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In Santa Monica, where Anderton lives and works, residents are struggling with whether the city will stay a sleepy beachtown or a denser metropolis.
Belmar Apartments by Koning Eizenberg, photo by Eric Staudenmeier

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Bringing LA’s great architecture to the masses

Frances Anderton, host of KCRW’s DnA: Design and Architecture, on why valuing LA’s good design matters more now than ever

As the host of KCRW’s DnA: Design and Architecture, Frances Anderton’s voice has narrated one of the most exciting chapters in Los Angeles’ architectural history. At the same time, she has taken what is often a difficult field to parse and made it relatable, accessible, and, most of all, entertaining for a wider audience.

Born and raised in the United Kingdom, where she attended architecture school in London, Anderton arrived in Los Angeles in 1991, just as the design community was gaining international recognition for its experimental, genre-defying work. In addition to her two decades at KCRW, she has covered the city’s architecture for publications including Dwell, the New York Times, Architect’s Newspaper, and several books.

On Saturday, Anderton will receive an award from SCI-Arc. She recently wrote about how the school’s legacy has defined LA, thanks to the many famous alumni she has interviewed over the years. Now she is among the long list of local luminaries honored by the architecture institution.

Anderton making notes before a talk at the Annenberg Space for Photography in 2014.
Annenberg Foundation

“SCI-Arc is honored to recognize someone whose lifework has been to elevate, expand, and make relevant the discourse surrounding the field of architecture and design on a national level,” says SCI-Arc’s director Hernan Diaz Alonso.

I would also add that Anderton has served as a generous role model and enthusiastic mentor for many local journalists, including me. I caught up with Anderton this week to hear about the city’s 1980s design scene, covering LA’s defining moments, and what it’s like to live in an apartment designed by a rather famous architect.

Tell us about how you came to Los Angeles.

I came to LA completely by chance. In mid-1987 I was hired as assistant editor at the Architectural Review magazine in London, and a few weeks into the job, the editor Peter Davey—an unforgettable character who sadly passed earlier this year—told me that I needed to step in and edit a special issue on “Young Americans” that was due soon at the printers. Apparently he and Michael Sorkin, the then-famed Village Voice architectural critic, had agreed over drinks that Sorkin would guest-edit, but in the haze of alcohol this plan seemed to have been forgotten or misconstrued.

I then reached out to a former architecture tutor of mine at the Bartlett, David Dunster, who had spent time in America, and he urged me to seek advice from a expat named Julia Bloomfield, who was living in LA after years in architecture publishing in New York.

DnA launched in 2002 to celebrate LA’s architecture. Frank Gehry’s famous Walt Disney Concert Hall opened the next year.

She told me LA was the place to be and rather than focus on Young Americans generally, I should come stay with her and she would introduce me to the architecture scene. And that is what happened.

From afar it seemed like LA had all come together for the Olympics a few years before—did you feel the afterglow?

I’m not sure about the afterglow of the Olympics—three years is a long time in LA, and people, including the lead designers Deborah Sussman and Jon Jerde, had moved onto new projects. But in the words of Norman Millar, the late dean of Woodbury University’s school of architecture, who I met back then, LA was most certainly a “happening place.”

To the extent the work then had the spirit of the ’84 Olympics design, there was a lightness of touch and cheery makeshift spirit that was exceedingly refreshing, especially compared to the neohistoricist postmodernism or cool-to-the-point-of-cold steel and glass “high tech” then in vogue in the UK.

I remember well going to Frank Gehry’s studio, which was then in Venice, and seeing his cardboard chairs and fish lamps and thinking this was such an unusual and fun way to approach architecture.

You’ve managed to keep design and architecture relevant to listeners for decades—how has DnA’s content or format evolved in the last few years?

It’s changed in part thanks to the talents that have worked with me over the years. For example, I am indebted to you, Alissa, for your involvement early on, especially in developing the web side of the show; and right now to Avishay Artsy, DnA’s producer who is a terrific collaborator, editor, and sound scorer. He has a local news background, and reinforces the newsiness of the show but also its local focus.

In terms of format changes, interviews tend to be shorter than they were when the show started, we do much more reporting from the field—making for a sense of being there—and we do more produced segments bringing in multiple voices. We try and humanize the stories, which means hearing from those impacted by design as well as creators. We talk about process as well as completed product or building, and we cover the dramas that can surround design, from fights over gentrification to debates over aesthetics.

We also try and stay accessible. Designers and architects can, if left to themselves, use mystifying rhetoric. We get rid of that!

Finally, I guess the show stays relevant because there is so much to talk about, so much going on in Los Angeles, not to mention design generally and urbanism specifically have much wider appeal than in past years. The challenge is one of how to keep up!

You did an amazing series recently named Bridges and Walls.

The impetus for the series was Donald Trump’s repeated calls for building a border wall. So amidst his language of division, we decided to look at connections in California. This is a state celebrated for its openness to new ideas, new people and new forms of linkage.

But there is a competing and opposite impulse, which is to put up barriers. This can take the form of thwarting ambitious development that might benefit the state but upsets some communities, like high-speed rail, or invisible walls, like zoning, which divides cities economically. Zoning can be a weapon against growth so it’s super-important to stay on top of.

Freeways bring parts of the city together yet they divide many of LA’s neighborhoods, says Anderton.

Sometimes bridges and walls are one and the same, like freeways, which connect some communities while dividing others—both human and animal, as we learned in studying the Liberty Canyon Wildlife Crossing.

Then you find that humans have an amazing capacity to find connection at walls, as our reporter Jenny Hamel found when she witnessed the very moving encounters at the Door of Hope in Friendship Park at the border, where families separated by immigration status meet and hug for a few minutes.

