Los Angeles: Urbanism Alone

Zameer Basrai was architect-in-residence at the MAK Center, Los Angeles from April to September 2010. This is a chronological account of ideas developed during the residency. Some of these ideas were refined for exhibition on September 10, 2010 at the MAK Center, LA. Please refer to research project ‘Los Angeles: Urbanism Alone’ for detailed documentation of the exhibition and artwork.

‘Los Angeles: Urbanism Alone’ is a mixed-media art work which can be categorized loosely within the disciplines of art, architecture and urbanism.  It is a visual comment addressing the perceived fragmentation of the physical and social environment in the city of Los Angeles.

While fragmentation has been a common theme for criticism of the city since the sixties, it assumes an overly abstract scale for an individual today. It has become a part of living in the city, part of the collective imagination of the people, and so has been effectively put to rest. In short, Angelenos have made peace with the idea of a fragmented city. A status quo has developed between the people, the built city, the city-state and the larger abstract, monumental forces of racism, communalism, gentrification, social and economic marginalization, citizenship, civic dissociation from public life, even elusive concepts like nature and community in the city. And these forces are often kept at rest through the formation of boundaries, edges, and restricted spaces; sometimes manifest as physical barriers but more often than not, ingrained into the collective imagination of the people. These imagined boundaries are as strictly enforced and practiced as any wall or fence in the city, formed and sustained by the simultaneous physical and social fragmentation of the city-scape.

Usually artistic practices celebrate the informal to reveal the arbitrariness of the formal. As a divergence to this norm, ‘Urbanism Alone’ seeks places in the city that are located at the coincidence of top-down, formal boundaries formed by the city-state and those bottom-up, informal boundaries formed by individuals in the city. These boundaries are formed by consensus. Critical of these boundary conditions and necessarily disruptive of the status quo maintained in the city, the project strives to make the abstract, incomprehensible forces playing out in the city more personable, within grasp of an individual. It explores how certain places in the city become modes of associating with the larger politic. The body makes visceral connections with these places. It promotes the understanding of the city through smaller instances, to create points of access and comprehensibility. This has been the central theme for developing the mixed-media work.

The first part of the project was developing various boundary devices that were disruptive of the chosen boundary conditions. This exercise evolved into designing a prosthetic device as an extension to the artist himself. The prosthesis developed for this project is a simple device that allows the artist to look over a boundary about the height of a human. It is worn as a rear view mirror. The ‘extended’ body of the artist brings into existence, a boundary that does not physically exist simply by ‘being’ at a certain location. What is the artist looking over? What kind of boundary is this? And what does he see? The extended body of the artist then makes literal and symbolic references to the various abstract forces playing themselves out at the chosen locations.

The final art work included the prosthesis (on display) built solely for the project in the form of an extendable arm with a light fixture and a convex mirror fitted at its end and rises to a height of approximately 9 feet. Accompanying the prosthesis on display, were three curated, photographic compositions/assemblies of the prosthesis worn by the artist at the three specific locations in the city: The Los Angeles River near downtown, the Iranian Jewish-Muslim neighborhood in Westwood LA and the 5th and Main Streets crossing at the edge of Skid Row in downtown LA.

Urbanism Alone

As a disclaimer, the ideas presented in the following document aren’t particular to Los Angeles. ‘Fragmentation’ of the social and physical fabric can be studied in any city. Los Angeles is really ‘any’ city. In fact, every city is ‘any’ city. So Los Angeles can be ‘read’ like any other city. This is not to be dismissive of the peculiarities of different cities. It is to assert that there are no outsiders to the idea of cities. Each and every city around the world has the same set of issues that it must deal with. And these issues lie naked, exposed for anyone to see, and understand. Their type, scale, and locations might differ from city to city but their mode of appearance remains comparable. This project has really been about developing a conceptual apparatus to read any city. Los Angeles will not be presented in any special way, and most ideas presented about the city will resonate across time and space.

