Standing in downtown L.A. with Greg Goldin and Sam Lubell, curators of the “Never Built: Los Angeles” exhibition, is a noisy experience. The gaping trench of the 101 Freeway belches and roars beneath us. But a different vision for this space was floated in 1988 – a cultural center called Steel Cloud that was 10 stories tall and boasted movie theaters, galleries and a pair of aquariums.
Goldin says the structure, which never saw the light of day, was derided as looking like a grasshopper.
"There's all kinds of pejoratives that were used to describe the steel cloud,” he says. “And yeah, it was messy, it was informal. But frankly it would've been amusing to have an aquarium hovering over a freeway in downtown. Great, why not?"
For every Golden Gate Bridge or Hollywood Sign, there are hundreds of ideas on the cutting-room floor that never came alive. But now for the first time you can see models and blueprints of some of these projects in California’s two biggest cities. Museums in both L.A. and San Francisco are hosting exhibitions that reveal quirky and often ingenious buildings that don’t exist.
Today, you can take a ferry to Alcatraz and go on an elaborate tour through the hulking prison, led by a stern guide. But in the late 1960s, American Indian activists occupied the island in hopes of claiming the land. They had plans drawn up, which you can see in the show, to rid Alcatraz of its buildings and turn it into a residential community and cultural center. Even though the village never became reality, the occupation gained concessions for American Indians and led to the preservation of Alcatraz.
Courtesy AIA San Francisco / Center for Architecture + Design
An abandoned project intended to harness the tidal forces of the Golden Gate to generate hydro-electric power to be used to desalinate sea water.
John King, a curator of the San Francisco exhibition, which is showing at UC Berkeley and other venues, says many of the projects have great significance. "There's a shadow landscape -- things get done because of the things that didn't get done," he explains.
Another of the pieces in the S.F. show features a 1945 rendering of the headquarters of the newly formed United Nations at the base of Twin Peaks. It came complete with an illuminated globe and skyscraper. The San Francisco curators came to the idea of an “Unbuilt” exhibition independent of the L.A. show. But there may be something to the fact that two shows are happening in California right now.
"California is a place that by its nature tends to attract people who want to live their lives a different way. ...This is a place where people want to have the life they want to have. So that creates a certain restlessness to try and imagine a future," King says.
Another imagined future that didn’t happen would have dramatically altered the tallest peak in the Hollywood hills, in service of a museum to Hollywood industry. The top of Mount Hollywood would have been shaved down by about 30 feet, flattening the natural peak, and on top of that would have been built a star-shaped museum, a revolving restaurant and an aerial tram.
Some of the projects in these shows were great ideas. Others, not so much. But that’s not really the point. The point is that what happens around us is not inevitable, says Lubell, curator of the exhibition at the A+D Architecture and Design Museum in Los Angeles. People can change the course of what gets built.
He said there has to be pressure to not have the powers-that-be shrug something off as ridiculous. “If we can encourage people to not give up on these projects that they believe are gonna change the city for the better, that's important,” Lubell says.
He mentions a current proposal to transform the concrete-lined Los Angeles River into a vibrant waterfront. He hopes those plans don’t end up in a future exhibit about what could have been.