View RSS Feed


SAMLAND - Los Angeles' Invented Spaces and Authentic Places

Rate this Entry
by , 08-10-2011 at 04:14 PM

SAMLAND shares an amazing event he hosted with the Los Angeles Region Planning Group at the Huntington Library and Gardens in July.

The Los Angeles region has evolved as much from out-sized dreams and inventions as from traditional rules for establishing human settlements. Carey McWilliams called Los Angeles an “improbable” place not destined to succeed, but determined to do so. As Southern California developed, the visionaries who built this region knew it was less about location and more about destination.

Disneyland's Castle and Matterhorn

The enormous popularity of “invented” or themed destinations – Venice of America, Olvera Street, Disneyland, Third Street Promenade, CityWalk, The Grove and many others – have provided planners, designers, and developers with inspiration and lessons on both success and failure.

What is the difference between those places that have a “unifying vision” and those that celebrate a “messy vitality”? Where do “invented” places end and “authentic” places begin? In a land where set designers build houses, architects design movie sets, and many of our most cherished “public” spaces are privately owned and operated, anything is possible.

Those were the questions that the Los Angeles Region Planning History Group, in cooperation with the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West, set out to answer during its sixth colloquium entitled, “Los Angeles: Invented Spaces or Authentic Places?” The event took place on Saturday, July 9, 2011, in Friends’ Hall at the Huntington Library and Gardens in San Marino.

A colloquium is an academic seminar in which a particular topic is explored and typically features guest presenters. For this event, the audience was treated to talks by David Sloane, Professor, USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development; Hassan Haghani, Community Development Director for the City of Glendale; Vaughan Davies, Principal and Director of Urban Design for AECOM; Neal Payton, Principal at Torti Galles and Partners, and Tim O’Day, O’Day and Associates, author and Disney historian. The follow-up discussions were moderated by Sam Gennawey and graphically recorded by Brian Wallace, urban planner. The organizers made sure to allow ample time for audience interaction with the Colloquium presenters throughout the event.

After a coffee reception, Marsha Rood, FAICP, President of the Los Angeles Region Planning History Group and one of the event organizers, welcomed the participants and introduced the colloquium moderator, Sam Gennawey, who outlined the day’s proceedings as follows:

Session 1 would provide historic context for the presentations and discussions to follow.
Session 2 would be presentations that help to define the discussion.
Session 3 would be a group discussion with the audience and the presenters in search of key lessons that could be applied to real world opportunities.

Sam then introduced the colloquium presenters:

Professor David Sloane, USC School of Policy, Planning and Development;
Hassan Haghani, Community Development Director City of Glendale;
Vaughan Davies Principal and Director or Urban Design, AECOM;
Tim O’Day, O’Day and Associates, and Neal Payton, Principal, Torti Gallas
and Partners.


Professor David Sloane introduced the colloquium and set the stage with a presentation entitled, “Inventing an Authentic Urbanism.” Professor Sloane provided an overview of the development pattern of Los Angeles with a focus on “invented” versus “authentic” places. He began with the question “Is Hollywood LA?” showing a shot of the Courthouse Square in the Universal Studios backlot that was featured in the movie Back to the Future. Using figure ground drawings, Professor Sloane compared a number of Los Angeles’s gathering places, both old and new. A figure ground drawing allows the viewer to easily distinguish the positive space between buildings. He concluded that Los Angeles has many places that have made the transformation from being purely invented to something more authentic. Among the examples Professor Sloane cited included Mariachi Plaza in East Los Angeles, Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, Leimert Park, the Grove shopping center in the Fairfax District, and Venice of America. After Professor Sloane’s presentation, the floor was open to questions and comments from the audience.

The objective for the second session was to clarify the edges of the debate through provocative presentations. The event organizers were fortunate to have an outstanding panel of professionals. On the one hand, there are those who feel that great spaces are a result of a unified vision that is based on a place “mythology” or that has an explicit “back-story”. The visual contradictions that create chaos have been removed and the pre-determined “mono-value” culture benefits from more top-down control. On the other hand, there are those who would argue that the shared community vision has to evolve incrementally from the grassroots and that the place “mythology” less important. Further, they would argue that there is a certain “messy vitality” that adds energy and a higher degree of life to the environment and sometimes success comes with quality, variety, and surprise.

