Architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne has become the city’s first chief design officer, tasked with making sure the development juggernaut doesn’t get ahead of urban-design principles.
On Monday, the architecture critic of the Los Angeles Times, Christopher Hawthorne, posted his final column for the newspaper. Rather than a wistful goodbye to readers, Hawthorne offered a tantalizing preview of his new job: He will be the city’s first chief design officer, starting next month.
During his 14-year tenure at the Times, Hawthorne not only evaluated new buildings but commented on the transformations of the cityscape that have accompanied L.A.’s 21st-century reinvention. Now, rather than critiquing those changes, he will have a hand in carrying them out.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti tapped Hawthorne precisely because of the scale and pace of development occurring in the city—from the rapidly expanding metro system, to countless Olympics-adjacent infrastructure improvements, to the thousands of residential units and shelter beds needed to address a housing and homelessness crisis.
“All these projects will change the landscape of the city, and when we have one chance to do it, you need to do it right,” said Billy Chun, the deputy mayor for economic development, in whose office Hawthorne will work. “Christopher has been the inner architectural voice of the city … so we felt like we needed to bring him in.”
While Hawthorne is not yet sure what his day-to-day responsibilities will be, he told CityLab he expects to be wrestling with similar projects, issues, and ideas as when he was at the Times. “I think people who know me or have followed my work seem to be understanding it as a pretty natural progression,” he said. “I’ve always been interested in the intersection of architecture and politics; architecture and the civic realm.”
Hawthorne wants to use his perch to make the city’s buildings and public spaces more beautiful, inclusive, and efficient. (In addition to having direct input on public works, he will continue to use his platform to advocate for good design on private projects, he said, and regional projects outside of city limits, like new metro stations.) He will also have the opportunity to think through some of the larger challenges that face booming cities like Los Angeles.
For instance: How can a city ensure that new investments in historically marginalized neighborhoods actually serve the existing residents, and don’t cause mass displacement? “We can no longer be, as cities, thinking in a kind of paternalistic way about about providing benefits to different parts of the city regardless of what the needs of those neighborhoods are,” Hawthorne said.
Another part of his portfolio might be navigating the involvement of tech companies in the systems and physical infrastructure of the city. Every private-sector experiment, he said, should be executed with a “broader public in mind.”
L.A. City Hall is not hurting for urban planners, with a planning-department staff in the hundreds. So why hire an architecture critic?
“He’s used to looking at a space or a proposed space and explaining that space to the public: This is what it means, this is why it’s important,” said Lee Bey, a former architecture critic for the Chicago Sun-Times who was Mayor Richard M. Daley’s deputy chief of staff for planning and design from 2001 to 2004. “And I think that’s invaluable in a government mechanism.”
However, as Bey can attest, proposing design changes and actually executing them are two very different things. “When you’re inside, and you see the bewildering amount of things that you have to juggle, you do get a new appreciation,” he said. “A critic can look at a building and say, ‘This thing is awful; why doesn’t the architect do better?’ But then you realize the architect is often the man or woman who has the least impact on a design.”
Bey’s career change might be the most direct antecedent to Hawthorne’s, but it’s not the only one.
In the late 1960s, New York City Mayor John Lindsay convened an “Urban Design Group,” which helped promote mixed-use development and car diets long before anyone was using those terms. In a 1975 article on the group, Paul Goldberger described the nascent field of urban design as a combination of “architecture, planning and public administration.” This interdisciplinary approach tracked with a new, wide-ranging style of architecture criticism, pioneered during the same era by New York Times columnist Ada Louise Huxtable, one of Hawthorne’s idols.
The Urban Design Group gradually dissolved, and subsequent mayors in New York City and around the country turned away from many of its principles. But at the turn of the millennium, as the back-to-the-city movement roared into being, urban design came back into vogue—and back into city halls, to a limited extent.
Chicago brought in Lee Bey to work on preservation and major public-works projects, like the renovation of Soldier Field. Amanda Burden was a powerful advocate for fine-grained neighborhood design when she oversaw New York’s rezoning under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and Janette Sadik-Khan became an urbanist hero for her human-centered street-design improvements as that city’s transportation commissioner. Several years ago, San Diego briefly had a civic innovation lab co-led by architect Teddy Cruz, a venture inspired by how Bogotá and Medellín used urban design to bring about dramatic social and economic change.
Meanwhile, design’s cachet was rising outside of government. “Design thinking” has recently become a ubiquitous, buzzy phrase, and Chief Design Officers have become common in the corporate world at companies like PepsiCo and Phillips Electronics. Perhaps reflecting the private-sector trend, Helsinki created what was likely the first big-city Chief Design Officer position in 2016, appointing Anne Stenros, who holds a Ph.D. in architectural theory.
In an era of increased public awareness about urbanism, it makes sense that the people driving the discourse should be in a position to change things for the better. Making that happen, however, is incumbent on mayors and other officials. Inviting critics to become part of the city-building process is the first step; listening to them and giving them real authority has to come next.
“This was an attractive position for me, in large part, because the conversations I’ve had with the mayor suggested that he is really, genuinely interested in and knowledgeable about these issues,” said Hawthorne. “That is probably the most encouraging thing of all, in terms of why I’ve decided to make that leap.”