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In Los Angeles, Showcasing A City That Might Have Been

A museum exhibit about buildings that don't exist might not sound all that exciting. But the Architecture & Design Museum in Los Angeles has had its crowds grow to 10 times their normal level for a show called Never Built: Los Angeles. It's on through Oct. 13 – and it's all about projects that were imagined for the city but never constructed.

Let's start with one of the most high-profile: a 1968 proposal that would've dramatically altered the profile of Mount Hollywood.

"The pinnacle of Mount Hollywood would've been shaved down by about 30 feet," says exhibit curator Greg Goldin. "They would've flattened this natural peak, and on top of that would've been a star-shaped museum. And then of course a revolving restaurant, because revolving restaurants were the big thing, and an aerial tram to get you up to this Hollywood museum."

Also in the L.A. exhibit: a Bible theme park in the shape of a heart. (What is it with architects and weird shapes?)

A 'Steel Cloud' That Evaporated, Complete With The Fish

Don't think La La Land is the only place where such imaginative projects have been conceived but never brought to birth. In fact, various museums have staged other "Unbuilt" exhibits in Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Berlin. And another such show just opened in San Francisco.

"When we look at unbuilt projects, we see so many ideas, so many alternatives," says architecture critic Martha Thorne, a Pritzker Prize jurist who brought together the projects featured in the Chicago show back in 2004. "It helps us realize that there's not just one path that a city follows; there's not just one path that architecture follows."

The "Steel Cloud," which won a design competition aimed at creating a monumental Los Angeles answer to structures like St. Louis' iconic arch and the Eiffel Tower, was designed by Hani Rashid and Lise Anne Couture.
/ Asymptote Architecture New York
Asymptote Architecture New York
The "Steel Cloud," which won a design competition aimed at creating a monumental Los Angeles answer to structures like St. Louis' iconic arch and the Eiffel Tower, was designed by Hani Rashid and Lise Anne Couture.

One path Los Angeles did follow – along with many other major cities — was to put a gaping freeway trench right through the heart of downtown. That urban scar would've been the site of another project called Steel Cloud. It was to have been a monster of a structure that covered the 101 Freeway and extended 10 stories up, completely transforming the area.

"I think the Steel Cloud would've been great," says Goldin. "It would've had an aquarium. Two aquariums. Its scale was monumental. What was it called, a grasshopper?"

It was called that, and probably worse. Designed in 1988 by Asymptote, the Steel Cloud was envisioned as a massive, 1,600-foot-long tangle of girders and struts spanning the highway, an angular insectoid agglomeration with not just aquariums built in and on it but parks and libraries and cinemas, with "LED screens flashing messages to motorists and a 'Musical Forest' synthesizing the rushing sounds of cars," according to exhibit text in a companion app for iPhone.

"There are all kinds of pejoratives that were used to describe the Steel Cloud. And yeah, it was messy — but frankly it would've been amusing, you know, to have an aquarium hovering over a freeway in downtown," Goldin says. "Great, why not?"

Taking The 'Never' Out Of 'Never Built' The Next Time

Exhibit co-curator Sam Lubell says lots of folks who've visited the museum have asked him what they themselves could do to make sure cool projects get built.

"There has to be pressure to not let the powers that be shrug [these things] off as sort of ridiculous," he says. "If we can encourage people to not give up on projects that they believe are going to change the city for the better, that's important."

Lubell mentions a proposal floating around right now to transform the concrete-lined L.A. River into a vibrant waterfront. He hopes those plans don't end up in a future exhibit about what could've been.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alex Schmidt

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