The third session followed round table lunch discussion groups. Before breaking, Sam Gennawey posed three questions for the participants to ponder. After lunch, the participants would be gathered to address these questions. The group also created a list of key concepts that must be present to create truly authentic places in Southern California and identified the environmental design patterns that seem to reoccur in the destinations that people find inviting.
  1. What are the lessons we can learn?
  2. How can we best apply these lessons?
  3. What are stories of success and failure?
The result of the group discussion included:
  • Connectivity to Community
  • Enduring Vibrancy
  • Human Scale of Architecture
  • Simple, Flexible Design
  • Sustainable – Economic, Social, Environmental
  • Central Gathering Feature
  • Adaptive Buildings
  • Diverse Skills and People
  • Connection to Outdoors
  • Strong Sense of Place/Identity
  • A Beautiful, Well-maintained Public Realm
Listed below are key factors presented by the speakers that is consistent with the findings generated by the participants of the colloquium. The key factors include the following:

Connectivity to Community
One design pattern that received broad consensus from the participants was the notion that successful, authentic spaces are connected to the surrounding community. They are integrated and not a stand alone “Alhambra.” These spaces fit within the city and help to tame the streets.

Place des Vosges (1604)

Neal Payton presented examples of profit making centers that became the heart of neighborhood activity because they were connected to the neighborhood. He began his tour with the Place des Vosges (1604) and Place Vendôme (1702) in Paris. Both were commercial ventures where the developer (a King) sold land that faced a beautiful square and required the builders to follow strict design guidelines to that created something more beautiful than the sum of its parts.

Payton provided examples in the United States that include Lake Forest, Illinois built in 1857, St. Amands Circle in Sarasota, Florida first built in 1917 and “modernized” in 1955, and Shaker Square in Shaker Heights, Ohio, built in 1922. He also talked about America’s first shopping city, Country Club Plaza in Kansas City, Missouri built in 1922, which was heavily themed yet is fully integrated within its surroundings. Other examples of this positive design pattern include Palmer Square in Princeton, New Jersey built between 1929 and 1936, Rockefeller Center in New York built in 1930, and Lincoln Road in Miami Beach built in 1922.

Within Southern California, Payton suggested that the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica is an excellent example of an invented place that has become an authentic civic space due to its integration within the surrounding community. To provide contrast, he compared the Third Street Promenade to the Grove. The Grove is one of the most commercially successful malls in Los Angeles. However, it is isolated from the neighborhood by a forbidding 750-foot wall along one of Los Angeles’s most traveled streets. The only way to access the development by foot is to pass through the equally invented Farmer’s Market, which is much more porous then the new shopping mall. Payton suggested that Third Street Promenade has the ability to evolve over time and will continue to stay relevant while the Grove will be knocked down and rebuilt from the ground up.

Enduring Vibrancy
The goal is to build a legacy. According to Hassan Haghani, the City of Glendale was the invention of one brilliant urban planner named Harland Bartholomew. Bartholomew also worked on the design for Westwood. In 1928, he released a comprehensive plan for Glendale filled with illustrations that defined the urban design details necessary to create a vibrant, beautiful, and functional city.

The illustrations included the suggested treatment for major street intersections, cross sections of the various types of roadways, and an outline for the necessary recreational facilities. One of the illustrations that makes a big impact is called “An Attractive Glendale” and features a healthy tree above the surface while showing that this is the result of good, solid roots based in proper urban planning principles such as carefully integrated curved street design and public trees and outdoor furniture that complements private buildings and grounds. The result is a city that is as timeless and beautiful as a tree. For those planning the future of Glendale today, staying true to those roots is a priority that will lead to success. Haghani highlighted a number of neighborhoods within Glendale such as the Downtown Specific Plan, where the City want to create “an exciting, vibrant urban center which provides a wide array of excellent shopping, dining, working, living, entertainment and cultural opportunities within a short walking distance.” Another area of focus is the Rossmoyne historic district. The subdivision first opened in 1923 and through meticulous research, the city staff was able to find ample documentation as to the heritage of the district and developed guidelines that would enable residents to accurately rehabilitate and enhance their homes.

