The Seventh Annual Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectual Design Excellence 2005
Berkeley Prize 2005

Brian Knight

The Belmont Tunnel and Toluca Yard

Urban planning has always been about colonization, the marking of boundaries, of order and form. Architecture is the instrument of this organization. It transforms the cluttered into the cultivated, the fallow into the productive, and the void into the built. It is the power of accumulation, of accretion, of addition. But very little consideration is given to the act of subtraction in urban design and planning. Although the modernist's edict of the tabula rasa is one example of subtraction as urban planning, its results are not what I am interested in. I am interested in a type of urban space that fall outside the scope of what we call normal or significant. These subtractive spaces--vacant lots, self-regulating zones, and residual spaces--act as counterpoints to the way order and consumption control the city.

At the intersection of Glendale and Beverly boulevards near downtown Los Angeles there is a tunnel embedded in a hillside at the end of a flat, empty lot. The small utilitarian building alongside the tunnel is covered with graffiti and homeless people are known to live in and around it. Locals call this lot "The Tunnel". Most people don't remember what it was used for and most people simply think of it as urban decay. But this tunnel was once a significant entry point into downtown Los Angeles.

Even though Los Angeles has a modern subway line running from downtown to North Hollywood, few are aware that the city once had a subway over 75 years ago. This portal was part of that system. The Belmont Tunnel and Toluca Yard, as the lot is now known, is situated in an area of Los Angeles called Westlake. The area could be described as an urban backwater, a neighborhood left behind when the construction of the Hollywood Freeway bypassed this neighborhood in the mid-1950s. The Belmont Tunnel site has been vacant for decades and the remaining vestiges of its original infrastructure are run-down and frequented almost exclusively by graffiti artists and the homeless. People from the nearby neighborhood use the former Toluca Yard area just outside the mouth of the tunnel for tarasca games. This game is derived from a Pre-Columbian ball game that the Aztecs and Mayans played in Mexico. The playing field at Belmont is the only known tarasca ball court in the United States. The tunnel location is also well known among graffiti artists and aficionados of their work. The Belmont Tunnel and Toluca Yard has been a semi-legal meeting place for West Coast graffiti artists to practice their art over the years. On some weekends there can be 40 to 50 people of all ages using this site--playing tarasca, creating art, cooking, drinking, and catching up on the latest neighborhood news.

The first view of this space is that it is unacceptable due to the socio-economic deterioration and abandonment implied in it. It disrupts the image of order. A second view holds that this space offers room for spontaneous, creative appropriation and informal uses. These are the kind of uses that would normally have a hard time finding room within the urban fabric and its demands of commerce and commodity. Although it is not the revenue-generating site that the City of Los Angeles would like it to be, it is a historically significant and open area that supplies its residents with services that the city is not able to supply. Like a comma in a sentence, the space is a pause in the built environment that allows one to step back and more clearly read the character of the city as a whole. But before I describe more of site itself, it may be interesting to look at some historical inquiries into this idea of what I call subtractive spaces.

In the 1950s, a group of French urban theorists calling themselves Situationists attempted to reveal the real city, the one that lay hidden under layers of marketing, commerce, and capital. They began to layout a plan for the Situationist City. Roughly basing it on experiments they conducted in Paris and Amsterdam, they felt that once the thin veil of refinement--the spectacle of advertising, images, and products--had been lifted, the real life of the city could be found.

The Situationists felt that the indigenous living patterns of the inner cities were best nurtured through the clustering of the city. They began cutting up maps of Paris, and started to identify working-class zones worthy of study. These were clusters of the city that commerce, advertising, and marketing had left behind. One could begin to see a new pattern of the indigenous city take form in these collaged map studies they were producing. Their main grievance was that the modernist architects were placing more importance on purely functional issues like automobile traffic. To the Situationists one aspect of city life was no more important than any other aspect of the city. They called for a "Unitary Urbanism," a planning scheme that weaves the entire urban fabric together. They treated traffic, the home, commercial life, industry, and civic life, with equal importance.