Urbanism Alone

“I don’t have a body of work that I can consolidate, no ideological approach toward anything that I can sharpen in time, and no utopian vision for the world that I can begin implementing right now. In fact, I don’t believe in anything so strongly so as to create works (art or architecture) of a standalone kind. So I decided instead to loiter, walk to places with no sidewalks, scrounge around for clues, ponder, and wait to be inspired by the city itself. I am alone in Los Angeles, an unfamiliar landscape, even less familiar people, with a large part of the city inaccessible due to all kinds of reasons; committed to make sense of, react to and then create a project in the city. Los Angeles: I am free to roam wherever and whenever, I am neither obliged to conform nor committed to perform; but I am constantly reminded that I am restricted and limited to my own individual access to places and information in the city.”

Imagining Los Angeles

You dont need to visit LA to actually know LA. It has been derided in every form of media and scholarship. In the critics’ imagination, Los Angeles is flat, sprawled across an enormous region, consists of unending characterless suburbia, gated neighborhoods, exclusive enclaves formed along economic, ethnic and racial lines; crime is rampant, security a concern, the LAPD famous. And then there is Hollywood. 10 feet high walls ripping through the city scape, forbidding quantities of barbwire, long lengths of wire-mesh fences with sheet metal gates, warning signs and a nagging consciousness of being under surveillance. One would have to cross a physical boundary every few minutes in the city, whether by car or on foot, to experience the city as a whole. These are some of the first and most significant pre-conceptions about the city, accurate on most counts. As a result, ‘fragmentation’ in the city seems like an acceptable area to explore. And people in the city take to it quite easily too, ‘yah, yah social fragmentation, there’s a lot of that’ or ‘you’re in the right city’. It is as though Los Angeles has a completely irrefutable case of social (and physical) fragmentation and everyone, including Angelenos, now seem to have made their peace with it.

Neighborhoods in LA are neatly divided along economic, ethnic and racial lines, and often these boundaries coincide. Rich-Black, Poor-Black, Poor-Latino, Rich-White, Homeless-Black, Middle class-Asian-American, Rich-Iranian-Jewish, Rich-Orthodox-Jewish. Every neighborhood can be identified such. These boundaries have even been enforced by the city police, whether in the case of Alameda street (also called the white curtain and the burning wall) or more recently with the different district police patrols in downtown LA. Often areas are re-named arbitrarily by the city authorities in the hope to consolidate a population or ousting another, like the toy, art, and fashion districts in downtown or even the ‘Historic Fillipino Town’ which are hard to identify except for their names. Official land-use boundaries have further been drawn so as to reinforce these divisions. The most intriguing of all is Homeless-Black-Warehouse District. It’s as though the high walls and barbed-wire fences of the warehouse district have become officially associated with the homeless on the street. At one level, the city has been divided into three distinct parts, the brown neighborhoods to the east, the black neighborhoods to the south and the predominantly white neighborhoods to the west (For all the fuss about racial and ethnic differences – colors manifest themselves most clearly). At another level, ethnic enclaves like Chinatown, Historic Filipinotown, Koreatown, Little Armenia, Little Ethiopia, Tehrangeles, Little Tokyo, Thai town house the rest of the minority populations. This is most alarming. Los Angeles sometimes feels like being in a zoo. Different enclosures for different animals, similar species kept in close proximity to each other, and a beautifully landscaped path to see each of them in their ‘natural’ surroundings; venturing off this path is dangerous, and so there are prescribed routes throughout the city and you stick to them.

Routes are prescribed so as to avoid any  inter-dependency. One can live their entire life in Los Angeles without seeing a larger part of the city and never even needing to. People get more involved in developing their own neighborhoods, keeping the unwanted out, encouraging self-sufficiency, and in the bargain creating deeper and deeper notions of inside-outside relations. There are few formats that facilitate contact between different groups in the city. This is how the status quo is maintained, by avoiding contact.

