Southern Pacific Railroad Depot Chinatown Redevelopment

Vertical studio project at The Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc), instructor Elena Manferdini with AT Shawn Rassekh, 2016

Los Angeles' Chinatown rests upon an undoubtedly uncertain ground. Its history is one simultaneously composed of displacement and development. It therefore stands that in order to approach the creation of anything new in Chinatown, one must first comprehend the myriad forms which preceded it.

Although American culture tends to cast Los Angeles as somewhat without history, this understanding of time neglects both the obvious – that the city indeed is built on several hundred of years of written history, let alone thousands beforehand left unacknowledged by the majority of Western histories – as well as the more figurative. This latter representation of history posits not a singular, linear text, but rather a spectrum of mingled forces and memories. History, one might reason, can occur not just on the scale of the era or epoch but by the minute or second. History is likewise not confined to the broader undulations of culture and population but resonates meaningfully at the level of individual experience, regardless of the ultimate canonization into what we traditionally consider to be “our history” to which that experience is granted access.

At a more prosaic level, this project hypothesizes a large residential development of more than 600 units in the heart of Chinatown, between two sites spanning a major thoroughfare. The careful study the relationships among plinth, ground and building allowed a thoughtful curation of what it might mean to establish a new ground on such a contested site.

Proposing a new development of such a scale engages a hotly contested moment at which the urban pressures on Los Angeles to onboard thousands of new inhabitants often clashes with the benefit of those already inhabiting the city’s various enclaves. Los Angeles is a city of neighborhoods, a thousand ecologies stretched across a wide, coastal basin. It is therefore a space of both great diversity and isolation, a place defined as much by its multifarious collection of people as their penchant to reside within stringent, socially ossified spatial strata.

This new ground, itself an engagement of the strange private-public infrastructure so pervasive in the large developments of late capitalist Los Angeles, allowed a series of contemplations on belonging and civil space in the American West.

Model photographs, numerous conditions of façade in immediate adjacency create a diverse spatial experience unlike much current low-rise residential development in Los Angeles

This endeavor in turn begs the contemplation of historical meaning in the context of Chinatown’s development both from retroactive and progressive perspectives. That is to say, part of understanding Chinatown’s history is the very creation of it, and part of its creation is the instantiation of an architecture capable of annunciating these historical understandings. To create this history is to engage in a form of cultural filtering that necessarily takes on as its responsibility the curation of an identity.

It thus becomes a key prerogative of this project that the architecture become capable of receiving the various pasts of Chinatown, curating their presentation and, in their projection forward, posing critical questions that engage the process of history-making such that the resultant building stand as a cultural bookmark in the conception of a place’s identity.

Old Chinatown is dead. A 1926 ballot measure assured its flattening below the then newly proposed Union Station. Amid a series of possible alternative sites, the Los Angeles Times successfully stirred public resentment of the city’s Chinese-American population towards the eventual citing of the development along Alameda Street, declaring that the new station would “forever do away with Chinatown and its environs”.

This is not to indicate that Old Chinatown was by any means a site of truth or virtue. What emerged from the early Pueblo’s “Calle de los Negros” [“Street of the Dark Ones”] — initially inhabited by a collection of Pre-Columbian families living within the administrative bounds of the ramshackle settlement — was a space that transcended multiple generations to continuously house the marginalized populations of young Los Angeles.

The project is in this way part of the larger project of contemporary American culture to reconstitute our nation’s past for its moments of resiliency and sin. It seeks to arrive at an understanding that does not render history trivialized but instead proposes that we ingest both the benevolent, malignant and mundane alike as particular conditions that have shaped the America we inherit.

From the confined indigenous groups of North America to stigmatized Chinese laborers and those drawn to the red light district that called it home, Calle de los Negros was a space of demographic displacement.

Animated studies of abstracted paintings of the Hudson River School, whose representations of both the American West and South American jungles stood testimony in equal parts to an artistic endeavor of visual documentation and an aestheticized project of nation-building

This does not mean that these people were allowed to inhabit the street without disturbance. Quite the opposite, Old Chinatown was the scene of America’s most deadly mass lynching, in which a crowd of some 500 white men viscerally murdered 18 Chinese workers.

Reflected ceiling plan of public space beneath the residential masses, providing an immense, graphic canopy over the site's new groundplane adorned by abstractions of Hudson River School paintings, perhaps the most significant early attempt to make aesthetize a uniquely American identity

Although conditions improved between the 1870s (when Chinese immigrants began to settle along Calle de los Negros) and the 1920s, the neighborhood always stood for the marginalization of a population within the city core such that its vital labor potential in other parts of the city could be leveraged alongside the containment of its population within a confined urban setting.

Public space reflected ceiling, details

Following the 1926 ballot measure, Chinatown was subsequently located slightly north in its current location. Alternative sites, such as one across the river in Boyle Heights, proved unsuccessful against the perceived benefit of disbanding the local Chinese population.

A secondary effect of the measure was to evade the construction of a series of elevated railways. It is therefore impossible to extricate Chinatown’s displacement from the creation of what would become the cultural ethos of Los Angeles towards suburban sprawl and automotive fetishization.

Chinatown then was an urban statement that propagated racism and population de-densification. Chinatown today is an urban canvas that might either come to stand for gentrification — undoubtedly at the expense of the children of those very forces displaced in 1926 — or for a new understanding of what it means to have placehood in contemporary Los Angeles, depending on the course of its current actions.

The Chinatown of our era is ultimately a microcosm for the multitude of forces shaping the contemporary American experience, particularly in the circumstance of urban centers. It straddles both neglect and development in such a way that each can be rendered neither as blatantly ill-conditioned nor as benevolent as we might expect. The aesthetics of Chinatown’s space, and the very composition of that space in the form of its people and their architecture – be it extant or merely archeological – are wrought with meaning in this contradictory manner to the degree that we cannot fairly consider an intervention into the urbanism of the area without acknowledging both what must come and what must go, and in so doing we arbitrate our own complacency in that which has been and the process by which those things that have gone are negotiated into our collective American history.