My kind of town: Melissa Dowler – ADC

ADC on June 20, 2023

Melissa Dowler, a director of Bell Phillips Architects, on Los Angeles, a city that does not make much sense but has an unmistakeable joie de vivre.

I don’t have a lot of time for patriotism. I maintain that the gift of being dual national (American mother, British father)  is the right to be jaded about two countries rather than one. Yet I have a weakness; while I may not be patriotic about my country, I am fiercely defensive and loyal to my hometown of London. But I also have a secret. About once a year  I cheat. I love a second city. And it’s not a city that I should love because it’s not a city that it makes sense to love in 2023. It’s not a 15-minute city; neighbourhoods aren’t walkable and the only people who  do not own cars are those who are too old, too young or too poor to drive.

Nothing about Los Angeles makes much sense. It’s a city built on a desert at a scale entirely incompatible with human movement. The inequities of the American Dream are writ large in the out-scaled geography of the city – neighbourhoods  are segregated in a way that would be impossible at a greater density.

Yet despite this, there is something so magically hopeful in the very fabric of the city. I remember the first few trips I made  to LA after finally turning 21 and being old enough to rent a car of my own. I had just begun my architectural studies and my boyfriend and I would spend days trawling through the Hollywood Hills with old architecture guides trying to catch a glimpse of any one of the many hundreds of eccentric, unique and beautiful buildings designed by the original starchictects. Coming from the UK it blew my mind to be able to access such a rich seam of 20th century design all in one place – to turn a corner of an ordinary looking residential street and see a Frank Lloyd Wright house just unobtrusively sitting there. To be able to walk right up to a Neutra or Schindler house and poke your head into the garden.

LA is everything London is not. It does not take itself particularly seriously. It does not insist on progress coming in tiny incremental moves invisible to the naked eye”

But it’s actually not the starchitects that make LA so fabulous to me. It’s the attitude of the city itself. There is something so joyful about a city where literally everything is a stage. Where style, scale and cultural reference points change with wilful abandon from one plot to the next. Where you can witness complete and utter reinvention a dozen times in a single city block. Taking a cycle ride from Santa Monica to Venice is a whistle-stop tour that takes you from Art Deco to Mid-century modern by way of the weird house of gargoyles and some truly bizarre early eighties colour palettes that could only ever work against the brilliant blue skies of southern California. And these eccentricities of design are one of the few things about the city that is truly egalitarian – they occur everywhere from the idiosyncratic houses that dot the Hollywood Hills to the Watts Towers of South Central.

My love for LA is about contrast clearly. And I’m not sure I could love LA so much if my hometown – and first love – was not London. LA is everything London is not. It does not take itself particularly seriously. It does not insist on progress coming in tiny incremental moves invisible to the naked eye. When embarking on a building project, it is not necessary to consider the height, age, materiality and pedigree of every other building within a five-mile radius. It is whimsical and frivolous and bright and colourful and carefree and can fill me  with a sense of optimism as soon as I step off the plane.

Of course, there is a darker side to the wilfulness. In a city that already has a carbon footprint of terrifying proportions relative to its population, it is tragic to see how often perfectly functioning buildings are ripped down by new owners with total disregard to the environmental cost simply because they wish to create something new. And when considering the negatives of the city, it is at once impossible to disregard the utter reliance on the car. Not only is it terrifying in environmental terms, but as a Londoner who can operate almost entirely within a few city blocks of my house, it is also just inconceivably unpleasant to have to spend so much of your life behind a wheel.

But there are ways in which LA could one day be a genuinely sustainable city. The decarbonisation of the grid in combination with the mass adoption of electric vehicles is more than a possibility now, and if folk were willing and able to insulate their homes and give up their toxic dependency on air conditioning we would see massive change.

Would it ultimately tip the balance  for me? Doubtful. Swapping my twenty minute cycle ride through parks and markets every morning for 40 lonely minutes sitting in traffic on a freeway is never going to be a reality. And I’m far too wed to the convenience and variety of my entirely walkable neighbourhood. But what if we could capture some of that joie de vivre in the way we think about our cities in the UK? What if we could bottle some of that careless confidence and inject it into our way of thinking about design here in London? Now that, that would definitively be my kind of town.

Source: Architecture Today