Q&A with Christopher Hawthorne, LA’s new chief design officer
Next month, Christopher Hawthorne will start work as the city’s first chief design officer, leaving his role as the Los Angeles Times architecture critic. An important part of his job will be to guide and improve the design in the city’s public realm—an area where, historically, LA has not excelled.
Hawthorne’s 13 years of writing about the city certainly deems him an expert on what makes a successful LA design project—including how those projects have been received by their intended audiences. But how will Hawthorne shift from offering a critical take on LA’s newest architectural works to championing the creation of new works for the city? And what exactly can a chief design officer do when it comes to addressing some of the city’s thorniest challenges, like homelessness and transportation?
I talked to Hawthorne about why he wanted to work for Mayor Eric Garcetti, how the city’s sidewalks will be in many ways the heart of his focus, and why he sees the 2028 Olympics as a “nearly perfect” time frame for getting things done.
So how does this work, Mayor Garcetti calls you up one day and is like, ‘Hey, Chris, LA needs you!”
Yes, the call came through on the bright red City Hall hotline on my desk. And it was startling because it had never rung before and after 13 years was getting dusty.
In reality it was something that evolved over time. When the mayor joined me for an onstage conversation at Occidental College after he was reelected, he talked about this role in a broad way and what it might accomplish.
“The mayor is interested in how a smart approach to design can not only improve the architecture and public realm but also be a unifying force in leveraging investments in new housing and new transit.”
His second term is unusually long—five-and-a-half years—because of a change in the election calendar. That means he will be in office full almost a full decade at a time of pretty significant transformation in the built environment in Los Angeles. He concluded that he wanted to create a full-time position of chief design officer, and told me what it would entail, then asked me if I wanted to do it.
I took some time to make up my mind officially, mostly because I love the job I have now, but I knew pretty much right away it was something I wanted to try. That’s in large part because Mayor Garcetti is unusually knowledgeable about and genuinely interested in these issues. That suggested to me that we’d have a chance to try some intriguing things.
I must say I’m intrigued with the title mostly because I can’t think of any other U.S. city that has something called a chief design officer.
Other cities have pursued similar goals in a range of ways. There’s been an Urban Design Studio in the planning department, as you know, and it’s now getting renewed energy, which is great. When Michael Bloomberg was mayor of New York he empowered some of his commissioners, like Janette Sadik-Khan in transportation, to think boldly about the intersection of their departments with urban design.
Well before that, another New York mayor, John Lindsay, made urban design a major priority, as I noted in my recent obituary of Richard Weinstein, who worked for Lindsay and was later architecture dean at UCLA. In 2001, Lee Bey went from architecture critic at the Chicago Sun-Times to the post of deputy chief of staff for planning and design under Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. So there are some precedents, if not a huge number.
Hawthorne interviews Mayor Eric Garcetti during a 3rd LA event for Occidental College in March 2017. After this event they discussed the possibility for a role in City Hall.
Marc Campos/Occidental College
I’m also interested in the fact that the mayor chose someone for this role who’s not an architect. Your job as critic has almost been acting as a translator between these practitioners and the general public, helping regular people understand the value of what designers are trying to do. Is that part of your role for the city, do you think?
I think so, yes. The mayor is interested in how a smart approach to design can not only improve the architecture and public realm but also be a unifying force in leveraging investments in new housing and new transit, so that they complement one another and are as efficient as possible, and in boosting a larger civic conversation about architecture and design. Communicating across various departments and agencies on the one hand and between City Hall and the public on the other—both will be a significant part of the job.
On the other hand, you’ve spent almost 15 years being extremely critical of some people’s work who you will now have to be working closely with. Do you worry some conversations will begin, “So, about that column in 2010…”
That was already an occupational hazard for me, seeing architects out in the world who remember some of my pieces without much fondness. It’s something every critic has to deal with, so that won’t be entirely new for me. I think over time I demonstrated—even to the architects whose work I didn’t always rave about—that I was committed to the city, to understanding its history, and to improving the level of architecture here.
Probably the biggest challenge facing the city right now is the fact that we have not built enough affordable places for the residents of this city to live. How do you see your role addressing the housing crisis?
Not only are housing and homelessness at the top of the list in terms of the city’s challenges, in some ways they are the list right now. I don’t know that too many big issues are separate from the housing conversation at the moment.
The mayor is working to get all the housing built that we can—and I say that appreciating the political complexities of ramping up housing production, having covered this subject in some depth over the years. I’m eager to play whatever role in that effort will be most effective, whether it’s the immediate question of what the new housing for the formerly homeless will look like and where and how quickly it can be built, or the broader issue of expanding the housing stock as a whole. We need to explore every reasonable idea related to these issues.
In a 2014 column Hawthorne wrote that One Santa Fe, designed by Michael Maltzan, was an example of a densifying city, which “takes the generic stuff of a typical LA apartment building—a wood frame slathered in white stucco and lifted above a concrete parking deck—and expands it dramatically to urban scale.”
You’ve been a champion of looking at streets and sidewalks as an increasingly important part of LA’s built environment. Should we look for some big changes to the way we design and use these places in the future?
This is why I’m glad you’re the one doing this Q&A, because you and I both care about this stuff to a ridiculous and granular degree! The central focus of my work will be the public realm, and the heart of the public realm in all sorts of ways is the sidewalk.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how much the threshold between public space and the architecture of the city is in flux right now. After many decades of designing LA buildings where the back door, facing the parking lot, was the de facto main entrance, we’re rediscovering the front door again. If you arrive at a destination on foot, on a bike, via transit or via Lyft or Uber, as opposed to driving yourself, you’re likely to enter through the front. I’m really interested in the urban-design and architectural implications of that for the sidewalk, the front stoop, the whole choreography of arrival and its relationship to mobility and pedestrian culture.
