Architecture has a civic duty to represent the culture and heritage of the people it serves. It must embody, fundamentally, the identity of a community in its formal manifestation and design characteristics. The architecture that fills a city has an obligation to be meaningful. It is called to be more than a utilitarian “thing,” more than a container to shield us from the elements. Like a work of art, a work of architecture, in the context of the urban domain, is a vehicle that not only facilitates the unfolding narrative of its locality but also illustrates that narrative in its physicality. It alludes to something far greater than itself.
Architecture can’t be art. It has a different role in society. But architecture should embrace the call of art, especially public architecture. It should take seriously the task to stand for something, and that something is not the personal philosophical whims of the architect. Rather it is the inherent spirit and character of the community in which it resides.
This representational expression of built form, in practice, can come from a dialogue between the traditional goals of architecture and what we historically call art, all the while keeping in mind the essential and constitutive role of the community in shaping the aesthetic outcomes of a project. Arguably, the balancing of all three of these: architecture, art, and community engagement, can produce an architecture that not only tells a story but also holds inherent meaning in its geographic context.
Flags and the aesthetics of meaning
When we look at a flag, we expect to uncover some aspects of the community it represents, however big or small. We assume, for example, that the number of stripes is historically meaningful or that the symbols or shapes on it hold rooted significance to some sense of identity. Flags communicate a specific essence through a formal, graphic medium.
A flag is a manifestation of what its designers believe captures a collective identity. It is an expressive portrayal of a specific geographic domain of society, an expression that acknowledges the regional authenticity of the people it is intended to represent.
Until relatively recently, buildings also served this function. Pre-modernist architecture used a variety of forms as a canvas for narrative. Friezes, capitals, tracery, stained glass rosettes, and facades were adorned with local flora or sculpted figures that told stories about mythology, philosophy, and human purpose. Modernist architecture rejected decorative embellishments, instead celebrating human ingenuity through heroic structural expression, elaborate staircases, and a dazzling array of new materials. The embellishments changed form, but the obligation to embody a broader cultural narrative was lost. Rather than discussing Postmodernist and New Urbanist ideals that follow this line of reasoning, architecture can and should use abstract and contemporary forms to carry meaningful and legible expressions of purpose, place, and people.
Capturing meaning in architectural design
The Arts District in Los Angeles owes much of its emergence and transformation to the profound influence of railroads. As early as the late 19th century, the area served as a bustling industrial hub, with rail lines facilitating the transportation of goods and materials. However, with economic shifts and the decline of industry, abandoned warehouses and factories paved the way for a creative renaissance in the late 20th century. Artists and bohemian pioneers saw potential in the spacious, affordable spaces, leading to the vibrant arts community many Angelenos know and love.
In a 15-story Arts District office building currently in entitlement, our studio embraces the local legacy of the rail. The building is shrouded in a spiraling band of horizontal louvers. At the band’s edges, the louvers merge and fan out in a way that follows the pattern of railroad tracks as they form a railyard. While the project’s site was once a railyard, this connection for anyone without deep historical knowledge of the site would be difficult to make. However, many of the streets in this neighborhood, including the street this building will sit on, still have visible train tracks embedded in the asphalt that now paves them. The buildings themselves, or rather the parcels they are developed on, are shaped, often bizarrely, by the rail lines that once connected them to the Port of Los Angeles. From an aerial perspective, the entire neighborhood still bears the fingerprint of its rail legacy, an ever-present mark of what makes it distinct.
While there is an essential performative utility to the façade, meant to meet the sustainability and experiential goals of the project, it also bends its practical reason for existing to serve, or perhaps celebrate, a local narrative. Tying the formal expression of the project to the rail heritage of the Arts District embeds the narrative of the neighborhood into the building, grounding it physically in its context and metaphysically in its historical rootedness.
Another example is our work on Destination Crenshaw. When the Los Angeles Metro Rail extension connecting LAX to central Los Angeles was initially planned, the choice to route the rail line above ground at Crenshaw Boulevard could have negatively impacted the Crenshaw community, the heart of Black Los Angeles. But the local council district rallied the community to leverage this rare opportunity to expose tourists and travelers to Crenshaw’s storied past and showcase contemporary Black L.A. artists from the community. The result is Destination Crenshaw, a 1.3-mile (2.1 km) celebration of Black culture in Los Angeles.
The project will feature community spaces, several new pocket parks, 184 new trees, investment in local businesses, the cultivation of local jobs, and commissions for more than 100 Black artists, which have already been underway. A unifying theme guides the design: Grow Where You’re Planted. It is inspired by the African Giant Star Grass, a symbol of the African diaspora’s resilience, unity, and ability to flourish and adapt in diverse, even hostile, environments. As visitors walk through the project, the presence of the Giant Star Grass serves as a constant reminder of the vast contributions and enduring legacy of African Americans to our culture and society.
As the connective tissue that ties all the elements of Destination Crenshaw together, the African Star Grass becomes an expressive symbol to ground the project in the community’s identity. In the stone pavers, for example, parallel strands of black granite recall the rhizomatic root structure of the Star Grass and connect to the metal shade pavilions that themselves are inspired by the many-stemmed flower from which the grass gets its name. The paving design will be present along the entire 1.3-mile (2.1 km) project, providing a network of connectivity between the different environments, the art, and the shade canopies, which will hold story panels about the community.
The rhizomatic paving flows from South to North and from East to West, representing the travel patterns of many Black families as they have moved across the US. This unifying, connective theme, coupled with the extraordinary engagement by such an array of artists and community members, establishes Destination Crenshaw as a project that is not only grounded in a deep-rooted heritage but also positioned to be a part of a hopeful and promising future.
Embracing community through architectural expression
As we contemplate the essence of architecture’s civic duty, we find that it reaches far beyond mere functionality, transcending into the domain of cultural representation and storytelling.
Architecture, while distinct from art in its societal role, can embrace the spirit of art. By heeding the call to stand for something greater than itself, architecture can become a living testament to the identity, heritage, and values of a people. In the end, architecture that stands resolutely as a symbol of community spirit is not static. It is an ever-evolving reflection of the people it serves. As we continue to explore the possibilities of expressive design, we contribute to a growing movement of meaningful, contextually rich spaces that hold a timeless significance, speaking eloquently of the human experience and the boundless spirit of the places we call home.