Deconstructing Christopher Hawthorne

A conversation with The Los Angeles Times's architecture critic.

Christopher Hawthorne at the new Michael Maltzan–designed One Santa Fe building in Los Angeles.

If Christopher Hawthorne, the architecture critic of the Los Angeles Times, were to be compared to an architect practicing today, Michael Maltzan would make an apt fit. Like the 55-year-old Maltzan, whose L.A.-based firm recently completed two ambitious projects in its home city—the $165-million, 438-unit One Santa Fe apartment complex in the arts district and the $40-million, 102-unit Star Apartments in Skid Row—the 43-year-old Hawthorne has gained a strong reputation, in L.A. and beyond, through similarly determined efforts. Throughout his 10 years at the Times, Hawthorne has written significantly and often boldly about how architecture and urban planning engages both its context and the community it serves, and why that’s so important. Maltzan’s practice aims to do exactly that through its complex, socially minded projects.

Fittingly, Hawthorne recently reviewed, in a mostly positive way, Maltzan’s One Santa Fe project, writing that the design “takes banality”—the standard for most architecture getting built in L.A. today—“and stretches it like taffy in the direction of monumentality.” In the piece, Hawthorne calls the building “a fractal of contemporary Los Angeles architecture, the fragment that both contains and helps explain the whole.” The same could be said of Hawthorne’s writing for the Times over the past decade. Hawthorne hasn’t simply covered the latest “wow”-worthy project by, say, Thom Mayne or Frank Gehry (although he did just review Gehry’s new Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris); he has, instead, written about everything from the recent Ferguson riots in Missouri, to the role architecture plays in Spike Jonze’s film Her, to the preservation of the Houston Astrodome.

Hawthorne understands that the role of the critic is to bring to the forefront the ways in which architecture impacts society and culture at large, not just developers, architects, and those who occupy the buildings they create. At an event in 2013 honoring the late architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable—who invented and pioneered the role—Hawthorne said, “Maybe this is one advantage, finally, that we architecture critics have over the buildings we write about: that we and our work are mobile, that our influence can radiate out into the world from many places at once.” We recently spoke with Hawthorne about how, in today’s ever-changing media landscape, he makes his influence radiate.

You’ve been practicing as an architecture critic for around two decades. When did you start thinking about buildings?

It goes back to the house I grew up in. I spent my childhood in a house in the Berkeley Hills designed by Julia Morgan. The house was finished in 1920, and as a result of buying it my mom became kind of an amateur architectural historian. In fact, she helped start the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association preservation group and used to lead architectural walking tours in Berkeley. I probably owe my early interest in architecture to her and to that house where my parents still live.

What are your memories of the house?

It’s designed to take advantage of view. The house is very symmetrical. When you get inside, you realize its circulation and organization is spatially set up to lead you to two picture windows overlooking the bay. That got me thinking at an early age about the relationship between architecture and landscape.

You later attended college at Yale and took classes with the architectural historian Vincent Scully. 

Yes, although Vincent Scully wasn’t a mentor to me the way he was to other critics, like Paul Goldberger. But his courses did have a really strong influence on me. Every once in a while, I’ll have the experience of getting out of a cab and looking at the building and remembering what Scully had to say about it in this very dramatic way. I experienced that pretty recently with a Frank Furness building in Philadelphia.

I studied architectural history and theory as an undergraduate. At that point, I already knew I wanted to be writing about architecture, not practicing it. I didn’t have much talent on the design side, so I didn’t do any studio work at all. I also studied political science. I was really interested in the intersection between that field and architecture. In fact, I wrote my senior essay on the design of political spaces, looking specifically at Sproul Plaza at U.C. Berkeley; it was remade in the early ’60s by Vernon DeMars and some other landscape architects, and it pretty quickly became the site of the Free Speech Movement protests and went on to be the space of many of the Berkeley Vietnam protests. That topic is back in the news these days with the protests going on in Hong Kong.

You recently wrote a piece in the Los Angeles Times about the Ferguson riots in Missouri.

I think for many there’s a question of what will happen to a public space and physical protests in the digital age. We’re finding that they actually feed each other, and that digital technology both makes it easier to organize protests and also makes the physical act of gathering in spaces more important than ever.

Social and political use for public spaces seems to be a major topic for architecture critics these days. You’ve been writing substantially about this, and Michael Kimmelman at The New York Times has been, too. Would you say readers have an increased interest in how architecture more broadly impacts our lives?

Yes. In my case, this emphasis is in part a reaction to what was going on in the architectural world when I was a student. At the time, the [Peter] Eisenman worldview was still really strong, this idea that architecture had to close ranks and have a conversation that was mostly about itself, that architecture lost some power when it opened itself up to broader social and political questions. I found [the Eisenman] approach really frustrating and opaque and ineffectual after a while.

