Atlantic Cities

The Hunt for Unbuilt Los Angeles

Los Angeles with a ton of public parks, a delightful international airport, and a pedestrian-only civic center just wouldn't really be Los Angeles. But once upon a time, if a few big architectural plans had been approved, it might have been. That sort of nostalgia for the nonexistent is behind "Never Built: Los Angeles" — an upcoming museum exhibit, being funded right now on Kickstarter, featuring a collection of "visionary works that had the greatest potential to reshape the city."

The show is planned for this spring at the A+D Architecture and Design Museum in Los Angeles (provided the exhibit group makes its Kickstarter goal of $40,000; as of this morning they were over halfway there with six weeks to go). "Never Built" will include plans, renderings, and models of major public projects that might have changed the feel of Los Angeles had they ever seen the light of day. The museum floor will be transformed into a 2,200-square-foot map to guide visitors around the city that never was.

"The goal is to really capture the boldness of these plans," says Sam Lubell, co-curator of the exhibit. "So when you walk in, it feels like you're in an alternate Los Angeles."

For the past two years, Lubell (California editor at The Architect's Newspaper) and Greg Goldin (architecture critic for Los Angeles magazine) have worked with a big team of architects, engineers, historians, and researchers to gather the forgotten plans that will appear in the exhibit and the accompanying book. The scoured architectural offices throughout the city and across the country. They also dug through a whole bunch of archives, from the Getty Research Institute to local universities to the Los Angeles Public Library.

That hunt led them to some design gems dating back to the early 20th century. Take the parks, playgrounds, and beaches plan conceived by Olmsted & Bartholomew (a firm founded by the sons of Frederick Law Olmsted) back in 1930. The project would have injected Los Angeles with tens of thousands of park acreage and a 440-mile necklace of parkways.


Courtesy Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens

Instead the Chamber of Commerce, which had commissioned the designs in the first place, scuttled the project before it got off the ground, says Lubell. Public officials were evidently so scared of the idea that they destroyed any record of the plan, which only resurfaced in recent years. (Some of that story is told in Eden by Design, by Greg Hise and Bill Deverell, who advised the exhibit on the plan's abandoned history.)

"Basically they came up with this amazing plan that really would have transformed this city — the way it looked, the way it felt, the way people that lived there lived," says Lubell.


Courtesy Los Angeles World Airports Flight Path Learning Center

Another never-built project was a futuristic take on Los Angeles International Airport by Pereira and Luckman (which ultimately did design the current, and generally unpopular, LAX). The plan, put forth in the 1950s, planted a giant glass dome in the center of the airport campus, with five terminal fingers stretching outward from that core. Ultimately, the city's building department felt it was too radical, says Lubell.

"It really would have changed the way the city approached its architecture," he says. "I think other people would have followed that level of ambition."


Courtesy Los Angeles World Airports Flight Path Learning Center

Lloyd Wright, the son of Frank Lloyd Wright, came up with a plan for a Civic Center in 1925 that would have been "reminiscent of an acropolis," says Lubell. The art deco temple complex called for City Hall and administrative centers at the top of the hill, with less important buildings cascading down Grand Avenue. The younger Wright envisioned underground thoroughfares so that the campus could be saved for pedestrians only. (He also wanted airplane runways on some roofs, but we'll let that slide.)


Courtesy of Eric Lloyd Wright/ UCLA Special Collections

Lubell wants the exhibition to do more than just display some of these old greats. He hopes to shift the mindset of city politicians and developers and community leaders who's knee-jerk response to public innovation is often rejection. To give Los Angeles a second chance, the exhibition includes a section of recent never-built projects that might be worth another look.

"For a place that has these amazing architects and ideas, the public spirit is — no we can't really pull this stuff off," he says. "We want to change the culture so that visionary, creative, innovative ideas in the large-scale pubic realm will once again be embraced in the city."

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

Join the Discussion