Michael Maltzan and the American Metropolis

The visionary architect envisions a new Los Angeles with Playa Vista Park—a city in microcosm

When you open Michael Maltzan’s recent book, No More Play: Conversations on Urban Speculation in Los Angeles and Beyond, you will find half of a dust jacket cover that opens into a poster. The “No” is deliberately missing from the fold, leaving “More Play” as an alternate title. It is such contradictions that define the place of Los Angeles, a conurbation that exploded after World War II with endless new development and, rather than forming like a traditional city, became something new.

“One of the things we struggled with, coming out of the book, was ‘What do you call a place like this?’” says Maltzan, founding principal of Los Angeles-based Michael Maltzan Architecture, established in 1995. “It was not that Los Angeles didn’t rise to the stature of a city.

It was that Los Angeles had gone beyond the traditional definitions
of city and had become something else. Is it a super region? Is it a new kind of semi-state? Is it a geographic phenomena? We joked that
maybe we could call it ‘Superbigatopolis.’”

At the same time that Maltzan was getting his book published, his 21-person firm was finishing Playa Vista Park in West Los Angeles. And both the book and the park punctuate the firm and its founder’s vision of Los Angles as an indefinable morass spread over a massive horizontal grid, a vision that has contributed to many of the firm’s other projects as well, including the San Francisco State University Mashouf Performing Arts Center, the UCLA Hammer Museum, Inner-City Arts, New Carver Apartments Los Angeles, the MoMA QNS, and the Pittman Dowell Residence in La Crescenta, California.

Having grown up in the post-World War II development of Levittown on Long Island in New York, Maltzan was struck when he came to California in the late 1980s by how comfortable and familiar Los Angeles felt to him. At first he thought it might have been the hours of TV he had watched featuring the glamorous, sprawling West Coast city as a backdrop, but later he reflected that Los Angeles was, more broadly, a great experiment for something that happened across the country—something that could not be thought of in the traditional urban terms of cities such as New York, Boston, or Chicago.

Michael Maltzan grew up in the infamous post-World War II suburban community of Levittown, NY. When Maltzan moved to Los Angeles, he says the repetitious sprawl felt familiar. The architect now hopes to make the city a more connected place.

Unlike those older metropolises that grew gradually from streets to blocks to neighborhoods, post-World War II Los Angeles and Levittown grew from housing developments into whole towns and communities almost overnight. “Lots of people feel disoriented and dislocated and anxious about the scale and repetition of Los Angeles,” Maltzan says. “For me, it felt very similar to Levittown. I realized over time that there is a DNA, an almost molecular structure that makes places like Levittown and LA similar because they were both born at the same time with a similar impetus behind them. The scale, the textures, the institutions, the horizontality—all of those things were coming from a very similar mindset.”

Today Maltzan connects to Los Angeles on a personal and professional basis. “I live in Los Angeles in two parallel but not always similar ways,” he says. “I live here very much as a citizen of the city, not in an objective way to the issues and problems and opportunities of this place. At the same time, one of the things that originally brought me here as an architect is [that] I think of LA as one of the great urban laboratories in the world. The city has reached its physical and psychological boundaries. Density and infill is creating a new version of what once was a sprawl city.”

The shift, Maltzan explains, is an identity crisis of monumental proportions. With its optimism of unbridled growth, its very freewheeling definition of itself is at stake. “Professionally and intellectually, I can’t imagine a city that provides a broader set of real and pressing urban challenges,” he says. “It keeps me deeply motivated and fascinated.”

As Maltzan began his career and family in Los Angeles in the early 1990s, a series of events changed his notion of what the place was. The perception of Los Angeles as a multicultural city fell to ruin with the burning of Koreatown following the racially fueled assault of Rodney King by LA police and the ensuing clashes between African- and Korean-American neighborhoods. “Los Angeles is an intensely separate city of many cultures,” he says. “It’s huge, horizontal scale allowed for those silos to coexist. When the riots happened, smoke from the fires blanketed the entire LA Basin, and the riot lines crossed over implicit boundaries and thresholds, making them more psychological than real. At that moment there occurred a radical remapping of Los Angeles I could not have imagined. If you are going to work here, you could not separate yourself from the larger question of ‘What is this organism, this new animal with all its very real and unromantic challenges?’”

Nearly 20 years later, the seeds planted during that tumultuous time have led Maltzan to emulate the city in his work. Playa Vista Park was a new endeavor for his firm, which had always focused on architecture and had not designed an urban landscape before. Set on the west side of Los Angeles, the park is the centerpiece of a planned community of housing and office buildings, which Maltzan’s firm was also hired to do. “We designed Playa Vista Park as a series of ‘activity bridges’ lined up as discreet and singular zones,” he says, “almost as if they were the separate silos equivalent to the communities and geographies and cultures of the city.”

“We designed Playa Vista Park as a series of ‘activity bridges,’” Maltzan says. A Wi-Fi-capable “meeting bridge” includes space for outdoor conferences. There’s a soccer field and an amphitheater. Visitors engage with the park as they would with Los Angeles. Photo: Jeff Gonot

These “bridges”—distinct areas that don’t necessarily span anything—offer various amenities and programs. A Wi-Fi-capable “meeting bridge” includes tables and chairs for outdoor conferences so the life of the offices can spill out into the park. There are also “physical-activity bridges,” such as the soccer field that is at the center of the park and a “courts bridge” that offers space for beach volleyball, basketball, and a children’s playground. A “forest bridge” provides opportunities for a series of smaller one-on-one activities in the park, and horticultural berms offer hands-on gardening classes. The “theater bridge,” with its amphitheater structure at the center of the entire park, is meant to be a place of larger collective meetings and events. “In a way, you were forced to engage and walk through visually these other communities,” Maltzan says, “and engage in the entire park as you might do within the actual city.”

So how do such spaces and the city of Los Angeles as a whole allow the ideas of “No More Play” and “More Play” to exist at the same time? “People have a perception of this city being a light, frivolous, disconnected, individualistic culture,” Maltzan says. “That is a cliché that Los Angeles embraces at some level. It goes with an environment that is so completely benign and accessible and possible. The title of the book is a very pointed question to the city itself. Can we put aside the clichés and seriously get on with the real work of the city and its future? I’m searching for that answer. I am not sure what we would do if we didn’t have more play here. That would be giving up an enormous part of the creativity that is so much a part of this city.”

Michael Maltzan had never designed a park before, but his talent for envisioning ways to bring people together made him the perfect choice for Playa Vista Park, the centerpiece for a planned community of homes and office buildings on Los Angeles’s west side. Rather than designing a green space that offered only aesthetic value, Maltzan provided activity areas, including basketball courts and an area with tables, chairs, and Internet access. Photos: Jeff Gonot