Recently, long-standing architecture critic for the LA Times Christopher Hawthorne announced that he was stepping down to take up the position of chief design officer for the City of Los Angeles in Mayor Eric Garcetti’s administration. According to Hawthorne, the role will involve raising “the quality of public architecture and urban design across the city — and the level of civic conversation about those subjects.” This dramatic shift from the question: what is the role of the critic and architecture criticism in shaping civic architecture?
Hawthorne has noted that his position will take on a variety of public exercises. Design competitions, public forums, campaigns, engagement with emerging architects, and supporting zone changing will all fall under his careful guidance. Ultimately, Hawthorne will function as a guardian and champion of quality architecture and urban design in the public realm.
A career spent writing about architecture and urbanism, while it’s certainly made me cynical in some ways, has yet to rob me of my faith in the power of the collective spaces of the contemporary city, says Hawthorne. Good design can be an end in itself; it can also be a means to a political, social or even moral end.
This is especially relevant a post-war city like Los Angeles, driven by the expansion of the sing-family home and the freeway as opposed to public space, as it braces for the arrival of the 2028 Olympic Games. While the city has played host to optimistic visions of urbanism from the Case Study House Program to early works by Pritzker Prize Laureates Thom Mayne and Frank Gehry, the future of its public space is intended to be equally progressive.
Perhaps more interesting is the rise of the position of Chief Design Officer itself. In 2014, Forbes magazine addressed the emergence of CDO title—think Apple’s Jonathan Ive or Ernesto Quinteros at Johnson & Johnson—concluding that it was a product of innovative marketing where companies had realized that “a superbly designed product sells itself.” Where a city’s urban scheme is likely regulated by a Chief Planner, Hawthorne’s inaugural position raises the question concerning the role of “marketability” to the future of urban centers.
But a city is not a product—something Hawthorne innately understands. And, perhaps a critics’ perspective can reveal how affordable housing for seniors and low-income households coupled with innovative public spaces can shape the vision of city for both its visitors and, more importantly, its residents.