At first glance, Los Angeles might seem like the last place anyone would visit for architectural inspiration: Patchwork quilts of parking lots and strip malls alternate with vast carpets of matching faux-Mediterranean subdivisions, all knit together by a web of eight-lane freeways. But look closely and you'll see daring architecture dotting the scrubby hillsides. There are Frank Lloyd Wright homes that resemble Mayan temples, John Lautner's UFO-inspired residences from the space-obsessed 1960s, and turn-of-the-millennium deconstructions, such as Frank Gehry's luminous Walt Disney Concert Hall. "In Los Angeles, there is always a chance," says Richard Weinstein, a transplanted New Yorker who serves as the vice chair of architecture and urban design at UCLA. "The place is so full of holes and so badly governed," he adds dryly, "that you can occasionally drive a great building into the gaps."
That drive is, more and more, coming from the other side of the Pacific. Last year, both UCLA and its crosstown rival, the University of Southern California, named new directors to their architecture programs — and both come from Asia. Hitoshi Abe, UCLA's new chair, hails from Sendai, Japan, while USC's dean, Qingyun Ma, keeps offices in his native Xi'an, China, and in Shanghai. The appointments represent an intriguing turn at a time when dynamic new architecture, wrestling with questions of history and urbanization, sprouts all over Asia — and as U.S. architectural programs come under fire from figures such as Rem Koolhaas, who told the Los Angeles Times that they were "shamefully focused on the West." Says Abe: "Urban design has been Western-centric. Asia has a lot of energy right now, so we have to look there."
One of Ma's core ideas — the impermanence of architecture — has particular appeal for anyone who would be happy to see Los Angeles' relentless sprawl bulldozed. Ma, 43, views today's Western architecture as a descendant of the Greco-Roman tradition, which is all about building in stone and erecting things that are intended to last forever. (Which makes it all the more amusing that he's an occasional collaborator of Koolhaas, creating mind-bending buildings, such as Beijing's CCTV headquarters, that look as if they might fall down.) Clearly a son of modern China, he questions the West's preservationist reflex. "Everything has a life cycle, as should buildings," he says. "Preservation is an action in sacrifice of future possibilities. The future needs its own space."
The wisdom of razing and rebuilding depends largely on context and execution, of course. Urban renewal failed in some U.S. cities, for instance, and won't Beijing suffer by replacing its centuries-old hutongs with generic apartment buildings? Yet Ma doesn't argue that we should jettison the past. His Thumb Island project near Shanghai modernizes the ancient Chinese reverence for landscape. Grass-carpeted knolls created by the undulating roof over a community center pair with a nearby lake, paying homage to the traditional coupling of mountain and water.
For Abe, 46, who maintains an atelier in his homeland — one of the world's most densely populated countries — issues of environment are paramount. Japanese architects have long had to figure out how to build attractive, functional living spaces on the most microscopic slices of land; it's not uncommon for family homes to occupy just 300 square feet of earth. In 2006, in Saitama, a cluttered city just north of Tokyo, Abe created a combination pediatric clinic/private home that manages to drench three stories of interiors in sunlight, but maintains privacy by wrapping part of the structure in a concrete screen punctuated with asymmetrically placed windows. The building feels open, without putting its residents on display. That sort of solution — and the environment that inspired it — is what Abe wants to expose his students to. "Tokyo is the future," he says. "It is so contemporary: the density issue, the ecological issue, the relation between public and private."
The hiring of these two architects hasn't instantly transformed the curricula or culture of either school. "It's very nice to have people from [Asia] running the schools at USC and UCLA," says Robert A.M. Stern, the architecture dean at Yale, a university that has had programs in Hong Kong and Shanghai since 1999. "But just having someone from that place doesn't necessarily affect the culture."
Which is why both Abe and Ma are taking advantage of Los Angeles' relative proximity to Asia and sending their students abroad, believing that exposure to what's happening in Japan and China will inspire fresh thinking in the next generation of American architects. Masters candidates at UCLA are spending this academic year studying urbanism and architecture in Tokyo, looking for lessons that might be applied to L.A. At USC, Ma has established the first-ever American Academy in China — modeled on the venerable American Academy in Rome — where scholars from all over the world can do research individually, as well as share ideas collectively. "The elites from other cultures have been educated in the United Sates, but American leaders are never educated in other places," Ma says. "If America wants to maintain its position, it has to shift. It can't just be about muscle, but about leadership in the arts and the humanities."
And even as they send students abroad, Abe and Ma are reveling in the atmosphere of their adopted hometown. "Los Angeles is definitely not Western," says Ma, a fan of the city's Korean spas and karaoke bars. "It is a fusion." Home to both classical maestro Esa-Pekka Salonen and pop tartlet Britney Spears, L.A. embraces both high culture and low, which creates a "real sympathy" with Asia, says award-winning architect Greg Lynn, who teaches at UCLA — and shares a passion with Abe for vintage toy robots. "Places like Japan and Korea have a greater respect for popular culture and the industry of popular culture than other places," Lynn says.
Barry Bergdoll, curator of architecture and design at New York's Museum of Modern Art, adds that L.A. "takes much greater risks than most East Coast cities. There's a less conservative business climate." That makes L.A. perfect for the kind of cross-cultural dialogue that Abe and Ma believe can help transform American architectural thinking. "Los Angeles is constantly making community. [People] are constantly cross-pollinating," Ma says. Abe's motivations are similar: "This city allows people to test ideas," he says. "You can see so many different experiences." And after a century of experimental architectural perspectives, L.A. now has two more.
A version of this article appeared in the December/January 2009 issue of Fast Company magazine.