The Midnight Charette is an explicit podcast about design, architecture, and the everyday. Hosted by architectural designers David Lee and Marina Bourderonnet, it features a variety of creative professionals in unscripted conversations that allow for thoughtful takes and personal discussions. A wide array of subjects are covered with honesty and humor: some episodes provide useful tips for designers, while others are project reviews, interviews, or explorations of everyday life and design. The Midnight Charette is also available on iTunes, Spotify, and YouTube.
This week David and Marina are joined by Christopher Hawthorne, to discuss his transition to becoming the city's first Chief Design Officer of Los Angeles, how LA is preparing for the 2028 Olympics, strategies for solving LA's housing shortage, why multi-family projects in California often look the same, balancing community outreach and design, why Elon Musk's tunnel system is flawed, and much more.
Christopher Hawthorne was the Architecture Critic for the LA Times for 14 years prior to starting his position in city government. He has also taught at Occidental College, UC Berkeley, Columbia, and SCIARC and won an Emmy as Executive Producer of the program "Third L.A. with Architecture Critic Christopher Hawthorne".
HIGHLIGHTS & TIMESTAMPS
Christopher discusses the racial dynamics of growing up in Berkeley and what led him to architectural criticism. (03:33)
The beginning of the ‘starchitect’ era and it’s impact on architectural discourse. (20:24)
- “In 1997, a lot changed. Bilbao opened, the Getty opened that fall. The economy turned around. All of a sudden architecture was a subject that editors in New York decided they really needed to be covering again. That was right at the moment when I was for the first time writing, supporting myself, writing just about architecture for a number of magazines, then started writing for the New York times [. . .] Really, there really was a sense that architecture had come out of this darkness and that people needed to be paying attention to it again.” (20:24)
- “It's a mixed legacy, right? Because it was the beginning of the ‘starchitect’, celebrity architecture era when architects would drive covers just on their name or force of personality… There was also a change in how architectural imagery was being packaged and delivered at the beginning of the digital culture. Publications were beginning to have online an online presence and that meant that the kind of transmission of images and the way architecture was marketed and delivered to the public and the importance of a particular kind of architectural photography began. All those things kind of happened in concert. (22:37)
Becoming the Architectural Critic for the LA Times (29:07)
Transitioning from Architectural Critic of the LA Times to Chief Design Office of Los Angeles within the Mayor’s Office. (35:41)
- "He (Eric Garcetti, Mayor of Los Angeles) definitely could have thought that the best person for this job is a practicing architect as opposed to a critic. So I definitely wondered and asked him, “Why is it that you're thinking about a critic?” [. . . ] And his answer was that I had a particular point of view as a critic that I had articulated; that part of my job was having a position, articulating that, and making the case for some kind of change and not being afraid to have an opinion.
- I think an architect who is in my position, who is in a meeting with an office that was designing something from the city, would immediately think about how he or she would design the project. And my mind doesn't go there [. . .] I'm thinking about how to balance the interests of the architects to make their approach as strong as it can be against the various kinds of constraints that are operating with that. [. . .] There's no ego involved for me in the way that there would be in that analogy I gave with a piece of writing.” (40:34)
- “When you're a critic, part of your job is to take a discourse or conversation that's happening within the profession and translate or explain that to a general reader and audience who is probably smart and well-read, but not necessarily particularly well versed in architecture, architectural history, or architectural practice. And there's something similar that's required in this job, which is to say, if there's an architect working for a big city agency, part of my job within the city family is to explain, translate and sometimes protect the design that that firm is presenting. And then also explain that to a broader public… in terms of what the mayor's office or the city is trying to do in terms of policy, urban designer, architectural policy.” (43:23)
The role of the Chief Design Officer and the challenges of defining and preserving ‘architectural quality’ in the city government system. (47:38)
Densifying housing in Los Angeles and engaging in dialogue with opposing homeowners. (59:01)
- “The problem in LA is the—this is very true in the architecture world here too—power of and glamour of the single family house as an architectural idea as embodied in the case study program and in the photographs of Julius Schulman and paintings by David Hockney. Even though we have a lot of great multifamily architectural experiments from the early years of the 20th century by architects like Schindler and Neutra, in the popular imagination this is a city of houses.”
- We talk a lot about the Gulf between NIMBYs and YIMBYs but in my experience, when I talk to people who live in single family neighborhoods, even if they're really anxious about change, if you begin to actually start by asking them not what they're afraid of, but what they would like to see happen in their own communities, they talk about a lot of things that would be enabled by this kind of change really.
- They talk about the ability to age in place—if they get older, they want to downsize, move to a smaller unit, but they don't want to leave the neighborhood and their connection of family and friends and support. They talk about wanting to support local retail, wanting walkability, security eyes on the street, their own children being able to afford to live in the neighborhoods where they grew up in. So there are a lot of things that even the kind of stalwart anti-growth folks might see as beneficial because even they understand that if their neighborhoods stay this way forever, it's not a recipe for something positive given climate change, but also given the way that neighborhoods like that can really wither because they don't have any new energy. So it's my sense that we have to kind of recalibrate the conversation so that we are making room.” (01:02:56)
How LA is preparing for the 2028 Olympics (01:11:06)
Why many new multifamily housing projects look similar. (01:20:38)
Methods for improving the quality of architecture in a city. Is good architecture subjective? (01:25:45)
- “There is this tendency now to say, “Well, it's everyone's taste. It's everyone's point of view. What's a great building to somebody?” I don't necessarily agree with that because in any field, the people who really know the field can make distinctions. If you're a novelist, you know who the people are, who are the masters at doing that thing that you do. And therefore, some short stories are better than others. They're better executed. They exhibit better command of the craft of the thing that you're doing. And I think it's important to realize the ways in which that value system was really limited, and the people who can make those judgements was a very small pool of people.” (01:30:04)
Balancing ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’ design and planning strategies. (01:34:28)
Christopher Hawthorne discusses Elon Musk’s proposed underground transportation system for LA. (01:42:50)
- “Given Space X and Tesla, it's probably wise not to write off Elon Musk altogether and any idea that he has. But beyond that, I think our focus is probably better on making the transit system that we do have—and that we're investing many billions of dollars in—better and more effective. And also there's something, again, fundamentally connected to an LA dream of perfect private amenity, which I think goes against the grain of where Los Angeles needs to and is moving, which is to say toward a realization that we need to think about shared space and kind of mutuality and how we build the city.” (01:46:58)
Christopher on his use of writing to problem solve (01:54:37)