Power & Place: Culture and Conflict in the Built Environment

This lecture/workshop course studies and analyzes processes and expressions of power in urban form and design in the North American built environment. Focusing on the topics of identity and differentiation that are expressed in spatial interventions across history, this course surveys historic and contemporary cultural conflicts that have emerged from regulatory processes, many of which result, intentionally or unintentionally in patterns of spatial exclusion.

The Spring 2018 course will investigate the underlying power networks behind the transformation of the Los Angeles River and the development of its adjacent urban fabric from the beginning of the city to today. The story of who benefited from the water of the Los Angeles River initially expressed the power to control its distribution. From irrigation ditches for agriculture to aqueducts for the domestic water systems critical to a growing city and then to the reduction of the river to a flood control channel to ensure flood-free development, whoever controlled the river infrastructure shaped Los Angeles and the development in the river’s flood plain. Today’s recent master plans for the Los Angeles River including one by Frank Gehry shift the conversation from distribution and flooding to one of “restoration” and development. The Los Angeles River is being re-conceived as an amenity in a city with one of the lowest urban park capacities in the nation. This situates the river in power battles between those advocating for ecological restorations and those seeking to use for river for urban regeneration; the present project thus marks battle lines drawn between activists in low-density, minority neighborhoods along the river edge versus civic elites with capital, political advantage, and alternate visions.

The course will develop cognitive methodologies (ways of thinking), research methodologies (familiarity with original historical sources and databases) and analytical means (modes of interpretation) associated with places where power and politics play critical and often undisclosed influence in shaping the built environment. The goal of the course is to foster an understanding of urban ethics and political awareness that can be applied to different parts of the built world, leading to a broader understanding of the dimensions of the cultural ecology of a place over time.