Human Scale of Architecture
Vaughan Davies suggested that the formula for success is to use the human as the measure, not the auto. By doing this, we are using a social scale that creates places to cherish, stay in, and invest in. As an architect who has routinely designed projects on a grand scale and currently a “new town” project in South Africa for 600,000 residents. Davies has tried to infuse this formula into his projects. Examples include the waterfronts in Long Beach and San Pedro, the Hollywood and Highland entertainment retail center, the Gateway Center in downtown Los Angeles, and Paseo Colorado in Pasadena.

Simple, Flexible Design and Adaptive Buildings
When designing projects, Davies suggested Mater atrium necessitas or “Necessity is the mother of invention”. This means difficult situations inspire ingenious solutions. We must plan for future generations who are “unable to speak” and remember, “those who can do the most with the least will win!”

Haghani stated that Glendale is trying to create an Arts and Entertainment District through the thoughtful readaptive reuse of older buildings. Anchored by the iconic Alex Theatre, the City has encouraged the development community by providing flexibility for diverse uses while maintaining the intimate human scale of the existing architecture.

Sustainable – Economic, Social, Environmental
To illustrate the need for change, Davies painted a somewhat bleak picture through statistics. He said we consume five times more oil than oxygen per day. On average, 20% of the household budget is devoted to supporting the car. Over $64 billion per year is lost in travel time in the United States and the average commute is now 30 minutes. Eighty percent of the time we drive our 250 million cars to elective, short trip destinations such as soccer games, shopping, and running errands. All of this wear and tear has degraded our infrastructure system to a C- to D grade. Davies added that the future would need to be based in a new reality in environmental and urban design that is focused on a comprehensive design approach to watershed regeneration, creating smart corridors for development, and the establishment of an “eco-grid”.

While talking about his Hollywood and Highland project, Vaughan Davies suggested that if the project were ever redone, the one element that would immediately be reestablished was the view corridor that looks directly upon the historic Hollywood sign.

Creativity in Urban Areas
Marsha Rood, FAICP noted that creativity occurs when diverse skill sets, diversity of population, and place overlap. The most successful places are those where there is an opportunity for spontaneous interaction and where all people are welcome, including immigrants. In fact, the new “economy of idea” requires diversity of thought and cultural backgrounds to foster creativity.

Connection to Outdoors
One of the most successful new shopping centers in Southern California is the Americana at Brand in Glendale. Developed by Rick Caruso, the Americana at Brand was the next step in the evolution of the “lifestyle” center that Caruso had pioneered with The Grove.

The Americana is planned to not only be a place to shop, dine, and gather but also one that features residential units over retail and entertainment. Like Caruso’s other projects, the focal point is highlight the village green with water features and a vintage fashioned trolley. The park has been an outstanding success and has become a valued public amenity, albeit under even if it is on private control.

Strong Sense of Place/Identity

One of the best examples of an invented place in Southern California is Disneyland. Disney historian Tim O’Day talked about the influence the theme park has had on the popular culture and the way we view the built environment. He said it began with language. Walt Disney used his own peculiar nomenclature; for example, employees were known as “Cast Members” and wore nametags, something new. They “played” a role “onstage” while services would be hidden “backstage.” Customers were “guests” who visit “adventures and attractions.” There would be no rides at Disneyland but, rather, “experiences.” O’Day spoke of how Disneyland’s physical design reassures us that the world can function, it can be beautiful, and everybody can be friendly to one another even in challenging times.

A Beautiful, Well-Maintained Public Realm
Places in Southern California were cited by the participants as “authentic” included Pico Union, Leicester Square in London, Old Pasadena, Third Street Promenade, Laguna Beach, Venice Beach, Playa del Rey, Gramercy Park, historic downtown Los Angeles, and the surrounding mountains, parks, and beaches. Places that the participants cited as “invented” include The Grove, the Mercado in Boyle Heights, CityWalk, Grand Avenue, including Disney Hall, the Americana at Brand, the Getty Center, USC, Bunker Hill, Irvine, Disneyland and Downtown Disney.

