LA River Morphology - Piggybacking Instrumentality

Source: Photographs, Flood of March 1938. To Accompany Report on Engineering Aspects of Flood of March 1938. Dated August 1, 1938. Inclosure I.

The Landscape Morphologies Lab is currently conducting its second Los Angeles River Bow Tie Studio at the University of Southern California School of Architecture. The lab remains obsessed, perhaps perilously, with correcting many of the failings of the instrumental design practice that determined the existing morphology of the river. This is significantly different than the envisioning, advocating, or planning to improve the river. While we fortunate to be in the midst of a long term city and Army Corps recognized effort to substantially retrofit the river (a monumental achievement!), the lab believes that there still remains fundamental questions and concerns about how the morphology of the river will actually be re-designed. It is after-all the concrete morphology of the river that lies at the root of our motivations to undertake a project to fix something that by all metrics by which it was built, works!

In its time and place, the highly instrumental morphology was a necessary response to extreme flooding, including the disheartening damage to previous flood control techniques.

At the time of its initial design, I presume the river was designed with the following  goals: 

  1. Definitive Flood Protection 
    This, of course, has huge implications in terms of developable land, but was also a real concern in terms of safety and property. It was seen as an essential backbone for the city's stormwater conveyance system.
  2. Economy The project was initiated during the Great Depression and was considered a major job generator / cheap labor was readily available.
  3. Maintenance & Operations 

The first was the primary driver and performance standard for the River's design. The latter was a necessary player in any design, however cushioned by public sentiment to address the flooding due to the vast damage caused by the 1938 flood ("113-115 fatalities, $627 million in 2011 dollars, 5,601 buildings destroyed; several small towns swept away..." – Wikipedia).

Source: Los Angeles Examiner, April 18, 1909.

Source: Los Angeles Examiner, April 18, 1909.

Designs for a more civic, multi-performative river had been proposed as early 1909, though the design seems to underestimate the flashy flood potential of the River.

Early in our studio investigations it was revealed that the current morphological design of the River remains driven by a different set of primary concerns, none of which include any consideration for civic use or the river's urban potential.  

The new performance allowed could possibly be the following (conjecture): 

  1. Flood Protection 
  2. Economy 
  3. Maintenance & Operations
  4. Habitat Restoration*
    *This is a new and exciting development for the Army Corps to include this performance, but any additional program should be appropriate to a natural resource (e.g. the Everglades), like bird-watching or maybe a bike path. 

This is by no means a diabolic plot, but rather an antiquated or at least awkward application of funding protocols to our river. The Army Corps is not in the business of urban renewal. Subsequently the studio became an exercise in understanding how we could piggyback other functions and values into a system that is justified entirely by the instrumentality allowed within the existing policy framework. How could a place for people become a "shadow program" within a flood protection transition, habitat enhancement, or maintenance feature? Check in for our results...

Studio site sketching of Los Angeles River initial terrace sections on the Los Angeles River.

Studio site sketching of Los Angeles River initial terrace sections on the Los Angeles River.