Images via Van Alen Institute
Last night, nonprofit architectural group Van Alen Institute hosted "After Car Culture: Designing the New LA," a panel convened to discuss the local implications of a high-speed rail design contest they launched in late March. "Life at the Speed of Rail"'s 20 winners were announced just a couple weeks ago on June 24. Since then, Van Alen's been hosting a panel series around the country, ending with the fourth and last one here in LA at the Caltrans building (the one in Houston was nicely titled "Red State Rail"). Panelists in tow: LAT critic Christopher Hawthorne (also at the Houston and DC events), Metro's director of Creative Services Michael Lejeune (also at the DC event), cityLAB director and UCLA professor Dana Cuff, design writer Alissa Walker, and San Francisco's planning director John Rahaim.
The transpo zeitgeist played a big role in the discussions--Carmageddon, Rodeo Drive subway hate, the continued politicizing of high-speed rail in California and across the country--but if there were specific visions for a new LA kickstarted by high-speed rail, it wasn't entirely clear from the discussion. Still, ideas were abundant and the mood was merry. Much of that could probably be attributed to the disposition of the winning entries themselves, some of which leaned toward the wacky. (In fact, it was noted that in a prior panel, one criticism was that the entries weren't "serious" enough.)
The presentation categorized the 20 winners under four basic themes: restructuring of cities, infrastructure that "multitasks," unexpected relationships catalyzed by high-speed rail, and new cultures and identifications. They included what Dana Cuff called "futuristic, giant sheep gobblers," a vertically layered suburban development in Houston, a god-like floating machine-box in Chicago, bullet trains with tanning salons and dance floors, and a simple ad campaign showcasing the real-life effects of high-speed rail on six hypothetical people.
In response to the contest and the winners in general, Cuff noted it was high time that we tackle high-speed rail "conceptually" — "moving beyond the station itself as a 19th century shed." Planning director Rahaim seconded, wondering whether some of the damage wreaked by overzealous highway construction could have been avoided by projects like Van Alen's that carefully examined what life would be like with a radical new travel mode.
That high-speed life: high-speed sexy. Besides brief mention of the party train from Victorville to Vegas, writer Alissa Walker thought--probably half-flippantly, mind you--"the fact that you could go tanning (on a hypothetical high-speed tanning salon) could be very attractive to some people." And if women could apply makeup and men could shave, why not have a "disco dance" car, added Metro guy Michael Lejeune. (They're referring to Bay Area firm Rael San Fratello's entry, which imagines, essentially, a yuppie mall on wheels. Perhaps the most realistic entry of all!)
Christopher Hawthorne called it "moveable urbanism," but seemed most interested in the "speculative energy" of the VPL entry, which proposes a "smart sprawl" megahub city by that name in the Southwest, linking the Las Vegas McCarren, Phoenix International, and Los Angeles International airports. Hawthorne noted soberly, naturally, that it would've also been nice to see more detailed explorations of how neighborhoods would be transformed in the immediate vicinity of new stations.
On that serious note, Van Alen's moderator wondered whether high-speed rail would end up being the "panacea" it's often portrayed to be--something that could address economic renewal, relieve traffic, make life good again. That optimism, Cuff said, was probably "unfounded in some cases"--noting that high-speed rail is bound to be a whole new beast, particularly in California, where the "suburbanism that is both our condemnation and our celebration" can lead to interesting challenges when it comes to integrating high-speed rail. To wit, she asked, how would small, outlying towns like Palmdale or Merced deal with the massive in- or outflow of people on bullet trains? Would the bullety speeds lead to new bedroom communities halfway between SF and LA?
No doubt it'd be a game-changer: Rahaim said that not only would people commute between Anaheim and LA, and between San Jose and SF, but they could hop between SF and LA for lunch, completely changing perceptions of our regional boundaries. There's a big opportunity for us, said Cuff, to find a happy medium between the "conservative, standard ideas" of large design firms and the edgier, boundary-pushing ones of "Life at the Speed of Rail." She pushed for designers to seek a "post-utopian positive image" that people could actually buy into--something beyond the New Urbanist stuff that's become standard fare. And with that, the panel went gently into Q&A.