In 1994, OJ Simpson’s pre-trial was in full swing. Downtown, outside the Los Angeles county courthouse, thick rivers of coax cable slunk their way between temporary glowing stages and a flotilla of broadcast vans that turned carpark in to caravan park. Downtown was heaving with the energy of the global media diet for celebrity. Regional news anchors preened themselves between ‘crosses’. You could buy ‘Pray for OJ’ and ‘Let the Juice Loose’ T shirts for $4 from every shopfront in the garment district.

Returning to the same place 17 years later reveals a city whose poles have shifted – if possible – further apart. Downtown LA is evaporating before your eyes. The modest street life of 1994 has retreated to a heaving puddle in what appears to be a latina stronghold of the garment district. A deteriorating building stock is punctuated by the candy colours of flamboyant latin debutante dresses; watched over by hunched men on folding stools. Meanwhile, back up on Grand Avenue, outdoor food courts are packed away (it was a weekend). Signs of a corporate life set on a hill, while in the favellas down below, the immigrants sell to themselves. To make it worse, the reflective facades of the corporates that once conveyed financial imperviousness now seem anonymous and impassive; indifferent to the (social) tide going out below.

Contrast this with a Santa Monica that has found its groove. Always left-leaning early adopters, and always a strange hybrid between ‘drop out aging surfer’ and ‘chic urban wannabe’, Santa Monica has thrived in the last decade from California’s embrace of the ‘green economy’.

In a city famous for its car culture, Santa Monica’s street texture is now as much defined by the bicycle frame as the convertible. On Sundays, on-street parking near the Main St markets is turned over to rear-to-kerb bicycle parking; attended by serious, fussing hispanics in reflective vests manning a fold up table. On the LA beachfront, a steady stream of bikes have joined with roller bladers on the super smooth dual seafront carriageway. In 1994, bikes were scarce. Now they mix easily with traffic. It’s not mandatory to wear a helmet (so, as Jan Gehl is fond of saying; ‘now even the pretty girls like to ride’). What’s more, cycling has moved beyond the practical to the novelty. The ‘street slider’ looks more like a cross trainer than a cycle. Riders stand; powering along as if cross country skiing. Arms & legs working together. Looks like fun.

In general, California is learning the value of environmental education. Small signs everywhere exhort responsibility for the care of LA’s environment. The TV in the hotel tells us that Californian cuisine (what?) now explores the ‘sustainable’; returning to locally sourced, seasonal produce. A local bottled water tells you on the label why the cap is unusually small; reducing the plastic required to make it. Hotel cards in the bathroom seem recent (made in-house?) and acknowledge that California’s water levels are critically low. Special attention to conservation is appreciated. The lush green gardens around the Santa Monica Civic Centre advise that all water used is recycled and not for drinking. Brass plaques inside lobbies warn that ‘detectable quantities of chemicals and toxins’ linked to disease or disability have been found. A sort of global warning that yesterdays built environment is yet to fully run its course. The new parking station built behind the Civic Centre is visible from a distance thanks to a colourful facade screen and a saw tooth roof canopy that, on closer inspection, is thin film solar PV.

So why does ‘every city have its harbour’ and what does this mean? In the early 90′s, polemic Brit and architectural educator, Winston Barnet took a job at the University of Technology, Sydney. His opening gambit in the harbour city was a crazy-mad proposal to ‘fill in’ the jewel in Sydney’s tourism crown; Circular Quay. Concrete it over, he said. The harbour, Barnet argued, had dazzled us all. While gazing in lust wonder at our shimmering blue asset, we’d allowed the quality of our built environment to go to pot. It was the ‘ah, but what a view!’ that had locked us in to a downward cycle of mediocrity. Doesn’t matter the quality of the origin point; it was the landscape that determined value.

So too with LA. Although in its case, not a harbour but a sky. And a climate. 300 sunshine days each year. A handy wind pattern that shovels the smog offshore in the afternoon; regardless of the morning haze. LA’s single most iconic ideogram is surely the tall Washingtonia filifera palm  stamped against the cloudless sapphire sky. Preferably seen from a soft top convertible. The scene doesn’t dip low enough to take in much else. And it’s ubiquitous. Just like Sydney’s glistening harbour which can be seen from any angle thanks to Sydney’s second asset; it’s topography.

But Barnet’s right. Cities with the extraordinary sweeping ‘epics’ like Sydney’s harbour, or LA’s famous film set sky can become complacent about the importance of the everyday detail.

For all of Santa Monica’s green evolution, driving in from LAX is confronting. B grade malls set back from the boulevards (are they Boulevards, really?) have become an exercise in affordable retail; minimum standards achieved by starving investment in the public realm in a race to the bottom. Available space out front has become obviously more convenient as a dumping ground for skip bins, windowless frontages that seem to value secure entry for the few shuffling staff that limp in to man the register, and an obvious suspicion of trees. Everything about them – and they repeat every corner – screams ‘convenience’. But not in a good way. It’s like the mall model has been copied over so many times that its original allure is no longer discernible. And that no one’s noticed the desolation says even more about the market it spruiks to.

An aged veteran in an ill fitting baseball cap moves in slow motion; crossing an impossibly wide street with a carer taking his elbow (in order to reduce congestion, the generous turn-in radius to side streets effectively doubles the width a pedestrian has to navigate). In his path, a young Hispanic entrepreneur staffing a juice cart under a faded umbrella has positioned himself for maximum exposure to the relentless traffic on the boulevard. He’s blocking the veterans refuge the other side. There’s no place to pull over. And pedestrians must be thin on the ground. What does he earn each day? In this case, the model he’s copying is more from crowded Manila, or Mexico City. Not the abandoned sidewalks of LA.

Glimpses of LA’s former life are still visible between the bitumen roadwork. There’s a flash of tram track; running perpendicular to the roadway. It disappears under a median strip, but doesn’t make it out the other side.


But we’ve always got that sky.