But this social fragmentation doesn’t literally manifest itself in the physical realm of the city. Sure there are plenty of boundaries, edges and restricted areas in Los Angeles. But not as many as one imagines there are and definitely not at those locations one expects them to be. In fact, there are no walls between neighborhoods, however different they might be. Movement in the city is not physically restricted. But not every one is equally welcome everywhere. The space of the neighborhood is non-descript, homogeneous. The consciousness of being in a neighborhood is wholely dependent on the people occupying it. The physical environment in LA does not suggest if one is welcome or not. Usually commercial developments, shop fronts, or street life are direct indicators as to the type of neighborhood. But since most of LA is scenic (residential) suburbia, it is quite a task to ‘read’ the city. Most boundaries are only spoken about. There is a constant buzz about personal security in the city, especially where not to go. And this information gets updated (or distorted) as it travels around the city. Everyone is aware of this. This is no insider information. Alameda street shows no sign of being a boundary (although the railway tracks restrict movement to an extent). And even still the magnitude of this boundary instilled in the minds of the people in the city cannot be fathomed. Even though the Los Angeles river is only just a large drain, it makes a huge difference which side of the river one is from. Smaller ethnic neighborhoods are only defined by their commercial street serving ethnic foods, authentic spices and ornamental windows. Behind the commerce, neighborhoods extend facelessly into others. Skid Row has been an area for the containment of homeless populations in the city until the late 80’s and remains to this under the epithet ‘Central City East’ and yet there are no physical boundaries. In July 2010, LA Times (online) caused quite a stir with the ‘LA’s Westside’ mapping exercise. Readers were invited to map out their notional extent of the Westside on a map of LA. People aligned themselves along freeways and streets, named landmarks, re-oriented with respect to downtown LA,  and then there were those who spoke of it as being defined by a change of demographic, affluence, etc.

The boundaries are imagined. There are no walls, no fences and no gates visible at these places. The boundaries are practical, notional, discussed, agreed upon, and then collectively imagined by individuals in the city. They may vary a bit in people’s minds until finally recognized and enforced by the state. There are larger, invisible, abstract, monumental forces playing themselves out at these boundaries. This kind of fragmentation was a concern, a point of criticism and unfortunately an accepted social phenomenon from back in the sixties. In 1968, Reyner Banham, author of Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, wrote a short piece titled “Beverly Hills, Too, Is a Ghetto” for BBC’s The Listener series, August 22-September 12. He described the neighborhood as “an exclusive community self-incorporated specifically to prevent the schools from being invaded by other classes and ethnicities, the “most defensive suburb in the world”.” (From Anthony Widler’s Foreword to the 2000 edition of Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies). Banham, in his book, describes the neighborhoods in Los Angeles as ‘self-contained’, ‘specialized area[s]’ nurturing a kind of ‘monoculture’ where people “live restricted and parochial lives that never engage the totality of Los Angeles.” These are soft boundaries, invisible to the eye, but are felt viscerally by every individual. The extent of the everyday city differs from individual to individual. Boundaries are constantly re-imagined based on individual status.

Suburb City

The zoo

Official Map of Downtown Los Angeles

Pershing Square: Downtown Los Angeles

Santa Monica Beach

The Hollywood movie ‘Crash’ portrayed a number of Angelenos who were forced to deal with each other. For all the over-dramatization, the movie does make a point. Confrontations between different groups are always extreme, always at breaking point because there are no formats for everyday interaction. Public space in the city facilitates contact, an acknowledgment of difference and so softens or averts extreme contact and xenophobic attacks between communities, and also eases racial and ethnic tensions. It is a space for naturalization.

And Los Angeles has a complex set of racial and ethnic tensions with a horrifying history of confrontations between resident groups. Black-white, black-brown, white-yellow, white-brown, brown-brown, black-yellow, black-black. The status of each of the resident groups with respect to others, is in constant flux. People traveling on public transport let out some steam every now and again. But for the most part, the city remains separated. All this at a time when the city is experiencing the overwhelming forces of globalization. Alongside the expansion of finance and tourism in the past twenty years, globalization has caused a sizeable increase in immigrant populations. Los Angeles is now officially a multi-ethnic, multi-racial, culturally diverse city with majority-minority populations. In 1960, the city consisted of a more than 80% Non-Hispanic White population. Following the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, and with subsequent immigration to the region in the seventies and eighties, Los Angeles has developed a truly global demographic.

What does a global demographic demand? How does the city become more inclusive? Ideally, the city must facilitate social integration, ‘where every person is encouraged into the mainstream by giving full access to opportunities, rights and services (a variant to pluralist and assimilationist attitudes). The status of each individual must gradually be alleviated by offering an equitable society with respect to socio-economic status, geographic distribution, language attainment and inter-marriage’ (Wikipedia). The idea is not to maintain difference or to completely homogenize society, but only to provide a framework for either. Here, each individual would defy clear categorization, possess multiple identities, and would not be identified through geographical locations in the city. Neighborhoods would be interdependent, composed of diverse people, identified through ambiguous geographies; where boundaries are constantly changing, places are constantly being re-imagined, and the city keeps shifting. The project is rooted in the belief that a first stage to achieve these ideals is the advancement of a multi-cultural, democratic public sphere and a systematic identification and ‘contestation’ of the boundaries that have begun to define life in the city of Los Angeles.

