L.A.’s New Chief Design Officer: “Cities Are Squeezed . . . By Tech Companies”

The former L.A. Times critic talks about the major design challenges facing Los Angeles–and other cities–in the 21st century.

L.A.’s New Chief Design Officer: “Cities Are Squeezed . . . By Tech Companies”
[Photo: Steven Pahel/Unsplash]

Last week, Christopher Hawthorne—the Los Angeles Times‘s architecture critic of 14 years—announced he’d be leaving his post to become L.A.’s first-ever chief design officer. The new role, specially created for him by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, signaled that design criticism now had a seat at the City Hall table.


Posting the announcement on Twitter, Hawthorne (who’s swiftly updated his handle from @HawthorneLAT to @HawthorneCDOLA) humbly admitted that being an architecture critic at a major U.S. newspaper is the only role he’d previously aspired to fulfill, and yet in his final column for the Times, made it clear there’s no shortage of issues for him to tackle in his new job—from climate change to homelessness, and rapid technological shifts shaping the cityscape. Ahead of his official April 16 start date, we caught up with Hawthorne to discuss urgent issues facing cities today, how to approach civic works in the era of architecture’s #MeToo, and why Los Angeles may have more in common with cities in Latin America and Asia than any other in the United States.

Mayor Eric Garcetti and Christopher Hawthorne on stage at Occidental College. [Photo: Marc Campos/Occidental College]
First off, congrats! How does it feel to be stepping into a new role, created expressly for you? You’ve mentioned similar precedents in other cities—including Chicago and Helsinki—though the title of Chief Design Officer for a major U.S. city remains brand new, and one that other American cities will likely look to as an example. How will you go about shaping this new role?

It’s a tremendous honor that the mayor thought of me for this position, and that he values design and architecture enough to create the position in the first place. I think in certain ways, it will be a big leap for me. I will not be writing on a regular basis, I will not be making my living writing, as I’ve done for almost 20 years.

In other ways, for my regular readers, it’s not a radical change but a natural progression—because Los Angeles, its urban design and architecture, has really become my chief subject over the last several years, given how much it’s changing, how much is up for grabs, how much is being redefined, and how many of those answers we have yet to come to any kind of consensus about. That makes it a tremendously exciting time to think about the civic identity, and the architectural identity of the city. On a broader sense, I think other cities are recognizing the value of putting somebody in this kind of position.

The rise of autonomous vehicles, the environmental costs of keeping cars running, and the challenge of how to create public transit on such a vast scale—these all seem to be shaking a lot of the forces that Los Angeles was designed around. What do you make of these big-picture shifts?


This is a crucial set of questions for me, in a city that has been so closely identified with the car—an idea of private mobility—and an architecture and urbanism that has grown up to support that idea of individual mobility. There’s that famous line from [architecture critic] Reyner Banham, that he learned to drive in order to read Los Angeles in the original, the way that a scholar would learn Italian in order to read Dante in the original. I certainly don’t think that it’s necessary to drive to read the city, and a lot of my work has been making that argument. Nonetheless, a lot of the city and its spaces are still dedicated to the car, and how that changes, given technological shifts and our investment in transportation infrastructure, is at or near the top of my list of interests, in terms of things I want to be thinking about in this new position.

The housing shortage and growing homeless population is also a huge crisis, particularly in California—how can we begin to address these challenges?

It’s a huge crisis, it’s something that anyone who is working in the public realm or architecture has to be thinking about. First and foremost, I think there’s no more important issue in Los Angeles. I think we have to be thinking at the level of immediate services—which are not just architectural, but also include social services, mental health services, while also thinking about the role architecture can play.  I think we have to think creatively about any solution, and find solutions that are scalable—and when I say scalable, I don’t just mean in terms of modular architecture, I also mean politically scalable, because that continues to be one of the biggest obstacles, if not the biggest obstacle: the production of housing broadly, not just for the homeless. This is a very difficult city politically to ramp up housing production. We have to think about particular efforts on homelessness, but also their connection to larger housing policy and the effort to really ramp up housing production across the board.