In terms of revelations, the biggest was the “eruv,” an almost invisible thread that forms a boundary in a large area of West LA, created by and known only to Orthodox Jews who, within the boundary of the eruv, can do certain tasks on the Sabbath, like push a child in a stroller, that otherwise religious law would not permit. I had no idea of its existence until I learned about it from Avishay, co-host and co-producer on the series.

You also worked on other important KCRW shows. What has it been like to cover fast-moving local news stories, and can you think of a moment that was particularly defining for the city?

The most defining moment in my lifetime here was absolutely the Rodney King riots or civil unrest of April 1992—I was at work on the ninth floor of the Wiltern Building when the fires broke out in Koreatown. The 1994 earthquake was big, too, but nothing slammed the region and exposed its inequities and tensions like the 1992 uprising.

Which Way, LA? was launched in response to the unrest, and its host Warren Olney functioned as part-therapist, part-prosecutor, part-negotiator for the region as he brought together voices from many—and sometimes hostile—communities and stakeholders in an effort to tease out what cause the uprising and where to go next.

I had moved to LA in 1991 and was editing an architecture newsletter for AIA/LA [the American Institute of Architect’s LA chapter], but as soon as I heard Which Way, LA? I vowed to work on that show. It took several years of freelancing and volunteering at the station but in the late ’90s I wound up becoming a producer. Shortly after that, Which Way, LA? spun off a national show, To The Point, which was focused on national politics.

It seems so completely different from writing about new buildings—was it?

I never imagined I’d go from architecture to producing a daily current affairs show, but that’s what happened and it was immensely interesting. I also realized I’m far more suited to tight deadlines than the lengthy ones typical of building projects. Producing Which Way, LA? and To The Point for Warren was a master class in policy, politics, and journalism.

It also changed my views on the role of architects in constructing the environment; as in, I learned they had less power than I’d been taught in architecture school! But I also learned the input of designers did not get enough respect from policymakers and the general public and that without strong pressure from the design community, many policy makers and city-builders and journalists would ignore the useful role of design and designers altogether.

With support from Jennifer Ferro, KCRW’s president, and Ruth Seymour, our former general manager, DnA was launched in 2002, with the goal of celebrating LA’s extensive design and architecture talents, as well as making a case for why they mattered to the well-being of the region.

Do you think that’s still a difficult case to make, or has LA come to understand the value of design?

There has always been a population of Angelenos that love and appreciate its design and architecture. But when I started the show, I do remember hearing people express puzzlement at the notion of a show primarily focused on LA architecture, as in, “What architecture?”

There used to be an inferiority complex relative to the old cities of Europe or even the East Coast. I feel like that’s changed.

Having said that, when it came to ballot measures LV and S and other fights aimed at stopping development, contested large projects have included designs by Gehry, Rem Koolhaas, Stanley Saitowitz, Herzog and de Meuron, and Bjarke Ingels.

I’m not saying projects by the big guns of the architecture world should be a shoe-in, but you might think exciting architects would be welcomed. Which suggests some level of indifference to thoughtful design.

The city is going through some dramatic changes, but there is a great deal of resistance to change. You live in Santa Monica, which in many ways is the epitome of this.

On one hand Santa Monica is a model of progressive city-building. It values its public school district, parks, bus system, rent control, bike lanes, and affordable housing. At the same time it has large numbers of homeowners, some of whom share those ideals, who are at the same time very resistant to growth—ditto for some longtime renters. Of course you can see why.

Life in a single-family home in Santa Monica is very pleasant, not to mention home values are very high—why would you want to change that? And, like everywhere in the Southland, most Santa Monicans drive and do not want to sit in traffic or be unable to find a parking space.

The result is the Santa Monica population almost doubles daily as people—including the backbone of the community like teachers—drive into work in economically booming Santa Monica but cannot live here, rendering the traffic congestion west of the 405 untenable. Clearly the city has to grow and it would be logical to grow close to the Expo Line. But there has even been resistance to projects there, like the Hines development.

Now you have a struggle between NIMBY, YIMBY, and PHIMBY progressives, each of which thinks their approach is the best way to maintain affordability and livability. It’s very challenging and poses an existential and ongoing question for Santa Monica: Does it want to be a sleepy beachtown or a metropolis?

I personally live in a rental in a neighborhood in Santa Monica that is a mix of single-family homes, duplexes, fourplexes, dingbats, multifamily rentals, condos, and townhomes. I like the energy and economic mix of a mixed neighborhood and hope that one day we can see more of that across the Southland.

And it’s not just any old rental you live in—you happen to live in a building designed by a very famous architect!

Yes, I am very fortunate to live in an apartment in a six-unit multifamily building designed and developed by Frank Gehry with others including his former Victor Gruen colleague, the late Fereydoon Ghaffari. The apartment I live in was once occupied by Gehry’s therapist, Milton Wexler, and Gehry lived upstairs.

Anderton’s colorful living room in a Frank Gehry-designed apartment in Santa Monica.
Frances Anderton

The building was completed in the early ’60s and is not a recognizable “Gehry,” but it is a model of efficient planning and calming natural light, and it contains features like unfussy Douglas fir plywood fixtures that hint at his later experiments with that material. It is also built around a courtyard and has external stairs and balconies, making it a social environment in a manner that brings to mind one of my favorite Southland housing types, the bungalow court.

From here I can walk or bike or bus to my daughter’s public school and to KCRW, located at Santa Monica College, soon to move to a new building designed by Clive Wilkinson at another Santa Monica College site at Olympic and Stewart. So I have missed out on getting on the LA housing ladder, but feel the daily quality of life afforded by this apartment brings its own rewards.

Do you ever fantasize about living in another part of LA—or perhaps in a specific building?

Yes, I’ve fantasized about living in Village Green and Downtown.


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