Boundaries are assembled

‘Urbanism Alone’ uses familiar locations from the city to make a statement. These locations make direct physical and symbolic connections with larger urban forces that comprise the contemporary city. The significance of these kinds of locations is their implicit potential to expose the processes of fragmentation in the city. Monumental concepts can be located and so made intelligible to any individual in the city. The space of the city-conglomerate must be condensed into a form directly relate-able and comprehend-able to an individual. With precise locations in the city, these concepts cannot be dismissed for their abstractness any longer. The connections this time are visceral.

Since the project is necessarily disruptive of the status quo (as embodied in boundary conditions) maintained in the city, it attempts to re-signify familiar parts of the city by ‘making visible’ the invisible boundaries that define them. And by locating ‘devices’ at these boundary conditions the boundaries are revealed. The boundary device then, is any kind of installation or object that contests the very boundary that it has made visible. Acts of looking over, moving across, ascending, descending, using, supporting or subverting are embodied as gestures through the device/installation. They provide new accesses, new positions, newer vistas and most importantly the possibility of re-creation. In lieu of their temporary nature, they provide an agility and criticality towards everything established and well-formed. This is at the core of the project (From Project Vienna: Please refer to Design Projects section).

The boundary device developed for this project would facilitate ‘looking over’ a boundary about as high as a human. These boundaries are constructed by us, proliferated by our prejudices and stereotypes. We often assume that such boundaries in the city are imposed in a top-down kind of way and that big moves are required to mobilize things and to affect change. ‘Urbanism Alone’ is hopeful that even small moves can affect changes in society since they mobilize the individual. These small moves are also capable of actually contesting the larger balance of power in the city.

Small moves

The Watts Towers

This is not a Curio

This is not a Curio

As a parallel project, the curio (or souvenir, memento, bric a brac) has also been explored as a boundary device. A small object that summarizes or captures an experience (place or event), the curio has great potential in reviving memories. I was there, I want to remember that, I want a part of that in my house, I want to own it, I want people to know I was there. The curio is personal. It can sometimes have greater impact than a monument. Because in as much as the monument reminds us of an event, it also brings closure and finality to it. A person associates with public monuments through the rest of humanity. The monument represents the achievements or the shortcomings of humanity. In a way, they are intentionally not personal.

The Watts Towers in the Watts District have assumed the status of a monument. Even though they are the work of one man, Simon Rodia, they have today come to represent the renewal of an entire community in South Central. After the riots of 1965, Watts became an important location for cultural and political activity and the towers have assumed an important position in the minds of the people. A monument to those who lost their lives in the riots. Edgar Arceneaux, as part of his Watts House project, made and sold jewellery (pendants) in the form of the Watts Towers miniatures. Even though the impact of this project is too open-ended and also dismissed as kitsch, wearing the watts towers has a certain effect on the individual. One might say that making curios of monuments brings a different kind of closure to the issue, trivializing it to a certain extent. Buying a miniature of the Eiffel Tower at the Eiffel Tower and keeping it on the mantle completes the whole process of visitation. But one cannot discount the memories it brings back simply by being a personal and personable object. There is something always left open.

As a sub-project, ‘This is not a Curio’ contributes to making the idea of the river more personable, to keep the idea of the river open in the imaginations of the city.

LA Downtown (right) up to LA River (left)

The Los Angeles River, near the Artists District, Downtown LA

The Los Angeles River is by far the most intriguing feature of the city. It doesn’t feature in any tourist guide and might also be completely omitted from some maps of Los Angeles, but its presence cannot be overlooked. While traveling through the city, it appears for a moment and then it’s gone; only its sharp edges leave a lasting image. Then days go by before you see it again, again from above while crossing a bridge. Confined to a concrete trough, the river is in fact an oversized drain locked in on both sides by railway tracks or by freeways and an impossible industrial land-use. In its complete abandon, it becomes the quintessential image of early modernization and development processes in the city. Hard, straight-lined and neatly cordoned off, it also points to a much larger conception of ‘public space’ in the city.