The philosopher Henri Lefebvre heavily influenced the Situationists. Lefebvre saw the essence of the city as a place of play, spontaneity, and festivity and saw these as necessities of daily life. These were the forces that combated the suffocating power of top-down bureaucratic planners. His idea of the "moment" was based on the fleeting epiphanies--sensations of delight, surprise, horror or outrage--that occur in the urban environment.

The closest the Situationists came to constructing their ideas was in the work of one of its founding members, Constant Nieuwenhuys. Constant's 10-year project, New Babylon, was his attempt to realize some the Situationists desires for life in the new urban setting. A city of shock, surprise, and fun, it was the architectural development of the idea of a Unitary Urbanism. He was drawing upon the story of the legendary Babylon with the phenomenon of the modern city. But whereas Babylon was a parable about disarray, fragmentation and collapse, New Babylon was an ideal of the modern city with its technological prowess, and its moments of spontaneity, surprise, and play. But the most important aspect of Constant's work is it's questioning of the way we consider planning and zoning practices. Under the modernists functional ideal there was no room for individual, idiosyncratic conditions of city dwelling. He combined the Situationists idea of intense neighborhoods and the architect's ability to initiate situations, moments, and epiphanies through non-rational combinations of constructions.

Another way of looking at the idiosyncratic urban space is through the policies and politics of real estate. In the 1970s the works of the artist Gordon Matta-Clark looked at the dissolution of building components and the breakdown in composition that revealed flaws in the buildings and flaws in the political system that made these buildings possible. In his most famous work "Splitting", Matta-Clark highlighted these flaws by sawing a single-family residence in half and separating the two halves by a few inches. And in his work "Reality Properties: Fake Estates" he bought fifteen tiny lots of land in New York that had been left over in property deals. These sites included a foot strip down somebody's driveway, a square foot of sidewalk, and tiny sections of curbs and gutters. Some sites could not even be accessed from the street. Buying these ridiculously unusable lots was part of Matta-Clark's interest in the re-activation of severed and disused surfaces. It is an example of his idiosyncratic re-interpretation and manipulation of the economies of real estate. Matta-Clark's art embraced the abandoned and disowned. He worked in old buildings and neighborhoods and would nurture back to life those forgotten spaces that had lost their reason to exist.

In more recent times, the architect Ignasi de Sola-Morales Rubio has coined the term "terrain vague" to describe the residual spaces of the post-industrial city. The terrain vague considers the underlying complexities inherent in the empty, disused, and abandoned spaces of the city. There is a dynamic relationship between the absence of use and activity, and the sense of freedom and expectancy. This concept is critical to understanding the evocative potential of the city's terrain vague. These are the spaces of pause, void, and absence, and also promise, possibilities, and expectations. The "terrain vague" act as counterpoints to the efficient, productive city. These spaces are a critique of city planning in that they allow for individual and flexible usage and can be looked at as possible alternatives to city living. These sites have all had previous lives, and by looking at them as such one can see the city as a fluid collection of traces. The city is a palimpsest that can be revised and these spaces help to define those revisions by revealing the evolving cultural, economic, and political establishments that define our existence in the urban environment.

This continual process of erasure can never reach a final outcome. For the city to continue to be a dynamic, exciting experience there must always be a trace of something no longer there and the anticipation of something that will be. There must always be the residue of something that has occurred and the expectation of something about to occur. Constant and the Situationists showed us that the process of becoming lies in the revelatory moments of urban exploration and re-examination. Matta-Clark showed us the potential of fragmentation and re-use. And finally there is the concept of the terrain vague and its continual flux of presence and absence and their mutual necessity. It is in a sense, the presence of an absence that is the absence of presence. Which brings us to the public space in question.

