L.A. Murals: Urban Stage

Public space is the stage for urban life, where different cultures mash together to form the identity of a city.

As an urban designer and landscape architect, I spend my waking hours thinking, dreaming and designing public space. Los Angeles was not built with a grand city plan or main civic space, but rather grew primarily through private real estate interests, making public space second to profit. My passion for L.A.’s murals comes from their ability to broaden the range of people creating the city beyond politicians, developers and designers. Murals allow anyone with vision and a can of paint to invent new public spaces.

The murals I find most interesting are often in the hardest to reach, least inhabitable parts of the city: freeways, tunnels, bridges, and overpasses. By working with infrastructure, muralists do more than reclaim public spaces, they make new places. Many freeway murals were commissioned for the 1984 Olympics, such as “L.A. Freeway Kids” by Glenna Boltuch Avila and “Going to the Olympics” by Frank Romero. These murals are not only artistic but urban acts that assert that all space can be made beautiful.

Murals challenge the relationship between the artist and the viewer. In a traditional gallery, art becomes an object of consumption. Murals offer an interactive and collaborative relationship. When a mural is sited on a freeway wall, travelers become participants in the piece as they sit in traffic during a morning commute. By dissolving the barrier between artist and viewer, murals become a means for community to flourish.

Murals do more than change the city’s physical appearance. They make it possible to envision and create alternative ways of using public space, making Los Angeles more vibrant and interesting. Many trends shaping the design of new public spaces reflect an interest in drawing people out of their homes to engage with the community. I see a direct connection between murals, gourmet food trucks and an ever-growing network of farmers’ markets. L.A.’s streets are becoming a much more public place. This reclaiming of the public realm owes much to the past and present pioneering muralists of our city.

Christopher Torres ’09 is a landscape and urban designer at Rios Clementi Hale Studios in Los Angeles. He has studied murals in Los Angeles, New York and Paris.

(Photo of Frank Romero’s “Going to the Olympics” by Jon Rou)


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