It’s hard to sense the relationship of the river to any part of the city it traverses, and these are significant parts: Canoga Park, the San Fernando Valley, Hollywood, Downtown, South Central, and Long Beach. The river is the single continuous ‘natural’ feature that connects almost every part of the city (if we consider the freeways as unnatural). Bill Deverell (USC), at a forum on the ‘History of the LA River’ said that the “…renewal of the LA river would also be the renewal of the city” (Reinventing Los Angeles). Robert Gottlieb, in his book Reinventing Los Angeles, asserts that the reinvention of the LA river is intrinsically linked to social change. Its reinvention cannot be divorced from the need to provide green-scapes and public space in the heart of the city, that transcend the scale of the neighborhood. How the river is developed has the potential to re-establish the ‘right to the city’. Who will benefit from a re-imagined river? How do we re-conceptualize nature and community in the city? Gottlieb challenges the reader to imagine a new ecology closely related to nature and community in the city. His conviction about the river stems from the idea that there are two ways that nature has been imagined in the contemporary city,  “a primarily nature-focused (the ocean and mountains) and a people-focused (home and community) urban environmental politics. Both converge on the question of open space in the heart of the city.”

The river today has the gaping potential to re-imagine city-life. The first stage to re-inventing the river is to stop thinking of it as a boundary. The river is a space, not a boundary. It has already been pronounced ‘navigable’, it isn’t too long before its spatiality is discovered. And these moves toward the river will begin slowly in places where it is most needed. There will be a day when neighborhoods and districts will straddle both sides of the river. Until then, the Artists District will end at the railway tracks (amongst the industrial land-use) and not acknowledge the space beyond.

The LA River: Locked in by the railway tracks and an impossible land-use

The Warehouse District: Downtown LA

The LA River at Long Beach

Imagining the river

A possible ecology

A possible ecology

Planning to sell the Los Angeles River water

The LA river water has healing properties

Westwood Boulevard, Westwood LA

Los Angeles has been home to some of the largest populations of immigrants from Asia, and the Middle East outside of their home country. The seventies and eighties were witness to major global changes. And with the reforms in America’s immigration policies, the region of Los Angeles saw unprecedented growth in immigrant populations. The Iranian neighborhood, also called Tehrangeles or Little Persia, in Beverly Hills/Westwood LA mostly comprises a population that immigrated to California in the wake of and during the Islamic Revolution in Iran. They are mostly Jewish, with a sizeable Muslim population and smaller Zoroastrian and Baha’i groups. Approximately 500,000-600,000 former Iranian nationals reside in the area. Westwood is an affluent neighborhood with a majority Non-Hispanic White population.

The initial impulse was to capture this movement across the globe in the form of an immigration sculpture that visualized data (demographic or other).

The Islamic Revolution in Iran

Data visualization: Immigration to Los Angeles

Google Earth sculpture: Immigration to LA (Impression only)

But data seemed too hard an interpretation. It is after all the softer aspects of immigration that sustain academic interests. What is it like to be disillusioned with your own society? What are the expectations from a new society? How does one assimilate into a new culture while also being attached to their roots? What is kept, what is forgotten? How does contemporary America provide for a new life? How does living in an ‘ethnic’ or ‘racial’ enclave in Los Angeles affect life in the city? How is the new generation coping with life in America?

The Iranian community is a relatively affluent community as compared to other ethnic communities in the city. But their presence in Los Angeles is not without its complications. Doesn’t the slightest suggestion of Westwood raise a hundred questions about social integration, citizenship, contemporary Islam, Israel, communalism, the Iranian Revolution, international terrorism, America’s war on terror, 9-11? Isn’t being from Iran very easily associated with being Muslim? The Iranian community has to deal with being typecast as Muslim (and Arab as portrayed in the movie ‘Crash’). How the Iranian community combats these stereotypical views, is by having a vociferous media front. Their criticism of contemporary Iranian leadership ensures their loyalty to the United States. Their support for Israel does too. They have even formed radical groups and secret organizations against the current political regime in Iran, that are allegedly located in Los Angeles. The boundary that is created is better explained as a ‘front’ or a ‘performance’. It embodies the nagging responsibility of a Muslim today to prove his or her compatibility with the nation of residence. How do Muslims around the world deal with the idea of a non-Islamic nation? How do they perform as citizens loyal to a nation? In the case of Los Angeles, Iranian Muslims stand side by side with their other Iranian friends. This requires a level of de-culturation in the public realm, as Ayaan Hirsi Ali has asserted. She says that Islam has big obstacles in the way of modernizing and being compatible with secular, western cultures. Iranian Muslims in LA seem to have found a way around this.

