Los Angeles is renowned worldwide for its story telling industry, attracting people from around the globe in search of the opportunity to use their voice. However, Los Angeles still has a story of its own. Louis Molina is a lifelong Angeleno, educated in history and architecture. As a Professor at Woodbury University, he uses his knowledge to advocate for the city and its future, and as an architect, he is an active participant in shaping that future. Like every other place, the story of Los Angeles is the story of individuals. Professor Molina is one of those individuals, and I took the time to hear his part of the story.
Before we begin, tell us a little about yourself. I'm a born and raised Angeleno. From elementary school through to grad school, I did all of my schooling in Los Angeles. Interestingly, when I was about to start college, I had decided to apply to colleges on the East Coast. I had some health problems that stopped me from going anywhere, but I thankfully got accepted to UCLA and stayed here. Eventually, I took several architecture history classes, but it wasn’t until after college that I decided to start architecture school. I did a 3.5 year master’s degree at SCI-Arc. After a couple of years of working at firms, I started my own firm and began teaching at Woodbury in the same year, 2002. It has been really fun, because both of them have continued my education, and I think I’ve grown quite a bit in that interim, as an architect and as an educator. What originally drew you to the field of architecture? I was able to take a class with Thomas Hines, who was the architecture historian at UCLA. He taught a series of classes on American Architecture, and I really liked it. Afterward, I worked with him on an independent study, and I still remember that he had me write a 32-page paper comparing Saarinen's two airports - Dulles and JFK. I had never written that much, and it was a bit of a struggle, but I ended up getting an ‘A’ in that class and having a good time. That was probably my last semester at UCLA, so when I graduated, I knew I was going to take a year off to travel, and I thought that that would give me some time. Since I was a kid,I assumed that I was going into law ‒that’s what my dad did ‒so I thought that’s just what we do. In the end, I was sitting in a café and decided to flip a coin. It landed on architecture, so I figured I would go and study that.
"I assumed that I was going into law - that's what my dad did - so I thought that's just what we do."
How has the city changed since you've been here? One, it is denser. I grew up in a very suburban Los Angeles ‒not just because I lived in the suburbs ‒ but because pretty much all of Los Angeles was much less dense. In my lifetime, the central neighborhoods were ending their period of decay, ending the atrocities of redlining and racial profiling, but still not growing yet. If you look at Ed Ruscha’s strip that he made of Hollywood, you see his Hollywood of the 1970’s and Hollywood of the late ’90’s: it’sthe same thing. We were still at a point, when I was a kid, when we were expanding and filling in the San Fernando Valley, the San Gabriel Valley, and all of Orange County. It went from a city that was cheap in the center and low density everywhere, to a city that is now vastly leaving that.
I think, also, that our car obsessions have changed. It was unthinkable that a teenager wouldn’t be desperately obtaining their driver’s license, but I look at all of my nephews, who arein their 20’s, and some of them have a driver’s license. Some of them don’t want one because they’ll just take Uber. Our attitudes are transforming to the degree that, in the 1960’s, nearly all of California’s transportation budget was probably going to car spaces. You look at that budget now and its going into public transit.
Another thing is: the city has changed a lot in its acceptance of self. We are a little less racist, and less segregated. From that, the city has changed a lot, even though the weight of those things is still with us. You can see the evidence of where we were by looking at gentrification and displacement today, but I do think that, nonetheless, we’re not where we used to be, and we’re accepting that we’re not there anymore, and that is fantastic.
"I think right now that we are Californians by name, but I don't think that we are at a place where we are in sync with our environment."
How do you hope Los Angeles changes over the next 50 years? Hopefully, less segregated. Hopefully, less racist. Hopefully, less polarized.
That’s a big hope, and I say that because we have still yet to fully integrate. You can look at LAUSD schools today, and it’sas segregated as you can imagine it was in the 1950’s. If you want to look at why some of our schools still look so horrible, you have to look at who is going to those schools and who has chosen to pull their kids out of those schools. Unless the middle class chooses to use that system, they won’t vote to fund it. In the end, it isn’t part of what we are cultivating as a whole, but that’s a hope that I have for Los Angeles.
I think there’s evidence all around us, through food, through certain fields and professions, where you start to see an acceptance of ourselves. My biggest hope, and it may take two hundred years, is that we transform ourselves into Californians. I think right now that we are Californians by name, but I don’t think that we are at a place where we are in sync with our environment, in sync with each other, nor are we fused culturally with our identity as Californians or Angelenos. We had our native precedents established in this place, and they had become of this land, and everybody else that has come into it has brought their own sense of existence to this land, and we haven’t yet become of this land again. I think as we do, we will become this fused mess that will be of this land in a much more beautiful way.
As somebody who grew up on the East Coast, has lived in New York, and is still relatively new to Los Angeles, this city strikes a unique tone between being a proud, regional city and a true global center. Particularly in reference to culture and architecture, what do you think Los Angeles’s place is on a global scale? One of the things that I remember, even in high school, is that somehow you were being assessed in comparison to New York. I remember with my friends, scoffing at that and laughing at it. Interestingly, I don’t think LA ever puts New York under a lens. I don’t know if that’s pride or ignorance or a lack of wanting to play the game. In my experience as an architect, but also as an Angeleno and a kid here, there was always the strange feeling that others were analyzing you, but you never bothered to analyze someplace else. As far as urbanity is concerned, we’re still a little infantile. On the other hand, I think there is a validity to this place as itself. I didn’t intend to start by mentioning the East Coast, but I think you have to remember, Los Angeles is not the East Coast, not the Northwest, and Los Angeles is not the South. We were part of two other countries before we were a part of the US. I remember always studying US history as the history of Anglo-America, and yet I lived in the US as part of Spanish America, and that was always at odds. I don’t mean to say ‘this or that’ about the East Coast, except that the US has many distinct origins and many distinct peoples that have fused into one country. We aren’t really one country, but maybe we can be in the future.
"Sometimes LA reminds you of how gentle it can be. "
What advice would you give someone starting out as an architect or architecture student? Have fun. Specifically, I think that you have to be careful and mindfulof bureaucracy. We’ve made a discipline that can bury you in bureaucracy. You have a system where most young folks get swallowed up by giant firms and spit out a few decades later with a little bit of income, and I think sometimes with their souls no longer intact. I don’t mean to say that as a mean thing about big firms, but rather as something that has a dulling effect on the young architect.
I do think that keeping curiosity is important, as well as keeping a sense of boldness, whatever that may mean. I’m not proposing boldness formally, but having the boldness to do things that you think are out of reach. And then I think, keeping a hold on the magic that it’sgoing to take to make those things real. You have to do that, because I think that a lot can be offered to you, but not a lot of it is offered freely or easily.
Last questions, speed round: Favorite architect, local/global/both? I don’t really like “starchitects”. I think there are wonderful architects everywhere, from those making monumental work to those making mundane work better. There are projects everywhere that I really enjoy, but none of them that I want to mention. I wouldn’t say that I’m a fan of an architect because all architecture is critique-able. To me, it isn’t about form or complexity. It is about resolution, sometimes, and teasing out the poetics with that resolution.
Favorite place in Los Angeles? I don’t have one, but to paraphrase someone: “sometimes LA reminds you of how gentle it can be.” There are moments, when I’ll take the ramp onto the 2 Freeway, that I see the San Gabriel Mountains or the Verdugos, and they just look radiant in the sun. You’ll think “LA as a whole is a beautiful, gentle place.” Sometimes it’s not, but there are many moments when I think that LA is a wonderful urban thing.