Another part of my interest happened when I was first writing about architecture full time, in the late ’90s and right after 2000, seeing the response to 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, seeing architects at a moment when architectural celebrity was on the rise and architecture was supposed to be taking this new place of prominence in our culture. When it came time to try to claim or exert some political power, architects were having more and more trouble. There was a real contradiction: as architects were becoming more famous, they were seeing their political power wane. I’ve been interested in that contradiction since I first noticed it. Recently, though, there’s been a refreshing shift in the conversation, particularly among young architects. There’s now an interest in thinking about what architecture is capable of doing politically and socially.

What led you to your role at the Times?

I finished college in 1993, and that recession—although people tend to forget this—was really brutal for architecture and real estate. During this period, magazines weren’t really covering architecture. There were a few critics who had left or retired from newspapers, and they weren’t being replaced. There just wasn’t a lot being built, and there weren’t a lot of outlets interested in publishing any coverage, let alone criticism, about architecture.
I wrote a small handful of pieces on architecture every year and mostly supported myself as a theater and movie critic, and as an arts editor for a weekly alternative paper in the East Bay. I would write about architecture whenever I had the chance, really hoping that it would become something I could do full time. Then, as the economy improved toward the end of the ’90s, I started writing for magazines like Metropolis. I got a fellowship at Columbia University in ’98 and moved to New York. [Gehry’s Guggenheim museum in] Bilbao opened in the fall of 1997 and the Getty [designed by Richard Meier] opened right after that. Suddenly there was as lot of interest in architecture among editors.

So these big projects by Gehry and Meier reignited coverage of architecture?

Yeah, and the economy had really taken off as well. Architecture had been something that serious publications could get away with not covering. That changed pretty dramatically after Bilbao.

Perhaps you could say there was a “Bilbao effect” in the media, not just in architecture.

Absolutely. People forget what kind of impact it had. I clearly remember getting the copy of The New York Times Magazine that had Herbert Muschamp’s review of Bilbao. It was one of the first reviews of Bilbao to be published. Not only did the Times editors decide to the put the review in the magazine—which was unusual to begin with; I’m guessing it was because it gave them more room for the dramatic color photography of the building—they also began the review on the cover on the magazine. [Editor’s note: Muschamp’s review was published on Sept. 7, 1997.] That became a significant moment for the coverage of architecture, and for architectural criticism.

I moved to New York on the heels of that coming out. I was lucky in the sense that I found myself in New York wanting to write about architecture just at this moment. I eventually started writing for The New York Times. Herbert Muschamp was in some ways the most powerful critic at the paper, and it was sometimes tough to squeeze in coverage around him—he could be rather territorial—but luckily I was working with a bunch of really talented editors in the Home section, and then in the Arts & Leisure section, so I was able to sneak a few big pieces in over time. I also wrote for Slate, where I got a lot of really strong editing from Jodi Kantor and Meghan O’Rourke.

Then you moved to L.A. in 2004.

Yes, Nicolai Ouroussoff [who had been the critic at the Los Angeles Times] got Herbert’s job [at The New York Times]. I got a call from the Los Angeles Times at a moment when it was super ambitious and doing extraordinary work on a number of levels. It was pretty clear that it was the best newspaper in the country then. The year I arrived it won five Pulitzers. John Carroll was the editor and Dean Baquet was No. 2. It was already owned by the Tribune Company [now known as Tribune Media Company], so I suppose you could say the writing was on the wall. But it was a heady time to get a job like that. I was thrilled to be at a paper that was ambitious and doing among the best work in Iraq and Washington as well as on its Culture pages.

What was your first piece for the paper about?

The first big piece I wrote was on the preservation battle over the Ambassador Hotel, but before that came out I did a couple of shorter pieces. The first one of those was on design and architecture in two new movies, Team America and The Incredibles. It was about the shifting attitudes of modernism as seen in these films. A few people have said to me since then, “You must have been trying to make a statement by writing something about movies and pop culture”—which is not the sort of thing Nicolai would have done. I wasn’t thinking about it in those terms.

Since then you’ve continued to use film as a lens through which to talk about architecture. You recently wrote about Spike Jonze’s Her.

The piece on Her is the kind I’m most interested in, where I can talk about symbolic uses of architecture, but also symbolic treatments of Los Angeles.

I’m writing something now on the documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself. [Editor’s note: Hawthorne’s review of the film was published on Oct. 11.] The film came out 11 years ago and was made by Thom Andersen, who’s a professor at Cal Arts. It’s about how Hollywood depicts and mistreats—as Andersen sees it—the city of Los Angeles. It’s finally getting a DVD release more than a decade after it was made. It’s entirely a collage of film clips, so there aren’t any talking heads. There’s a voiceover written by Andersen but performed by someone else; it’s very grumpy and caustic, and it takes Hollywood to task for all the ways it misrepresents the city of Los Angeles and its architecture. I think Andersen always felt that it would be too difficult to get all the clearances to release the film theatrically, but he had a lawyer look at it again last year and was told that under fair use he should be fine.

So what’s your personal take on Hollywood and its relationship to and treatment of architecture?