In addition to covering stories locally for the Times, you also wrote about cities abroad—in Portugal, Japan, the United Arab Emirates. How do you feel this periodic shift from a local to global perspective has shaped your critical outlook? Will you be actively looking to other cities for case studies to apply back to Los Angeles?

Absolutely. Whenever I pitched foreign travel to my editors, I always said that going to other cities and writing about them would make me a sharper observer of Los Angeles, because I would have a better sense of what other cities were trying that we weren’t—and how that could perhaps inform how we think about this city. One thing that really dramatically changed, even during my time at the Times, was that the city began to look, rather than to cities like Chicago or New York, or to Europe, for its cultural and architectural models, more actively to Latin America and to Asia—which I think are more appropriate models for a city like Los Angeles. As my friend and colleague Carolina Miranda, who knows Latin American cities well, has said, Los Angeles looks a lot more like Lima than it does like Paris.


And we have begun to also look to those parts of the world for our cultural leaders: [L.A. Philharmonic’s music director] Gustavo Dudamel comes from Venezuela, and the deans of architecture schools at USC and UCLA have been from China and Japan, respectively, so there has been a really productive shift and change in focus in terms of where Los Angeles itself is looking. The mayor likes to say that Los Angeles is the northern capital of Latin America, and the eastern capital of Asia, and so that position on the Pacific Rim is one that should continue to inform how we think about our urbanism here.

What are some of the most urgent challenges facing 21st-century cities more broadly—where are we headed?

I think cities find themselves squeezed on two sides at the moment. On the one side, by climate change, and in Los Angeles that means, sea-level rise in one part of the city, but it also means extreme heat, extreme storms, and extreme wildfires in particular, will be an increasing risk for the city.

And then cities are also squeezed, on the other side, by technological change, and in particular by tech companies like Uber, Lyft, or Airbnb, that are moving more aggressively not just to provide services, they’re taking advantage of existing infrastructure or architectural and urban space in the city. They’re also looking to build in some cases, on parts of the city or slices of the city—and the Sidewalk Toronto project is the best example of that, but there are other initiatives by tech companies that might fit into that category. It’s very important, at this particular moment, to really reassert the importance of the public—meaning the truly public—as a way to begin to think about a bulwark against climate change and the pressures that technological change might bring. It’s also important to say that some of that technological investment can be a force for civic good, if cities are thinking about it strategically as I think Los Angeles already is.

In light of the growing #MeToo movement, and news of the sexual misconduct allegations against Richard Meier, there’s an increased sensitivity and awareness around who designs buildings, and what those public structures come to represent on a social and cultural level. As someone who will play a part in commissioning large-scale permanent and civic works, how do you bear upon these issues? Do you personally separate the body of work from the person and the personal brand? 


I think there’s probably a subtle but important difference between how I might approach that question as a critic, looking at a body of work that is already built, in the case of Richard Meier, versus making a choice to hire an architect. And I think we have to be sensitive to all of those issues. I don’t think you can make that separation any longer, particularly in a field that has been so frustrating in terms of opportunities for advancement and prominent work for women and architects of color. That is not something that we can or should separate. I think those questions are absolutely intertwined and should be in terms of who we choose for those projects, and I’m very interested in ways of changing that calculus to bring a more diverse group of architects—in terms of age, gender, background, and experience—and I say that, understanding the complexity of hiring architects for public work. There are all kinds of strengths that don’t apply in the private sector, so I don’t want to be naive about the complexity of changing that, but it’s something I intend to spend a lot of time working on and thinking about.

Would you ever consider taking on a different role in another city, or are you a die-hard Angeleno? After taking on a role like this, what would be next?

You know, I’ve really fallen in love with Los Angeles. I grew up in Northern California, in Berkeley, as did my wife, and we were sort of indoctrinated to living here, and we’ve both been pleasantly surprised by how much we love it and how vital a place it is. So at least for the time being, the challenge here is more than enough to occupy all my time and energy, absolutely.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

About the author

Aileen Kwun is a writer based in New York City. She is the author of Twenty Over Eighty: Conversations On a Lifetime in Architecture and Design (Princeton Architectural Press), and was previously a senior editor at Dwell and Surface.