Los Angeles, California

Though Los Angeles offers Lindsay Lohan sightings at Pinkberry and addresses on L.Ron Hubbard Way, Dwell explores a different side of the city with land use interpreter Matthew Coolidge.

Los Angeles is a polarizing city. To some it is a paradise of beautiful beaches, buxom bodies, Beverly Hills, and the world’s most pimped-out cars—–a place where you, too, could be discovered, your name in lights, your star forever embedded in the Walk of Fame. To others, it is a glimpse of the apocalypse, one of the forecourts of hell, with its race riots, air pollution, earthquakes, wildfires, and overwhelming extremes of stupidity. Los Angeles is the kind of place some people refuse even to visit.

Let’s put that argument aside and look instead at L.A.’s edges—–not its countercultural hot spots, but the post-industrial voids and internal peripheries that let the city function. For instance, where does L.A. get its water? What about electricity? What about all the sand, gravel, and concrete that went into those thous-ands of freeways, parking lots, and roads? How does such a chaotic and sprawling city actually work? And where does all its trash go?

To learn more about L.A.’s blind spots and interstitial spaces, Dwell talked to Matthew Coolidge, founder and director of the Center for Land Use Interpretation. Operating from a small gallery space on Venice Boulevard, just south of Hollywood, the Center re-examines the American landscape from a perspective well off the radar of your average tourist, focusing on topics as diverse as infrastructure, urban sanitation, earthquake science, military history, abandoned shopping malls, traffic surveillance systems, and even arctic research labs.

In the process, they’ve won awards and published books (including the recent Overlook: Exploring the Internal Fringes of America with the Center for Land Use Interpretation), and they continue to lead uniquely off-center tours through the dead zones of America’s built environment.

"In order to understand the bigger picture of Los Angeles," explains Coolidge, "you have to understand how the city flows in and out of its regional landscape. These are the places that run the city; they’re the places that make L.A. what it is. They’re places we’ve constructed so that other, perhaps more minor, activities can occur here. Once you understand how they operate—–how they form a system, how they consort and are connected—–these places do have a beauty to them."

The Hyperion Treatment Plant is the largest and oldest wastewater treatment plant in Los Angeles. It can process as much as 850 million gallons of waste each day. When it was constructed in 1894, on the beaches of El Segundo, it simply discharged raw sewage directly into the sea—–today, thankfully, it performs full waste treatment.

Where would you start to show how Los Angeles really works?  

Covering more square miles than Rhode Island, greater Los Angeles is not always bathed in perfect sunshine. Here, the towers of downtown are lost in haze.

Well, I’d begin at the end, really, and that’s at Hyperion, the wastewater treatment plant in El Segundo, right on the beach. It’s actually the third-largest treatment plant in the country—–behind Chicago and Boston—–and, if you’re in L.A., chances are that’s where your waste is going. They even offer tours. El Segundo is a great place to visit, anyway, sandwiched right between LAX and the Chevron refinery. You’ve got the Pacific Ocean to the west, LAX to the north, Chevron to the south, and then the wastewater treatment plant. You can even see where its pipe extends out into the water.  Then I would go to the other end of the spectrum, up to Mt. Wilson—–not just to the observatory, although that’s interesting, but to the antenna fields. Mt. Wilson has the main collection of radiating points for radio and television in Los Angeles, as well as for police and fire communications. It’s great up there: It’s this forest of huge antennas, and you can wander around among the trees and the towers—–and it makes a nice kind of antipode to the plant at Hyperion.

The new headquarters for Caltrans, by local starchitect Thom Mayne, frames the most sci-fi seating area in town with strange angles of light and material.

Are there any specific buildings you’d visit?

Taken on their own, as sculptures in concrete, the region’s freeways are an unappreciated source of beauty, an experiential artwork you can drive on.

Looking at the surface or the structure of a building doesn’t interest me as much as what goes on inside it.   One Wilshire is an interesting example. It’s a classic modernist Skidmore, Owings & Merrill building, at the crossroads of Grand and Wilshire—–but it’s called the most connected building on the West Coast in terms of internet bandwidth. It’s certainly one of the most connected buildings in the United States. It’s a telco hotel and has connections directly to Pacific submarine cables. In other words, it’s infrastructure, but it’s also architecture. It’s got floors and floors of computers—–and then, occasionally, some lawyer’s office. You see these fiber optic cables billowing into the building like spaghetti, through the parking garage, and then it all takes a right-angle turn up through the service core to enter the different floors and the former office space that’s been turned into switching centers and server farms.   Another interesting building is the Westin Bonaventure Hotel, with its rotating restaurant and lounge on top. Sometimes I take people up there to get a nice panoramic sweep of the city. It’s also a bit of a movie landmark, and it appears in a lot of car-chase scenes—–I think Clint Eastwood even threw somebody off the roof once. In a movie.

One Wilshire is what’s called a telco hotel: The majority of its rooms are full of hard drives and cables, hosting information for global businesses.

You’ve said that the city "flows in and out of its landscape." Where can this be seen most clearly?

These cell phone masts atop Mt. Wilson, northeast of Pasadena, are the region’s major relay point for police, fire, and civilian communications.

