Dystopia Report: The I-710 Corridor Aesthetic Master Plan

Fredric Jameson begins his essay “Utopia as Replication” (Valances of the Dialectic. New York, Verso, 2010) with the example of Los Angeles’ freeways, a kind of new order superimposed on an older kind of city. In the new Freeway city cars hover and over preexisting, denser, centralized spaces. In the collision of these two urbanities a new kind of city emerges, one that we’re all familiar with. The freeway builder’s utopian promise of speed and liberty delivers, instead, exurban sprawl, congestion and waves of urban decay and gentrification. That utopian vision of Freeway building is personified in mid-century figures like Robert Moses and the city fathers of early 20th century Los Angeles.

But Jameson goes on to question, “does anyone believe in progress any longer?  . . . are the architects and urbanists still passionately at work on Utopian cities?” An answer to Jameson’s question came this week in an astonishing and horrifying set of PowerPoint slides for the I-710 Corridor Aesthetic Master Plan released to the world via StreetsblogLA’s Twitter. The 710 freeway embodies the global, neoliberal economic order. It’s the main trucking route for all the crap from China that flows into the Port here and towards the massive distribution warehouses of Amazon and Wallmart. One of the many casualties of the global economy are the poorest residents of LA County who live in the pollution plume of the 710.

These PowerPoint slides prove that, yes, the engineers (architects?) are still designing stuff but they don’t believe in it anymore. It’s just a job. I suspect that at least some of them know that their work only makes things worse. At the end of the day these engineers and consultants get on the very same congested freeways they don’t believe in to commute to their exurban homes with the better schools. Gone is Moses’ utopian bluster, replaced with the most banal office PowerPoint slide pixel pushing, probably outsourced to some bored consultant.

This particular slide may be the best ever proof of the thesis of David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs book, that perhaps half of all people in Western countries are engaged in useless, soul-sucking office work. I mean, spend a moment appreciating the visual chaos that is this image. Ask yourself if it has any purpose whatsoever other than fulfilling some checkbox on a list of meaningless public engagement metrics. What possible purpose does this slide fulfill?

Then appreciate this bleak slide depicting a vista we’re all too familiar with.

Of this slide StreetsblogLA says in Twitter, “And, hey, @metrolosangeles @CaltransDist7 what’s this beige-clad blond businessman doing walking across the 710 Freeway in Southeast Los Angeles? Why not depict Latino families who depend on these bridges to get to school?” Indeed, that beige-clad business man has never seen the outside of his Tesla when out and about. Meanwhile the car-less in this city, largely Latino and African-American,  have faced a striking increase in pedestrian and bike fatalities in the past year.

The French have an expression for this one, “a bandage on a wooden leg.” Here in the U.S. we might say, “the cherry on the shit sundae.” Create a bleak, hostile landscape and put up some kind of bland mural that serves only to accumulate diesel particulate.

Jameson acknowledges something that the writer and philosopher Mark Fisher later built on, how stuck we are in the way things are, unable to imagine a different way of doing things. But that’s precisely what we have to do: imagine and tell stories about a better world. Jameson concludes the essay,

Utopology revives long dormant parts of the mind, unused organs of political and historical and social imagination which have virtually atrophied for lack of use, muscles of praxis we have long since ceased exercising, revolutionary gestures we have lost the habit of perform- ing, even subliminally. Such a revival of futurity and of the positing of alternate futures is not itself a political program nor even a political practice: but it is hard to see how any durable or effective political action could come into being without it.

We lost Mark Fisher in 2017 to suicide. After his death his students painted a quote from his book Capitalist Realism. “Emancipatory politics must always destroy the appearance of a ‘natural order’, must reveal what is presented as necessary and inevitable to be a mere contingency, just as it must make what was previously deemed to be impossible seem attainable.” Freeways may seem inevitable and necessary but they’ve been torn down in many cities now. We can do the same here in Los Angeles. Let’s stop composing Powerpoint slides and break out the dynamite.

Who Needs Windows?

In the chaotic and aging file cabinet that is the inside of my head, there’s a file devoted to an assortment of oddball windowless buildings I’ve run into or heard about over the years. A recent controversy at the University of California Santa Barbara, where wealthy donor and amateur architect Charlie Munger offered to build a mostly windowless dormitory with the stipulation that he be allowed to do it himself, reminded me of this issue.

