A Substantive Design Man: John Leighton Chase, 1953 – 2010
By John Kaliski
John Chase, best known to many as urban designer for the City of West Hollywood for the past 14 years – even as he was recorder of all things architectural throughout Los Angeles – passed away suddenly and unexpectedly on Friday, Aug. 13. Over the next few weeks and months I will be re-reading his many articles, essays, and books not only to keep alive his memory but to remind myself of his vivacious and educative voice, which was at once keen, enthusiastic, insightful, humorous, sardonic, always observant, attentive to his audience (whether it was a crowd or just an individual), and loving.
John Chase grew up in South Pasadena and as a consequence had a head start in understanding the Southland and all things L.A. – and I mean all things. Over the course of 30 years he not only developed expertise in the canonical histories of design and planning in this region, he expanded this envelope to include architectural types and urban experiences that remain invisible to too many practitioners and academics. John’s important early book, Exterior Decoration: Hollywood’s Inside-Out Houses, explored the dynamics of what much later came to be called queer space. A later essay, “The Giant Revolving (Winking) Chicken Head and the Doggie Drinking Fountain: Making Small Distinctive Public Spaces on Private Land by Using Commonplace Objects” synchronized Jane Jacobs urbanism with contemporary forms of street culture. In Glitter Stucco and Dumpster Diving: reflections on building production in the vernacular city, John expanded his reach to include dingbats, six-packs and all aspects of Los Angeles’s everyday topos. Most recently, with James Rojas, he explored the influence of Latino culture on the transformation of public and private space in ‘‘The Painted Sign Pictures of Latino Los Angeles."
John was able to expound upon all of these subjects because he was a Los Angeles flaneur without equal. But John was also a practicing architect who embedded his love of this city’s traditions in startlingly knowing forms. Like his writing, his built work exulted in fascination with the specific identity, signs, and symbols of place. His buildings were designed like explanatory essays and like him, they loved to explicate in beautifully wrought sentences dripping with wit, flow, and double entendre. His Jacobs studio project of 1988, a revisioning of the classic American bungalow, was widely published and it demonstrated well that one could realize a fascinating contemporary form within the guise of the history of architecture.
When John gave up his design practice and joined the City of West Hollywood as its first urban designer, I was at first surprised given how much joy he took in the design of individual objects. But his was a natural progression for someone who wanted to work on a larger stage, was acutely political in all of his viewpoints – design or otherwise – and deeply identified with the movement of neighborhoods, gays and lesbians, small business owners, recent immigrants, and others that culminated in the founding of this city. Here he could seek to influence the form of a city through the nudging of multitudinous and incremental acts of architecture. John mustered his architectural skills, his vast knowledge of Los Angeles environmental design, his capacity to write, his joy of design debate, and his passion for libratory democratic politics to become a consummate professional advocate for what Kevin Lynch described as the “good city” - in this case the good city of West Hollywood.
The City of West Hollywood has gone through a remarkable transformation since its founding 25 years ago. The redesign of Santa Monica Boulevard, the creation of numerous small parks, the implementation of the Sunset Specific Plan (which John initially influenced as a citizen volunteer), the construction of the new library, and this town’s steady emphasis on design excellence and creativity in each new act of building all bear the imprint of John’s daily efforts and design intelligence. Yet John would have been the first to acknowledge that urban design is teamwork. John loved, though admittedly could also be frustrated by, the intricacies of working with an evolving cast of planners, politicians, and architects to create a more beautiful and sustainable West Hollywood.
During the course of his years at the city, John never gave up writing, lecturing, befriending, mentoring, and cajoling others to recognize the potential of design to bring people together through infinite acts, at times infinitesimally small acts, of everyday beauty. He was a motivating force behind the Los Angeles Forum for Architecture and Urban Design, a board member of the fledgling Architecture and Design Museum Los Angeles, a board member of the Westside Urban Forum, a steady long time co-chair of the American Institute of Architects Urban Design Committee, and an organizer of countless symposiums, lectures, and tours. John was at the center of design thinking in Los Angeles. Everybody knew him, everybody turned to him, everybody wanted and needed him to be a part of their Los Angeles design conversation because he was simply the best, the most opinionated, and the most accurate observer of the Los Angeles scene and its making.
To figure out the full legacy of John Chase and its impact on the Los Angeles design and planning scene would take not only the careful rereading of his published writings but the careful culling of the thousands of memorandums, letters, and emails, he wrote in the course of his daily work. At the very least there should be a quick effort to conserve these for they are an accurate record of the design maturation of Los Angeles from a thousand villages in search of a city to a great city that seeks to preserve its villages.
To resort to a complete cliché, there are a thousand stories in the big city and John had the capacity to appreciate, tell, and even make up all thousand all at once. This is his genius. He was the perfect post-modern man of substance, respecting and balancing the multiplicitous, complex, contradictory, and parallel identities and narratives of Los Angeles’ unique urbanism. The opposite of an essentialist, his was a voice that sought out, celebrated, recorded, and then sought to design the polymorphous and the polycentric.
For 30 years John was at the forefront of showing and telling Los Angeles’ many stories and urbanisms. By holding them all with joy simultaneously in his head, voice, and heart, he was a design leader whose gift was to show, tell, and envision the everyday city where there is a place, a street, and a special home for each of us.
John Kaliski is principal of Urban Studio, a Los Angeles architecture and urban design firm, and co-authored and edited the book Everyday Urbanism with Margaret Crawford and John Chase.