Hollywood has taken advantage of the generic quality of the Los Angeles cityscape, particularly downtown, where both the skyline and the historic district are attractive to filmmakers and directors of commercials and TV shows. Downtown L.A. does a pretty good job of standing in for any city.

One of the big changes I’ve been writing about in L.A. is that as we try to expand our transit network and get past our obsession with the car we’re changing the way the streets are designed. We’re putting in bike lanes, we’re putting parks in, we’re really trying to think about placemaking downtown, and that actually runs directly counter to this generic quality of the streetscape. It has given rise to some really fascinating battles between urban planners and Hollywood. The most specific example was a bright green bike lane that was put in along Spring Street—right in front of the Los Angeles Times Building—that some directors of car commercials and other people in the entertainment business objected to. They said it was really difficult to take out in the editing process and that it ran counter to this idea that the streets of L.A. could stand in for the streets of Any City, USA. Those involved, after lots of negotiation, decided to compromise by changing the shade slightly and having just an outline of the bike lane painted green. It suggested a lot about the assumptions Hollywood has made about Los Angeles, chiefly that the city itself is something the industry can use as a giant back lot, and that because of economic clout, they have something to say about how it ought to be designed.

I’m also interested in the studios’ lots as architectural landmarks. They almost all turn their backs on the city. They don’t really have any interaction with the life on the streets around them. In fact, they’re symbolic of a longstanding estrangement between Hollywood and the actual city. Some historians would tell you that estrangement goes back to the advent of sound in movies. During the silent-film days, Hollywood was very much about interacting with Los Angeles. Then with sound came soundstages, and Hollywood retreated behind these studio walls. That’s continued to the present day, though many of the studios are now trying to open up their properties architecturally and culturally. Some are even trying to build housing or mixed-use developments on the edges of their properties.

It’s interesting, this idea that because of sound, architecture retreats.

If you go back and look at the silent movies—Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin movies from the early days of Hollywood—the remarkable thing is they’re using the existing architecture of the city as a stage set. There was a really direct relationship between those filmmakers and the architecture of the city.
Part of Thom Andersen’s critique is that Hollywood, having split from the city, alienated itself more and more over time. By the’70s and ’80s, you had an industry in the middle of a city that it didn’t really understand—or want to understand. I think there’s absolutely something to that critique.

Another central aspect to understanding L.A. is the automobile. How do you see its role in L.A. changing, and how is that impacting what’s getting developed there?

L.A. is infamous for being obsessed with cars, and for being a city that has organized itself around the automobile and the freeway. That’s certainly true, but only if you’re looking at the postwar period. I think it’s important to take a longer view of L.A.’s urban and architectural history. When I did a series a couple of years ago on the boulevards of L.A., the focus was really about how those boulevards were trying to reassert themselves as places that were not just for cars. Looking back to before the advent of the automobile, the most dramatic conclusion that I came to—and I’m serious—is that if you look at the long timeline of L.A. history, the period that’s dominated by the car may end up being the anomalous period. I called it “the blip on the civic timeline.” [Editor’s note: The piece Hawthorne is discussing, “Crenshaw Boulevard Comes to a Crossroads,” ran in the paper on Sept. 21, 2012.] L.A. has this prehistory, before World War II, when it had a remarkable transit system; it had these loose, creative boulevards with streetcars and cyclists and pedestrians.

More and more, I’ve been trying to look back to that prewar history because I think all of the things that Los Angeles is criticized for lacking—strong civic architecture, pedestrian amenities, and mass transit—are all things it had a remarkable supply of in the ’20s and ’30s. Up until the late 1930s, L.A. not only had this really extensive transit system, but also a lot of talented architects producing really ambitious civic projects. Then, after the war, L.A. was expanding rapidly and embarked on this experiment in organizing the city around a more private model—around the car and the freeway and the single-family house. Lots of cities were doing that then, but L.A. did it more dramatically than most. I think when people think about the stereotypes and clichés of L.A., they’re really thinking about that postwar period rather than the whole history.

Even as L.A.’s architecture seems to be getting shinier and sleeker, there’s a lot of architectural preservation happening in the city. You recently wrote a piece about this on both the United Artists Theater—which the Ace Hotel restored with local firm Commune—and the Forum arena.

I’d like to point out that the whole downtown renaissance that I’ve been writing about—and that others have been writing about—actually has its roots in a policy change that was in part meant to spur historic preservation. The Adaptive Reuse Ordinance, which was applied in 1999, has allowed office buildings to be converted into residential apartments and condos with a minimum of red tape. It really spurred the transformation of downtown from a commercial center to a residential one. That really was the beginning of this downtown renaissance that’s now so obvious and easy to see. I think the Ace Hotel’s success and the success of a few projects in Koreatown—like the Line Hotel, where Roy Choi opened a restaurant—runs counter to the idea that L.A. is attractive for its new architecture.

For the rest of the interview with Christopher Hawthorne, order your copy of the November issue here.

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