Christopher Hawthorne leaves LA Times to become city’s chief design officer

LA Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne has left his post at the newspaper to advise the city council on architecture and planning decisions.

Hawthorne will begin his role as Los Angeles‘ first chief design officer next month, after working at The Times since 2004.

He was invited by LA mayor Eric Garcetti to fill the newly created position at City Hall, where his main focus will be to aid the creation, development and improvement of the city’s public spaces.

Working with the mayor’s office, his aim is to improve the quality of new architecture and urban design across the metropolis.

“Though I’ll be tackling a range of projects, my work will have a clear central focus: the public realm,” Hawthorne wrote in an article for the LA Times.

“It’s a caricature to say that Los Angeles has never valued the design of its public spaces (or even worse, that it has none),” he continued. “It is true, however, that in the decades after World War II, Los Angeles — like many American cities — pursued a new and largely privatised kind of urbanism, dependent on both the freeway and the single-family house, while increasingly neglecting its public side.”

Hawthorne to prioritise homelessness issue

In his role, Hawthorne will support other high-ranking city officials in the planning, engineering and transportation departments. Among his concerns will be the design of stations on extended metro line, and improvements to existing transport infrastructure.

Another problem that he is hoping to address is LA’s growing homeless crisis, by creating accommodation that is both effective and aesthetically pleasing.

“I want to promote new housing for the formerly homeless, for example, that is well-designed enough to offer a humane welcome to its residents and at the same time help convince neighbouring homeowners that it’s something worth embracing, as opposed to merely tolerating,” Hawthorne said.

He also acknowledged that he faces controversial issues like gentrification, poverty, and racial divides with projects he will be working on. For example, large areas across LA – particularly in and around Downtown – are being razed for high-end developments that are forcing out low-income residents.

In an Opinion article for Dezeen, Janelle Zara called out a panel discussion on LA’s future urban development for being misrepresentative of the city’s diversity and needs.

“I’ve agreed to fill this new position at a time of rising, understandable anxiety about the connection between new investment in neighbourhoods and the displacement of longtime residents,” Hawthorne said.

“Many design changes that might seem entirely appealing in the abstract – adding a protected bike lane or a corner park – look quite different when understood against the backdrop of decades of public-sector neglect, punishing inequality and racism or soaring housing prices.”

Role will encompass Olympics spending

LA has received a surge of investment ahead of the 2028 Olympic Games, for which it was recently selected as the host city. Hawthorne will be partially responsible for how the money is spent on civic design – including infrastructure, parks and housing.

“If there’s one message I want to underscore in my new position, as I’ve tried to do in this one, it’s that good design, even ambitious design, can be a mechanism for efficiency,” he said. “For saving money, not wasting it.”

Ahead of his official start date, Hawthorne encouraged the city’s residents to contact him and voice any recommendations and ideas, as well as warnings, concerns and complaints. The LA Times is yet to announce who, if anyone, will replace him.

Before the newspaper, Hawthorne served as architecture critic for Slate magazine and was a frequent contributor to the New York Times.

He co-authored a book titled The Green House: New Directions in Sustainable Architecture with Alanna Stang, and gained his bachelor’s degree from Yale University.

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