was created to join the adjacent cities and towns.

Horizontal-vertical grid (New York)

To tackle shanty towns and issues with hygiene in 1811 New York proposed the grid layout of the city. The grid was super-imposed over the old city and only main roads like the Broadway give a glimpse at previous layouts. The grid-structure was complemented in the early 20th century with vertical zoning laws that created the concept of high rises with private plazas that must include residential areas in the buildings.. To compensate for the high density the Central Park was created as a contrasting void.


This set of tools focuses on cities with destroyed urban fabric and potential ways of reconstructing the fabric.

Critical Reconstruction (Berlin)

The “Planwerk Innenstadt Berlin” was a combined effort to fill the holes in the city left by the division and the war. The main idea was to re-discover the historic character of the city and modernise it.

De-urbanisation (Sarajevo)

The urban fabric of the city was not only damaged by the on-going war within the city, but also intentionally destroyed to remove signs of urban co-existence of different ethnic groups. The process has been called urbicide and is intrinsically connected to ethnic cleansing. The use of urban space was shifted and attained new meaning. Open spaces became dangerous due to the constant sniper fire and new spaces had to be acquired. The cold winters forced people to cut all trees for firewood. The city’s transformation was consequently two-fold: enforced by destruction and new uses of the remainders.

Shrinking City (Detroit)

In a shrinking city the core loses its role and the periphery becomes dominant. It is often accompanied by generating suburbia. The decreasing role reduces services provided by the city and requires a drastic rearrangement of budgeting. It is often an ignored reality that is only considered when all potential alternatives failed. See the bankruptcy of Detroit.

Micro/Temporary programmes

This set of tools is limited in either time or space. It focuses on action-driven approaches where either events in the near past triggered the programme or the programme is an answer to an issue of missing urban functionality.

Temporary Urbanism (Berlin)

The empty/negative spaces of Berlin offer space for temporary and spontaneous use. Temporary urbanism arises as a consequence. An example would be the “Kitchen Monument”. A mobile kitchen that is temporarily installed in empty spaces throughout Berlin.

Turbo Urbanism (Sarajevo)

The negative spaces created by the war as well as the urbicide created the need for many functions in the city that were currently not fulfilled. New architectural and urban interventions materialised and transformed economic identities, accompanied by gentrification.

User-generated Urbanism (Athens)

Small scale, user-generated, architectural solutions to urban problems such as self-managed parks, occupation/squatting movements and alternative economy networks. They include new programs for meetings and open assemblies, and new models of production, such as the formation of urban plantations.

Cooperation and Dialogue (Cape Town)

Following the apartheid segregation and the distributive attempts of the 1990s a new paradigm was introduced in the early 2000s. To contain the sprawl, amenity requirements were introduced (access to public infrastructure, social and economic facilities). Instead of attempting total redistribution also intermediate solutions such as upgrades to the infrastructure of informal settlements rather than complete rebuilding were added to the policy portfolio. Local needs were examined and localised solutions actively sought for.

Street Renaissance (New York)

The lack of funding in the Department of Transportation, forced New York to become creative on how to adapt to new urban realities. Street paint was used to reduce space for cars, broaden side walks and introduce bicycle lanes. The reclaimed space was then occupied by pedestrians, restaurants and street furniture. Urban re-engineering enabled a fluid transformation of New York.

Microplanning (São Paulo)

Transforming unused micro-spaces into highly functional pieces of a city. For instance, the Garrido Boxing Gym situated under the unused space below an elevated highway. It uses the urban morphology to and can be considered a micro-intervention that enables local residents to participant in sports. Benches, skate parks, mini lawns and planters can all be considered micro-interventions to improve unused public space.

Active Infill (Detroit)

A reaction to empty decaying space in a city. Can be either tackled top-down with infrastructure restructuring or bottom-up in community driven projects. Infrastructure restructuring includes the condensing of services (thereby dis-servicing certain areas effectively shrinking the city) and offering incentives in “condensing areas”. Community projects make use of the empty space and give new meaning to the local urban fabric.

Informal/Hybrid City

These tools focuses on actors at the border of formal and informal and highlight how both interact and even how they can be combined.

Reactivating the city (Sarajevo)

Political paralysis has caused neglect and destruction due to disagreement over how to proceed. This opened up the city as a new urban frontier. For instance, the Historical Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina epitomises the phenomenon. To overcome decay due to budget cuts supports of the museum suggest to stretch transparent vinyl over scaffolding to stop water from causing further decay. The museum is tasked with cultural  preservation and opens a venue for society to deal with its traumatic past.

Hybrid City (Caracas)

An interplay of formal and informal settlements characterises housing settlements such as “23 de Enero”. The formal housing structures have been “improved” with informal settlements around them to optimise the use of space and to accommodate social and economic functions (such as shops and restaurant) required by the inhabitants.

Repurposing infrastructure (New York)

Rail viaducts were a common necessity in the early 20th century. In the 1950s trucks displaced trains and robbed the elevated tracks of their purpose. The High Line showcases the repurposing of infrastructure. The viaduct became a linear park that offers a green space through which people can move around the city.