If ever there was an example of the over-reliance on energy intensive HVAC systems it’s the idea that buildings don’t need windows. I can’t possibly, in a short blog post, round up all the windowless buildings such as phone company switching facilities (like the famous brutalist AT&T switching center in New York above), all those Amazon warehouses, or Los Angeles’ hidden and still functioning urban oil wells.

Our window free tour will visit some misguided office buildings, a Masonic temple and a trade school. So turn on that glaring bank of florescent lights, sit down in a dark cubicle and let’s take a windowless journey beginning with the headquarters of America’s most mediocre chocolate factory.

Hershey’s Chocolate Headquarters 19 East Chocolate Ave. Hershey, Pennsylvania
According to the folks at Hershey’s,

Original plans for the building called for a conventional design with windows and awnings. As the foundation was being dug, Milton Hershey became intrigued with the idea of a windowless facility. Such a design would dramatically increase the efficiency of the heating and cooling systems. At Mr. Hershey’s direction, architect/builder D. Paul Witmer, quickly drew up new plans and construction continued without any delay.

The building was constructed of locally quarried limestone. Construction began in the fall of 1934 and was completed in December 1935.

Unsurprisingly, the Big HVAC Man loved this building. Guess what? They remodeled it and added windows.

Pennsylvania State Archives 350 North St, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania
Unsurprisingly, windowless buildings seem unpopular with the workers who inhabit them. Here’s David Carmicheal, Director of the Pennsylvania State Archives in a recent news article on moving to a new facility,

“Our current building was state of the art when the IBM Selectric was state of the art, for people who still remember what the IBM Selectric typewriter was like,” says Carmicheal. “And you know in a modern digital age, it just fights us all the time. It’s about 17 stories tall, depending on how you count the floors, and so it takes a long time to go up and down and grab records and bring them down. When people come to use the original records, they sit in our search room and we bring them the records they want, and they sit there waiting.”

There are issues with climate control, exacerbated by the building’s shape. (Monoliths are great for catching the sunlight.) Temperature and humidity fluctuations are bad for old documents. And did we mention the building leaks?

This brutalist building, on the national register, has to stay. Officials are pondering new uses for this hot, leaky and windowless monolith.

Bank of America Building 101 S. Marengo Ave. Pasadena
You just have to love the Google street view of this mid-century relic. It doesn’t get more basic than this–a stone cube for bank workers. A conspiracy theory circulating in architecture Twitter says that this building has no windows so that workers would be more productive. A developer snapped it up and, as I write this post, is in the process of poking windows in it to the dismay of a handful of Pasadena brutalist fans. See a trend here?

Abram Friedman Occupational Center 1646 S Olive St, Los Angeles
Part of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s division of career education, nothing says neoliberalism like a windowless public school with a Harbor Freight sponsorship. That loved and hated purveyor of dangerous, poorly made but cheap tools has their logo right on the (mostly) windowless tower. I’ve long noticed this building but it seems to have escaped the the attention of local brutalism cultists. I can’t find anyone on the interwebs who has ever remarked on how odd it is to have a completely windowless skyscraper school in downtown Los Angeles.

Elysium Masonic Temple 1900 N Vermont Ave, Los Angeles
You need not wear a tin foil hat to know why many Masonic lodges lack windows. I only point out this one for a few reasons: I heard that it was the first completely windowless building constructed in Los Angeles (not sure if this is true), and it contains a very strange mural by Millard Sheets, the artist behind the Home Savings mosaics.

If that weren’t enough the lodge, in order to keep the lights on, transformed the main room into a set for use in film and TV shoots that closely resembles the courtrooms in the Downtown Los Angeles Stanley Moss Courthouse that is also mostly windowless. Regular lodge meetings take place in the mock courtroom.

Abundant Life Building 720 S. Boulder Ave., Tulsa
Prosperity gospel huckster Oral Roberts built this windowless and, cutting edge for the times, cube in the late 1950s to house his TV studio, mail processing center and offices. He wasn’t there long, moving his operation to his new university. By the 1970s the building was abandoned and sits awaiting a new use or, more likely, demolition. Head here if you’d like to see the creepy interior.