One of my favorite places is the gravel pits in Irwindale—–the Durbin pit and the Vulcan pit spring to mind. Those are two adjacent gravel pits in this huge complex of pits, where they mine much of the gravel out of which the buildings and the freeways in Los Angeles get made. A high percentage of the construction material in the city literally comes out of the ground in Irwindale—–and a lot of those pits started when the city began building the freeways.

Why are the pits located here?  

Sea Launch is a converted oil rig. Its surreal new role is to launch private satellites into space from the equatorial Pacific.

The San Gabriel River comes out of the mountains and, over millennia, it’s been dropping its load—–its sediment—–into the channel. It starts out with coarse rocks closer to the bottom of the hill, and it gets increasingly fine as you move away from the mountains. Nature and the mechanics of erosion are separating the materials for the industry; the companies just have to select the part of the wash where the materials are the right size for making concrete and aggregate. The pits, though half a square mile or more in size sometimes, are well disguised: Some people don’t even know they’re living next to a functioning pit.

The Baldwin Hills, in Culver City, offer a glimpse of L.A. as it used to be: covered in pumping jacks and hoping for oil. The Hills are now a popular film location.

The Center’s work on trash disposal is particularly interesting. How does that play out in Los Angeles?

A glimpse of gravel pit workings.

L.A.’s Puente Hills Landfill is actually the biggest active landfill in America right now. It’s basically the extension of an existing mountainside: They took a canyon and they filled it in, and now they’re doubling the size of the mountain—–not vertically but horizontally. You cross over it when you fly into L.A.   Something more architectural, down on the Long Beach side of Terminal Island, is the Navy Mole. The Navy Mole is actually just a pier—–a kind of artificial peninsula—–but out at the tip there’s a detachable structure called Sea Launch, which is Boeing’s and their partners’ satellite-launching system. It’s the only thing of its kind in the world. They converted a Norwegian oil rig, which docks there until it goes out into equatorial waters, south of Hawaii, to launch things like XM radio satellites into orbit. Then it comes back to Long Beach and docks at the pier.

The Puente Hills Landfill is the largest active landfill in the United States. Its buried and rotting garbage produces methane gas, which is harvested by large pipes.

L.A.’s water supply is famously controversial—–but is there anything we can actually see?

The Cascades are a registered State Histor-ical Landmark. They are where the 338-mile Owens River Aqueduct terminates, bringing fresh water to L.A. The aqueduct’s construction, which finished in 1913, is a fascinating—–and murky—–tale of government corruption and outright theft. It was made famous by the film Chinatown. Owens Valley residents, watching their water disappear into pipes bound for Los Angeles, successfully sued the city. Some of their water began returning in late 2006.

Well, there’s a classic L.A. site: the Cascades. That’s where the Owens Valley Aqueduct spills into the city. It’s the place where William Mulholland famously stood in 1913, saying something like, "Here it is, Mr. Mayor—–take it." Then he opened the valve, and created the city as we know it.   Of course, the Cascades are also where the power lines from the Owens Valley come in and meet the Bonne-ville Power Administration direct current line. Much of L.A.’s power comes from the Columbia River projects in Washington and Oregon. That’s almost a thousand miles away. It’s the longest DC line in the United States—–possibly even in the world—–and it comes directly from the big dams on the Columbia. It then gets converted into AC and distributed into the grid. You can see the power lines as they cut across the highway there and enter the substation on the other side.

An exterior detail of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollyhock House. The house was designed for the daughter of local oil magnate William Barnsdall in 1921.

Mulholland’s life and the uniquely odd history of L.A.’s water supply were later fictionalized in Roman Polanski’s film Chinatown. What other sites of cinematic interest should people visit?

Here in Culver City, the Baldwin Hills are just fantastic. When L.A. Confidential needed an old, creepy L.A. landscape, they shot it in the Baldwin Hills because that whole area is like a landscape museum of what L.A. looked like in the 1920s, when the city was covered with pumping jacks. Most of the jacks are gone now, but in the Baldwin Hills you still see fields of them—–a few square miles. The general theory is that the oil companies can’t stop pumping there, even though it’s not productive, because if they stop pumping then they have to clean it up!  There’s also the Los Angeles Theatre on Broadway, downtown: That’s a piece of architecture from the old silent movie days—–in some ways, one of the most dramatic ones. Though nicely renovated, it’s not often open to the public, and it now exists largely as a movie location. In other words, it’s a movie house that plays a movie house—–a very L.A. kind of space. There are some great bathrooms in there, too! But many of the city’s architectural landmarks seem to exist now to serve the film industry. Like the Ennis-Brown House, one of those Frank Lloyd Wright houses here that gets used over and over in movie-making. A lot of people know it from Blade Runner.

They used the interior for Deckard’s apartment—–its design is a kind of Mayan futurism.

Yeah. And there’s also Wright’s Hollyhock House. Though Blade Runner and Chinatown are some of the more obvious L.A. films to talk about, they are important cinematic landmarks that contributed to the city’s culture and identity. Los Angeles is, after all, maybe more than other cities, a complex blend of physical facts and interpretive fictions.


Last Updated

Get the Dwell Newsletter

Be the first to see our latest home tours, design news, and more.