The Architecture Critic Who Wants to Remake Los Angeles

The city's first chief design officer comes to the job from the Los Angeles Times.
by | June 2018
Mayor Eric Garcetti, left, recently named Christopher Hawthorne as his new chief design officer. (Marc Campos/Occidental College)

During the second half of the 20th century, no city symbolized the rise of automobile-driven development more than Los Angeles. Despite its reputation for sprawl, however, L.A. is actually the densest major city in the country. It will grow even more crowded over the coming decade, with voters having approved billions in new spending on housing, parks, transit and other infrastructure ahead of the return of the Summer Olympics in 2028.

What will the city look like then? Answering that question is now largely the responsibility of Christopher Hawthorne. The longtime architecture critic at the Los Angeles Times stepped down earlier this year to take on the newly created post of chief design officer under Mayor Eric Garcetti, who, like other mayors around the country, has grown fond of appointing “chiefs” to tackle issues such as sustainability, streets and data. In this case, Hawthorne will be expected to break down the silos between agencies when it comes to urban planning. That’s easier said than done.

Different agencies have different prerogatives and priorities. The new generation of chiefs may be able to say they’re the mayor’s point person on a particular issue, but without control over budgets or other real power, they can’t force action from those entrenched in city government who view them as a fad. To create a more coherent vision for L.A., Hawthorne will not only have to win over leaders in the city’s transportation, engineering and planning departments, but also other actors scattered at the county, state and federal levels. “The fragmentation that has long characterized the political structure of Southern California has also been plain to see in the way we produce our public infrastructure,” Hawthorne wrote in his farewell column in the Times.

Hawthorne describes his role as less of a czar seeking to get his way by fiat than of an advocate attempting to “nudge” agencies in a more favorable direction. Toward that end, he intends to broaden the conversation, making sure agencies do a better job of listening both to residents and designers through public forums and competitions. Ultimately, he hopes to make the case that better design is not only more inclusive but can be more efficient and save dollars.

Such concepts have become inscribed in the DNA of planning departments in some cities. This hasn’t been the case in Los Angeles, and it’s largely why Garcetti is seeking to break the mold. As a critic, Hawthorne was sometimes a lonely voice in terms of thinking about the public realm writ large. His perch within city hall gives him a different platform from which to make his case that design is threaded through everything a city does and makes. “A real hallmark of his work at the Times has been to really push the big picture and try to prod Los Angeles to think about itself in larger terms -- 21st-century terms and urban terms,” says John King, the architecture critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. “If there was an architecture critic in the United States where this transition would make sense, Chris is the one.”