Public Infrastructure/Mobility

These tools demonstrate the interconnectedness between mobility and urbanity and highlight the interaction (both negative and positive).

Oil and Automobile City (Caracas)

A car-centric approach to public infrastructure focuses on freeways and elevated highways that partition the city and thereby segregate it.

Multiple Hubs (Caracas)

The inaccessibility of Slums such as San Augustin up in the mountain hills requires new approaches to urban mobility. Cable cars were introduced and transformed the urban landscape. Not only did they provide transport to the residents, they offered a functional space for formal services (postal, banking, government) in an otherwise informal environment. The overlay of functionalities popularised the method throughout slums of Latin America.

Urban Mobility (São Paulo)

The vector of mobility defines the kind of urban space that will be created. São Paulo showcases a steady move away from public transport towards individual transport reducing public space and decreasing traffic flow.


These tools take influence on an abstract but fundamental level. Often they set the rules of the game and indirectly enforce specific outcomes.

Developer as Architect (Athens)

The deregulation of the construction industry with regulation of building structure effectively removed the architect form the equation. Polykatoikia were constructed throughout Athens without a masterplan. An abstract legislative framework enforced the practise of self-building.

Masterplanning Segregation (Cape Town)

Apartheid planning consisted of deliberately developing the city based on ethnic segregation. Planning was completely top-down and racially motivated and permeated through political and administrative processes.


These tools tackle how to embed humans in the urban fabric and showcase different approaches to creating urbanity.

Post-olympic Urbanism (Athens)

Olympic games are considered a potential urban development catalyst. They can intervene in the short- and long-term development activities. Additionally, they require urban functions that may have been previously lacking. If applied correctly, they can be used to address urban issues (such as inner-city decline or sprawl). However, Athens is a prime example of how to not do it as today most of the Olympic facilities are decaying.

Development through Distribution (Cape Town)

To overcome inequalities distribution policies can be enacted that equalise the urban realm. In Cape Town social housing and Mandela’s promise of “one house per family” drove the creation of new houses. However, the development happened within the geographical constraints set out by the previous apartheid regime and consequently reinforced social segregation. Additionally, due to the required space of a house, the city began to sprawl diffusing the urban core.

Community Projects

This tool focusses on urban functionalities on the community level.

(Infra)Cultural Design (São Paulo)

To strengthen urban fabric Unified Educational Centres (CEU, Centro Educational Unificado) were placed strategically in diffuse urban locations. They offer new socio-cultural opportunities and enable communities to express themselves. Identities can be formed around those hubs and enable the city to become more coherent.


This tool focusses on the interaction between suburban and urban.

Generating Suburbia (Detroit)

To accommodate single houses per family suburban developments were created that rely on roads, cars and telephones to cover distance. The space requirements increases the surface area of a city unproportionally and requires large infrastructure spending to maintain roads. In the case of Detroit it has aggravating side-effects. People moved out of the administrative boundaries of the city into suburbia and reduced the tax base of the city accelerating its decline. The overstretching thins the urban fabric and distributes and diffuses it.

Cornerstone Course – Day 3: Urbanisation I

There is a claim that more 50% of humankind live in cities. This claim, however, is wrong. The reason is that a city and an urban environment is not the same and the correct description would be that more than 50% live in urban environments.

This differentiation has a huge impact, Caracas, Mexico City and Jakarta have a continuous urban area that goes beyond the official city borders of each and result in abrupt policy changes along the administrative borders. For instance, Caracas has 5 different mayors and police forces and the mayor of Mexico City only covers 38% of the urban territory and Jakarta grew into most of its neighbouring towns and cities.

Cities in the tropical zone expand into the arable land and risk the food supply. The overlap of urban expansion with food production is a policy challenge. Changing agricultural land to real estate gives a short-term economic boost (to owners), but permanently damages the ground for agricultural purposes.

Urban discussions put forth by Yona Friedmann in the 60s already pointed out future migrations due to insufficient urbanisation. The collapse of urban environments due to (civil) war and bad economic circumstances have causes a large flow of migrants towards Europe that is remnant of Friedmann’s predictions. Migration challenges our consolidated models of cities. For instance, the Calais Jungle in France is a 30’000 people town with no formal infrastructure that epitomizes the challenge.

Shenzhen did not exist 30 years ago and now is the fourth-biggest city in China. It was a top-down decision by the Chinese Government to urbanize 250 million people and Shenzhen is one of the resulting cities. The urbanisation constitutes a migratory move.

Blue print cities have shown not to work properly, so the focus has moved to an iterative model that starts out with existing slums. The slums than get improved infrastructure until they are a functional city. In Latin America people have been brought into the vicinity of the city, creating slums. The slums are slowly transformed by introducing infrastructure. However, this poses many difficulties.

What is needed to create those cities is scale-less handling of the problem from a block in a quarter to the intercity areas. Hierarchical ordering of the problem is not sufficient to solve the problems (as shown by the past).

A provocative claim to close the introduction is that China is urbanising beyond their territory (in Africa, South-East-Asia and more).