Iranian Muslims are spread across the region from Beverly Hills, Westwood and Culver City in West Los Angeles to Orange County but wherever they might live, their ‘front’ or the extent of their neighborhood must necessarily be defined at Westwood Boulevard. Because this is where the otherwise dispersed Iranian community must return, to the Federal building on Wilshire Boulevard, to swear their allegiance to the American nation.

5th and Main Streets, Downtown LA, at the edge of Skid Row

“Skid row exists because we’ve created it — although until now, with the downtown renaissance approaching its borders, we’ve mostly been able to ignore it.” Steve Lopez, LA Times, Demons Are Winning on Skid Row.

This is a boundary most familiar to Angelenos, one that has changed drastically over the years, and ever more reified in the contemporary city. There were 17,740 residents in Skid Row (now called Central City East) according to the 2000 census. The area contains the largest stable population of homeless people in all of America which is approximately 7000-8000. It is a predominantly black community (Wikipedia). In the late 70’s Bradley administration redevelopment of downtown, the city followed a policy of containment of the homeless population. Skid Row was where it became legal to sleep on the street. There were definite boundaries to Skid Row.

5th and Main: Skid Row

Today, the revitalization programs in downtown are pressing against the boundaries of Skid Row. 5th and Main Streets is one such boundary. For most part of the year, Skid Row remains in the dark, impenetrable. But every morning the boundary fades to allow people into the warehouse and shopping districts. Special district police patrol the streets on bike. By night, the boundary is up again. 5th and Main is not too far from the center of Skid Row activities at these times. On weekends the streets are activated by shop fronts selling cheap clothes and accessories. The homeless seem to disappear completely during the two day carnival. Sunday night they’re back. And then once a month, the art walk reaches its edges. Hordes of art enthusiasts press against the boundary but none dares cross it. The message is clear.  Small, regular intrusions into the space will soon become larger occupations. Commerce is turning the corner at 5th and Main. The need for security has increased. The contained area of Central City East will soon be over-run by the revitalization of downtown. Revitalization (in the form of a clean up) is inevitable and a first stage in creating liveability, but would the problem of Skid Row be addressed in the bargain? How will the city deal with the occupants of Skid Row?

5th and Main: Mapping daily, weekly and monthly changes in boundary condition

The original extents of Skid Row coincide with those drawn out by the city-state for Central City East on the north, west and south. Toward the east, it extends into the warehouse district. Central City East has regional services for the homeless that provide food and shelter to many. These social services have been kept out of every neighborhood and so are limited to Skid Row. It becomes imperative to acknowledge racism, gentrification, and unequal development in the city when the location of 5th and Main Streets is opened up to question. Furthermore, one realizes how art can be appropriated as an instrument of the state. The art walk, Gallery Row and the newly formed Artists District indicate how art can be used as the softer, in-between phase for the gentrification of areas. The art walk is but one of many processes that naturalizes the boundary formed at 5th and Main between two groups in the city with drastically different and often antagonistic modes of living. How will the city deal with one of its weakest populations?

The Prosthesis

The Prosthesis

The prosthesis is an exploration in ephemeral boundary devices. The ‘extended’ body of the artist is capable of assigning meaning to any place. In as much as the prosthesis embodies the act of looking over, it also becomes a spectacle. Both actions demand an extra-human ability. At a symbolic level, the rear view mirror stand for all things that have been missed on the onward journey. It provides a view that augments our understanding of the environment. Furthermore, the convex mirror is a symbol of active surveillance. ‘Watching your back’ in a city like LA has become a mode of living.

The Mirror as Prosthesis: Augmented vision

The Mirror as Boundary Device: Surveillance

Light and Mirror: Making boundaries visible

Assigning meaning to any place


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