Before Southern California was known for its freeways, it had the largest trolley system in the world--the Pacific Electric Railway. The system spanned 1,100 miles throughout Southern California and it was the main means of transportation before the construction of the freeways. Downtown Los Angeles had an active, bustling city center, typical of those in New York or Chicago at the time. Downtown Los Angeles was also the hub of the Pacific Electric Railway. In the 1920s, the rising presence of automobiles led to congestion and traffic jams, which in turn slowed down the speed of the Pacific Electric Railway, which ran mostly on tracks in the middle of the streets. The Pacific Electric decided to build a subway for trolleys going to Hollywood or the San Fernando Valley. The Hollywood Subway was only one-mile long but it allowed trolleys going to and from Hollywood to completely bypass downtown's street traffic. Trains entered the subway at the Belmont Tunnel portal and stopped downtown at the Subway Terminal Building on Hill and 4th Streets.

The subway opened on November 30, 1925 and was in operation for about 30 years-until June 19, 1955. Since that time, the Belmont Tunnel site with its adjoining trolley maintenance area known as the Toluca Yards, has been a vacant lot, owned by the city and undeveloped.

Today the site is exactly the type that the Situationists, Gordon Matta-Clark, and Ignasi de Sola-Morales Rubio would have loved. It lies in an urban hinterland and as such it has been immune from the homogenizing effects of mass-marketing, advertising and speculative real estate development. The men from the nearby neighborhood who use the site for their tarasca games seem to have chosen this site for very specific reasons.

In the Pre-Columbian era tarasca was a part of both the Mayan and Aztec religion. The game symbolized a portal to the underworld and functioned in a ceremonial capacity. The Aztec ball court bears a striking resemblance to the Toluca Yard site. Ten-foot high walls bound the traditional courts on both sides of a 40-foot-wide by 300-foot-long field. The citizenry would sit on top of the walls and watch the unfolding drama and pageantry of the game. At the Belmont Tunnel the game survives on a site that was once a portal to downtown Los Angeles--another, almost foreign, world that the residents of the neighborhood visit occasionally. Nine-foot high walls bound the Yard on three sides of its plain and on the fourth side by the gradual slope of a hill. This hillside is used as seating for the onlookers of this ancient game in its reincarnated form.

The walls bounding the space have been transformed by the brightly colored, collaged representations that characterize the exuberant style of the graffiti artists and their artworks. Sometimes these works tell a story, and often they offer a critique of the politics, culture, and economics of the neighborhood. This simultaneous mix of artistic and sporting ceremony, coupled with the news and commentary on the walls creates a juxtaposition of startling urban spontaneity that is exciting and fun, and at the same time relaxing and pleasurable.

The Belmont Tunnel is a space at the crossroads of the post-industrial urbanization that has created many more sites like this, sites that raise questions about the very nature of the city. This particular public space is internal to the city fabric yet external to its everyday use. The Tunnel can be seen as a laboratory for a new idea of urbanity that can offer an intense, vital experience of the city. This site acts as a foil against the standardized and hyper-planned public spaces that increasingly inhabit most of our cities. There is a tendency in the creation of new public spaces to over-design a situation that leaves little room for the idiosyncrasies of juxtaposed materials and the richness that can accompany the unexpected. What is important in the development of public spaces is the ability to leverage what exists to help generate new ways of experiencing the city. The Belmont site is an amalgamation of disparate components that, when brought together, help to enrich the experience of the space in particular, and our conception of the new post-industrial city in general.

When the generic is seen as unique and when the obvious is seen as enlightening, there comes a forgetfulness that threatens to severely limit the way we are able to experience our day-to-day lives. Our current bureaucratic, top-down urban planning and zoning policies have for the most part, created public spaces that are monotonous and trivial when one considers the critical roles these spaces should play. Our public spaces and our life in the city should be rich with history; they should be dynamic, exciting and sublime. When the commoditization and cooption of everything we experience in the city becomes the norm, the absolutely particular and individual spaces we can and should create become our post-industrial cities most vital assets. These spaces are all around us if we wish to see their potential. The neighborhoods of disregard, the urban backwaters and eddies that are ignored by the marketing guru, advertising executive, and master planner, are in all actuality, home to some of the most dynamic public spaces in the city. The Belmont Tunnel and Toluca Yard, located in the Westlake district of Los Angeles, California, is just the type of public space we need more than ever today.

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Brian Knight, Southern California Institute of Architecture, USA
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