Playa Vista is a portion of Los Angeles wedged between LAX airport and Marina del Rey. For many years, the area remained part of Howard Hughes' legacy, noted for its private airfield and adjoining buildings used in the construction of his famous 'flying boat', the Spruce Goose: a wooden plane with a nearly 100-metre wingspan designed to transport troops overseas during WWII (the huge hangar where it was housed is still there; currently it is home to a TV studio). Since the late seventies, this precious parcel of coastal terrain vague has been the subject of intense conflicts between real estate developers wanting to build on it and environmentalists defending its rare ecosystem of wetlands. The final outcome: almost 250 hectares of protected land — the Ballona Wetlands — and the master-planned community of Playa Vista, a high-density residential area coupled with a complex of office buildings. Between the two, Maltzan's office has created Playa Vista Park.
Lucia TozziThe first thing that comes to mind upon entering the park is "why here?".Being located between a row of brand new office buildings and an expanse of empty land — overshadowed by the presence of tract homes and Loyola College on the nearby bluffs — one feels a bit lost.
Michael MaltzanThe park is the result of an agreement between the developersand the city of Los Angeles: public space in exchange for office space. When construction on the second phase of the plan begins, the park will be completed as well, but not before.
Lucia TozziIn a city like Los Angeles, where the idea of 'private property'reigns supreme,it isnot easy to imagine an exchangeof this nature. Since when has the city begun promotingthe notion of public space?
Michael MaltzanIn reality, it is a fairly recent phenomenon that began to take root once the seemingly-endless expansion of urban sprawl ran up against its geographic limits: the ocean, the mountains and the desert. Now, in order tokeep growing, Los Angeles must become denser. At the same time, a denser urban fabric makes open, accessiblepublic space a necessity. In this context, Playa Vista was planned for 6,000 inhabitants concentrated in a relatively small site, complete with all the basic services. This is a planning model that would have had little chance of success until just a few years ago.
Lucia TozziWhen was the project commissioned? And by whom?
Michael MaltzanTowards the end of 2007. A local Los Angeles company, Playa Capital (which includes among its partners Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley,ed.), owns the entire area, while the New York-based Tishman Speyer was entrusted with development of the office complex.When the crisis struck in 2008, the project risked being radically reduced, but at that point we fervently lobbied the owners about the importance of this public space, and the need to go beyond the classic model of 'suburban office park in a sea of asphalt'. We envisioned a vibrant place full of activity; we wanted toinject a piece of the city into this as-yet-unfinished place. For an architect in L.A., designing a public space on this scaleis indeed a rare opportunity, so logically we wanted to create a place that would be powerfuland able to attract people. Its location, between the classic 1970's tract homes of Loyola Collegeto the south and the newly-constructed, denser neighborhood is somehow very significant. One of my favorite things to do is walk to the amphitheatre and look back at all the houses, as if they were permanent spectators.
Lucia TozziIndeed, the project looks nothing like a conventional office park. On the other hand, however, what kind of people do you envision will actually usePlaya Vista Park? After all, it is not close enough to the residential area, which already has gardens of its own...
Michael MaltzanWe designed the park so that it would have the potential of becoming a purposeful destinationwhere people can go to do something, not just an area to be passed through. The idea was to constructa variety ofscenariosthat would be able to servevarious purposes: jogging in the morning, meeting a friend or acquaintance for coffee, eating outdoors at lunchtime, playing a game basketball or volleyball, or even bowling, taking the kids out to play, seeing a show in the evening. We divided the space into north-south strips, set side-by-side, each of whichdesigned for specific activities. The gamble was to concentrate as many functions as possible into a single place in order to recreate an urban environment in which people would be able to encounter each other even though their reasons for coming may differ. Compared to many other parks in the Los Angeles area, essentially designed to be beautiful landscapes, this project is an experiment with a different kind of park. The city is changing: areas like Venice, Pasadena, Downtown, West Hollywood are becoming increasingly populated, andPlaya Vista Parkis a contemporary response to this urban transition. It is a new type of public space that endeavors to invent a new sense of identity rather than imitating typologies that already exist elsewhere.
Lucia TozziBut if the issues of control and security make fair and realaccessibility to public spaces increasingly difficult to realise — a common situation the world over — exactly how 'public' can a new model invented in Los Angeles really be?
Michael MaltzanFirst, wehave to distinguish between parks that are planned from the outset to be public — frequently, though, with little investment— and those developed privately. In the latter cases, the developers tend to be very protective of the spaces surrounding their buildings and naturally defend them as their own property.In reality, the status of public space depends on agreements with the city, but above all else, it also depends on the will of the people claim it as such.Currently, this is a culture that isspreading energeticallyand has great power over the city. Somehow, it is from public spaces like these that a new urbanism will be able to take shape.