an undergraduate art history major at Pomona College in the mid-1980s, the stark contrast between sunshine and noir that Mike Davis described in his landmark book “City of Quartz” is something I saw and felt as I — a Northern California native — explored Los Angeles for the first time. The Museum of Contemporary Art had just opened its new building on Grand Avenue. With its design by Japanese architect Arata Isozaki, MOCA was the embodiment of Davis’ critique of what he called the city’s “mercenary, corporate-dominated arts dispensation.”


In Davis’ view, the effort to build a cultural superstructure for LA’s emergence as a world-class city was primarily an expression of the land development process, fueled by international real estate capital — much of it from Japan. MOCA stood out to me as a metaphor for the overall polarization of the city: its Isozaki-designed sandstone art temple at the top of Bunker Hill was linked to (and preceded by) the “Temporary Contemporary” — an old police garage down on First Street in Little Tokyo that had experienced a makeover by Frank Gehry. Together, they read as the embodiment of LA’s ego and its id in architectural terms: sunshine and noir.


The book I read as a graduate student at Berkeley and re-read when I moved back to Los Angeles a decade later has held up remarkably well in the 25 years since its publication. That was the conclusion that I, Los Angeles Deputy Mayor and former Pasadena Mayor Rick Cole and Los Angeles Times Book Critic David Ulin reached during the latest session of the Third Los Angeles Project, a citywide conversation (free and open to the public) created by Los Angeles Times Architecture Critic Christopher Hawthorne and sponsored by Occidental College. 


Davis’ thesis that Los Angeles had become an ever-expanding megalopolis has been disproven, and his take on Fortress LA and the LAPD now come across as somewhat dated, observed Ulin. 


“But the power of his insight and ideas have changed the trajectory of the region in a positive way,” noted Cole, an Oxy graduate who also served as city manager of Azusa and Ventura. “That his worst predictions didn’t come true is a profound validation of his thesis.” 


I argued that “City of Quartz’s” concept of the pseudo-public sphere still exists, albeit in modified form. Branded malls like the Americana at Brand in Glendale, the Paseo Colorado in Pasadena and everything that’s happening in and around the Staples Center, while not the Fortress LA that Davis described, provide Angelenos with kinder, gentler and happier fortresses of consumption.


One could argue that the next in the Third Los Angeles series, a March 25 examination of the controversial plan to remake the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, will provide yet another example of the staying power of Davis’ vision. The hiring of Swiss architect Peter Zumthor by LACMA Director Michael Govan — an East Coast native who spent much of his career in New York — can be regarded as the latest example of the city’s mercenary approach to building a global reputation as a cultural center.  Regardless of how one views Davis’ dystopic view of Los Angeles, the public response to the Third LA Project — every session has been packed, and the upcoming LACMA session at Occidental has been moved to Thorne Hall, the college’s largest venue — speaks to a real hunger for a thoughtful, wide-ranging conversation about our collective idea of Los Angeles and where our city is headed. As a framework for that conversation, Hawthorne’s thesis is provocative — that the first phase of Los Angeles’ development extended through roughly World War II, as it encouraged migration to the city through real estate speculation and advertising, and as it developed a streetcar system, major public, commercial and multifamily buildings, and an active street life. 


In the Second Los Angeles, through the turn of the millennium the city turned inward, focusing on private suburban space and the automobile’s promise of personal freedom. Today, the city is moving to reanimate its public sphere, returning to the First Los Angeles concepts of rapid transit, denser development and shared space — yet at times with a boosterism that recalls Davis.


More than a century ago, early in the First Los Angeles period, the Occidental board of trustees formally rejected merger overtures from Pomona College because trustees believed it was “not wise to remove from the growing city of Los Angeles.” 


In today’s Third LA, students in the class Hawthorne is teaching at Oxy — Architecture and the Built Environment in Los Angeles — are actively involved in the Third Los Angeles series. Though our students come not just from Los Angeles but from Texas and New York, Hong Kong and Botswana, they share the public’s hunger for an opportunity to make sense of the sprawling megalopolis that they live and work in for four years. For those willing to drill down through the city’s many layers, there are lessons to be learned. 


Amy Lyford is an associate dean and professor of art history and visual arts at Occidental College.