I’m sure there are many more windowless buildings that I’m not aware of. If you know of any, or worked in one, please leave a comment.


We had this crow statue sitting around for years with no place to go and a big pile of unused bricks, the remains of a failed parkway path project. Last week I finally got around to putting the two problems together by building a plinth out of brick.

To do this I had to review the ancient and challenging art of brickwork. Lacking an actual living person to learn brickwork from, always the best option, I resorted to YouTube.

Most of the brick how-to videos I found were far too short, leaving more questions than answers about a task that seems simple at first but is actually quite difficult. After much searching I discovered the work of a British stonemason who goes by the name Rodian Builds. Rodian’s videos are much more detailed than the other bricktubers out there.

What I like about Rodian is that he goes through every gesture in the process of laying a brick: how to get the mortar on the trowel, how to dump it off, how to hold the bricks etc. For a beginner these details are the difference between a far from perfect but acceptable project (my plinth) and a complete disaster (my past attempts at brickwork).

Some basics I learned from Rodian and from building my slightly wonky plinth:

  • Getting the first two rows as perfectly square and plumb is crucial. Mistakes accumulate as the rows of bricks go up.
  • I made a square out of scrap wood to the exact dimensions of the plinth so that I wouldn’t have to keep pulling out a tape measure. I could just hold my square up to the bricks to know that the plinth was square and exactly one foot on each side. This is a form of a storey pole, something that I’m familiar with from woodworking.
  • You can practice brick laying with wet sand. I’d recommend doing this before tackling a project.
  • Get all your bricks as close as possible to what you are building.

In terms of tools, all you really need is a level, a trowel and a ruler. I also have a pair of brick tongs for carrying bricks (we live on a hill so this tool is almost essential), a tub for mixing mortar and a chisel and mallet for cutting bricks.

Bricklayer, August Sander, 1929.

I like the idea of making small garden follies with bricks and can imagine other uses for brick structures in gardens. Could I build a wall or something structural? No way–not without a lot more practice. Brick work is intellectually challenging and hard physical labor. I have much respect for the people who do this for a living. I mean, just think about the man in that Sander photo above and ask yourself if you could do this while balancing on scaffolding many feet up in the air.

If you’d like to try your hand at a simple brick project I highly recommend two introductory videos by Rodian: one in which he makes a small brick pyramid, which he said is the first thing he was taught as an apprentice. If you’d like to make a plinth he has a video on that too. He also has videos on how to mix mortar and just about any brick project you can think of.

I Made a Little Library

My friends John and Lee live in the historic 1937 Ortiz Taylor House and commissioned me to build a little library to go out front. They wanted one that looked like the architect’s drawing for a never built garage, so I did the best I could do to make the little library look like a southwestern adobe.

A neighbor gifted me a nice new piece of 3/4 plywood and most of the rest of the components came from scrap wood I had laying around. The universe kinda came together to make this project happen. I used simple rabbet joints done on the tablesaw to create the plywood box. For the doors I used mortise and tenon joints. I picked up some piece of metal flashing material to cobble together a roof.

I sketched out the plans at a cafe while Kelly was at an appointment and did the final plan in Sketchup to make sure that I didn’t make a stupid mistake cutting the plywood. As a woodshop teacher once said to a class I was taking, “Always have a plan.”

If you’re going to put up one of these things I’d suggest a solid base set in concrete as books can get heavy.

Little libraries are one of the best things to come out of the city repair movement. I really enjoy the ones in our neighborhood and I do a kind of circuit of them on my dog walks. Even if I don’t leave or take something it’s always fun to see what shows up.


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Lloyd Kahn’s Instagram alerted me to a delightful set of models built by University of Illinois at Chicago architecture students that pay tribute to something we don’t think about enough, the wood framing that forms the skeleton of most houses in the U.S.

The models are in the U.S. Pavillion at the Venice Biennale. Odds are you’re sitting in a wood frame structure right now. While the debate between masonry and wood framing is above my pay grade, it’s fun to see a representation what’s under our walls. The nerd in me wants to make one of these framing models, maybe a version our own house.