Here’s another example: many big LA intersections are anchored on one or more corners by gas stations, which doesn’t always produce a great pedestrian or urban experience. But what happens as electric vehicles continue to gain traction and demand for gas falls away? How can we re-imagine how those intersections and the sidewalks turning those corners operate? That’s a technological and environmental story but also very much an urban-design one and one I’m already thinking about. The same is true for the longer-term future of parking structures. And so on.
In a 2012 review, Hawthorne heavily criticized Metro’s new Expo Line station design, calling it “not just weak but somehow aggressively banal.”
UCL Institute of Education
What you’ve just said about getting rid of gas stations is reminding me that some of the mayor’s more progressive initiatives, like Vision Zero, have gotten pushback from people who believe the city is trying to take away their cars, which you’ve written about as well. Do you think your role can help show wary Angelenos the benefits of these big ideas?
To be clear, I’m not saying we should get rid of gas stations by some kind of fiat. But they may well to disappear as technology evolves. And yes, there is pushback against a number of recent and proposed changes to the cityscape.
To a certain degree that’s just part of politics. But it’s more intense here, I think, because the benefits of post-war LA—what I’ve referred to as the Second Los Angeles—were so remarkable and in certain ways singular. People had the opportunity to live in a globally important, culturally rich city while also having a rare amount of literal and metaphorical elbow room, room to operate, or disappear—with a house and a garden and a car in the garage that, once upon a time, could take them across the region in half an hour.
To put it mildly, that Los Angeles doesn’t present a sustainable model for the future, but people are understandably keen in some cases to protect it, or elements of it. Maybe that was the city they grew up in, or the one that was so appealing that it was responsible for drawing them to California in the first place.
Speaking of sustainability and the future, we’ve got something pretty unique for a city with the Olympics coming here, it’s like this 10-year deadline for getting projects done. The mayor has set some transit-building goals for 2028, what other projects should use the Olympics as this benchmark?
In some ways I think of the ten-year Olympic deadline as a nearly perfect time frame. It’s long enough that we can imagine getting some ambitious things done between now and then, but not so far away that it begins to seem distant to the point of abstraction.
“The central focus of my work will be the public realm, and the heart of the public realm in all sorts of ways is the sidewalk.”
At the same time, there’s no reason to force projects into that timeline when it doesn’t make sense. For a city so closely associated with futurism and a forward-looking design attitude, L.A. has not always been great at discussing its future self (or selves). I still laugh when I think about some of the emails I used to get when I’d write about a subway line that was due to open in 20 or 30 years. People would say, “How absurd! I’ll be dead!” Yes—and other people will be living here and those people will need to get around. And they will be grateful that we raised the money for a subway and got it built while we were around. That’s how planning works. That’s how cities work!
I think of the Olympic deadline more as a way to concentrate the attention of the city and think and talk about where we want to be in ten years and how we might get there; that’s a rare opportunity for any big city and we shouldn’t waste it.
The Olympics are also troubling to some people who are worried they will lead to displacement in underserved communities. As a white male who hails from Berkeley, how will you make sure that your decisions are as diverse and inclusive as the people they’re intended to serve?
I think my work has shown a concern for these issues that dates back to my arrival at the Times in 2004. One thing I tried to make clear in the piece I wrote announcing that I was leaving is how much I admire the approach taken by Tamika Butler, executive director of the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust. It involves beginning any public-design project by listening to residents and finding out what their most pressing needs and hopes are. Sometimes she learns a park is last thing they need—and she’s okay with that.
I also appreciate what Allison Arieff said in the introduction to a new book of essays, The Future of Public Space: “It once seemed obvious, easy even: add public space, improve quality of life. But it’s not so simple anymore.”
These are complex issues; in the midst of a raging housing crisis, people are rightly concerned about the connection between investment in neighborhoods and the fate of longtime residents. You can’t be working on urban design in Los Angeles without acknowledging those concerns.
You’re leaving the LA Times at a historic moment. But you’re going to leave before they have the architecture critic position filled, meaning our paper of record will be unmoored, at least from a design criticism perspective. Do you think there’s any chance they won’t fill the role?
I’m encouraged by everything we’ve heard from Patrick Soon-Shiong, the incoming owner. He seems to be approaching the job with real thoughtfulness. My sense is that he intends to invest in the paper and give the newsroom more resources. I can’t say for sure what will happen with my position, but my expectation is that they’ll fill the job.
What should the LA Times consider when picking your successor?
I hope they’ll allow somebody to put a distinct and individual stamp on the position. That has been the greatest privilege of the job for me—not simply the platform, but the fact that my editors, from the start and consistently throughout the time I’ve been here, have allowed me to define the job in a broad but also very personal way. And a way that was distinct from my predecessor’s approach.
That’s one of the reasons I would put our group of critics up there with any paper in the country. Jonathan Gold’s critical voice is very different from Justin Chang’s or Lorraine Ali’s or Christopher Knight’s, and they all rank among the very best at what they do. There’s no expectation that we all conform to some institutional Spring Street style. Or think how much great work Carolina Miranda has done since joining the paper and how distinct her voice as a writer is.
That would be my only suggestion—hire somebody talented and give that person the freedom to shape the job. And I’m confident that’s what will happen, especially because Mary McNamara, a critic herself and a Pulitzer winner for criticism, is in charge of the paper’s arts and entertainment coverage.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.