Why L.A. Just Appointed a Design Czar

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.”

Learn more at CITYLAB

Kate McCartyart, government, L.A.