Renowned architecture critic and L.A.’s chief design officer joins USC Dornsife
Christopher Hawthorne, who was named the first chief design officer of a major American city by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti in 2018, brings his 3rd LA project to USC Dornsife. (Photo: Mike Glier.)

Renowned architecture critic and L.A.’s chief design officer joins USC Dornsife

Christopher Hawthorne, the first chief design officer of a major American city and former architecture critic for the ‘Los Angeles Times,’ brings his 3rd LA Project to USC as a cornerstone of USC Dornsife’s Academy in the Public Square initiative. [5¼ min read]
BySusan Bell

As Los Angeles reinvents and redefines itself for the 21st century and beyond, one of the nation’s foremost experts on the built environment is working to find sustainable and equitable solutions to the city’s multiple challenges. His goal: to bring a new level of attention to the quality of design and architecture across L.A., especially in the city’s public spaces. This month, he becomes a faculty member at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

Christopher Hawthorne, chief design officer for the city of Los Angeles, joins USC Dornsife as a professor of the practice in English concurrently with his position at City Hall, where he was named the first chief design officer of a major American city by Mayor Eric Garcetti in March 2018, after a long and successful tenure as the architecture critic for the Los Angeles Times.

In addition to his appointment in the Department of English, where he will teach a writing course in the Spring semester on the theme of “place,” Hawthorne brings his 3rd LA Project to USC. A laboratory for urban reinvention, 3rd LA starts from the premise that L.A. is a model for the world’s megacities as it navigates demographic change, a mobility revolution, climate change and new frontiers in urban planning and design.

3rd LA will be a cornerstone of USC Dornsife’s Academy in the Public Square initiative, which connects USC Dornsife scholars with policymakers and nonprofit and industry leaders to collaboratively address complex challenges such as climate change, affordable housing and public health.

“Christopher Hawthorne brings novel perspective on the dynamics that have positioned L.A. to draw a blueprint for our global urban future,” USC Dornsife Dean Amber D. Miller said. “As he helps us build bridges between our experts and community leaders, USC Dornsife will offer new ways forward on challenges that other diverse cities will likely face in the years ahead.”

Hawthorne says he is excited about joining USC Dornsife and the prospects for continuing to expand the reach of the 3rd LA series, which he launched at Occidental College in 2015.

“I think the ability to tap into the scholarship and faculty expertise at USC Dornsife and also collaborate with the university as it is re-engaging its connections with the city and the community, and thinking very carefully about its role in our changing city, make this a really remarkable opportunity,” he said.

The 3rd LA Project is currently scheduled to kick off with two public events planned for the fall. It will also include partnerships and projects between USC Dornsife and the city, with faculty playing a critical role in providing expertise and research to help L.A. achieve its goals across several key policy areas.

Kate Weber, executive director of the Academy in the Public Square, notes that through 3rd LA, Hawthorne has created an important platform to spur innovative thinking about the future of the world’s largest cities — starting with L.A.

“This is a perfect match with our Academy in the Public Square initiative, which is about finding new ways to make our faculty expertise more available to leaders like Chris, who are trying to solve big challenges,” Weber said. “We see this collaboration as an exciting opportunity to convene some of the brightest minds from the public and private spheres — not just to discuss these challenges, but to actually solve them together.”

Back to the future — a competition

Hawthorne says the 3rd LA Project came out of the realization that several key urban elements L.A. is now working to expand — walkability and pedestrian amenities; mass transit at a regional scale; innovative, multi-family residential projects; a vibrant city center — had in fact all existed to an enviable degree in the L.A. of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

With that realization came the idea that it was more accurate to talk about three distinct periods in L.A.’s modern evolution.

“As opposed to talking about L.A.’s current transition in binary terms, from City A to City B, in fact it made more sense to think about ‘First L.A.,’ a city of street cars and bungalow courts as extending from the 1880s through World War II,” Hawthorne says. “‘Second L.A.’ occupies the post-war period from 1945 to 2000. Then in the 21st century, emerging L.A. is perhaps best understood as the ‘Third LA.’”

In terms of mobility, architecture and shared resources, Hawthorne argues that there are all kinds of models that we can pull from that First L.A. and Second L.A. that are useful to Third L.A.

Hawthorne is working to launch a competition calling on architects to design fourplex housing units in a new competition modeled after L.A.’s iconic post-war Case Study Houses Program. Fourplexes, Hawthorne believes, may offer an ideal compromise between higher density housing and single-family units in certain parts of the city.

The competition will combine attention to zoning with attention to energy use and carbon footprint. Hawthorne is particularly keen to collaborate with USC Dornsife faculty whose research focuses on energy resources and air quality.

“We need to have a discussion about changing residential density that is uniquely tailored to the community and architectural history of L.A. and that ties back to some of the remarkable models of medium density residential architecture that existed here in the late 19th and early 20th century — bungalow courts and early modernist projects by architects like Irving Gill, Rudolph Schindler, Richard Neutra and others,” Hawthorne says.

Writing about place

Students will be able to gain more insights into Hawthorne’s thinking through his freshman general education seminar on writing about place. In the course, they read journalism, criticism, memoir, poetry and fiction by writers such as D.J. Waldie, Joan Didion, Anna Deavere Smith, Sesshu Foster, Carolina A. Miranda and Sarah M. Broom and then draw on their own memories to write about connection to place.

“Like my memories of the house I grew up in, I think everybody has stories about the ways in which physical environment has shaped the way they see the world or what kind of work they’ve chosen to pursue or the kind of studies they’re interested in doing as a student,” Hawthorne says.

Not only does he hope his course will enable students to gain more understanding of L.A. as a city, Hawthorne argues that being able to write about one’s physical surroundings and built space is a fundamental talent that will serve students well — no matter what kind of writing they ultimately hope to do or study.