SHADING SUNSET: Reimagining the Streets of Los Angeles for a Warmer Future

This studio reimagines the contemporary public realm of Los Angeles by reconceptualizing its streets as venues for social life in relation to sunlight. This work is occasioned by the recent acquisition of Ed Ruscha’s Streets of Los Angeles archive by the Getty Research Institute. In partnership with the Getty, the studio will utilize the vast digital record of tens of thousands of Ruscha’s photographs of major LA boulevards taken between the 1960s and 2010s. This vast digital image archive will inform the development of machine learning processes that will allow students to extrapolate potential alternative futures for the city’s contemporary public realm.

Ruscha’s deadpan photographs of Los Angeles’s iconic streetscapes and automobile-based architectural typologies were appropriated by Denise Scott Brown as a graphic language applicable to the analysis of the Las Vegas strip as published in Learning from Las Vegas. Ruscha’s photographs were equally influential to Reyner Banham’s conception of the city’s Four Ecologies. In both cases, the postwar American city was seen through the lenses of limitless solar plentitude, extreme illumination, and the legibility of information at speed.

This image of the city seems ill-suited to the contemporary challenges of a warming climate, increasing heat island effects, and the disproportionate impact of heat events across class and race. The City of Los Angeles recently launched two urban design initiatives focusing on these topics. The design competition for a new streetlight standard invokes themes of illumination, security, and surveillance. The city’s initiative on street cooling suggests themes of shade, insulation, and refuge. In contemporary Los Angeles the modern goal of universal illumination is now more often associated with a loss of privacy, state surveillance, and policing. On the other hand, a more just, socially equitable, and environmentally desirable future seems to lie in the curation of a relatively more obscure public realm, a realm of shade and shadow.

The studio will convene a series of conversations with leading voices across a range of topics including the role of Ruscha’s image of the postwar American city, the shift from universal illumination to solar refuge in urban thought, and the potential for machine learning as a generative process for urban projects. These conversations will be informed by contributions from Harvard curator Dr. Jennifer Quick, as well as Eric Rodenbeck/Stamen, Andrew Witt/Certain Measures, and Eric de Broche des Combes/Luxigon, among others.

The GSD Office for Urbanization has worked in collaboration with Prof. Jose Luis Garcia del Castillo Lopez and the GSD Laboratory for Design Technologies to develop digital workflows based on the Ruscha archive. These workflows deploy StyleGAN generative models to project a limitless number of potential future LA’s extrapolated from the evidence of Ruscha’s images. Students will learn to curate these “machine hallucinations” in their development of potential design projects. Students will be invited to research topics of illumination, security and surveillance as well as shade, shadows, and privacy on the other. From this research students will be invited to develop unique street-specific thematic design projects at the scale of the street, sidewalk, park, building, block, or larger landscape.

The studio welcomes candidates from all departments and programs. It welcomes students with little or no experience with computation, as well as those with more experience. The studio forms part of the GSD’s Future of the American City Initiative sponsored by the Knight Foundation and supported by the GSD Office for Urbanization.