That's what we came up with. What "authentic" places would you add to the list?

- Sam

PS. Don't miss any of our updates, follow SAMLAND on Twitter @ SamlandDisney
And stop by and say hello to me at the MiceChat booth at the D23 Expo
(I'll be at the booth off and on all day Friday August 19th). Here's a link to the full D23 Expo schedule.

Submit "SAMLAND - Los Angeles' Invented Spaces and Authentic Places" to Digg Submit "SAMLAND - Los Angeles' Invented Spaces and Authentic Places" to Submit "SAMLAND - Los Angeles' Invented Spaces and Authentic Places" to StumbleUpon Submit "SAMLAND - Los Angeles' Invented Spaces and Authentic Places" to Google

Updated 08-11-2011 at 04:09 PM by SAMLAND



  1. MrHatboxGhost's Avatar
    • |
    • permalink
    Wow, what a great read ;D thanks!
  2. lynxwiler's Avatar
    • |
    • permalink
    Excellent! What a fantastic event!
  3. Mousecat's Avatar
    • |
    • permalink
    Thanks for joining us Eric. Glad you enjoyed it. I certainly had a lot of fun.

    SamLand's Disney Adventures
  4. DizMiiLand's Avatar
    • |
    • permalink
    There is really a lot to think about in this article. Economic developers would do well to follow Sam's efforts in this blog.

    Of particular interest is how successful commercial centers connect, in various ways, with their community. Main Street USA is an excellent example. Most people would not call it contrived, unless they are Disney jeerers in general anyway. This connection is both concrete and metaphorical.

    And it is interesting to note how "Main Street" has and is gonig through a period of renaissance in America, playing into some of the concepts Sam shared here, which to me, explains why.

    Great article.
  5. jpg391's Avatar
    • |
    • permalink

    Great article. I grew up in Los Angeles. I now live in Albuquerque New Mexico.
  6. SanDiegoErik's Avatar
    • |
    • permalink
    Sam - it is is "Low" cal but I think into the mix you have to put Balboa Park - which was, as you know, a wholly fantasized and invented place which, over time, has become probably the most beloved public space in all of San Diego.

    But this also brings up an important issue - "authentic to whom"? And here is where Disney becomes something interesting because of a million plus AP holders. A question worth posing is, in that world and with the internet to continue to bridge people when not at the park (which can hold only 1/20th of current AP holders in any fashion approaching comfort) to USERS is DL just as connected to what they consider their community as 3rd Street Promende
  7. PragmaticIdealist's Avatar
    • |
    • permalink
    The future is going to play-out along the dividing lines between indepedent establishments and national chains, between granular development and large-scale projects, and between local collaborations and hired consultants.

    I believe in "crowd-sourced" place-making that keeps each locale unique and that originates through grassroots collaboration.
  8. DisWedWay's Avatar
    • |
    • permalink
    Reading your article I found many familiar traveled sites and environments that are also home to me. Authentic or Invented is a big question. In my work I have always strived to create "Authentic" with authentic elements and design transported in time and space. Some of this work was on Historic structures and some on invented as at Disneylands throughout the world. At some point Disneyland Mainstreet will be considered Authentic (when it becomes 80 years old?as with the Rossmoyne Historic area in Glendale you mentioned.), and has withstood the different managements that may try to change it from what Walt originally created or invented. Old Town Knott's Berry Farm should be on the invented list with Disneyland. It's hard to think about a Disneyland that does not have an authentic Mainstreet as in the case of Shanghai. Maybe Time is a major factor between the designation of being Authentic or Invented?? as well as attention to maintaining originailty. PD
    Updated 08-11-2011 at 01:01 PM by DisWedWay
  9. BassBone's Avatar
    • |
    • permalink
    To me the Americana at Brand suffers the same drawbacks as the Grove in Fairfax: It's hard to get inside. The whole thing is surrounded by walls but for one side and it's very off-putting.