Notebook

August 15, 2013 5:18 pm

A history of LA’s loopy dreamers

Tech billionaire Elon Musk is the latest in a long line, writes Matthew Garrahan
Handout shows a sketch of the proposed "Hyperloop" transport system proposed by billionaire Elon Musk

From the hopeful thousands who trekked west during the Gold Rush of 1849 to pioneers such as Howard Hughes, Walt Disney and Steve Jobs, California has always been fertile ground for dreamers.

Now it has a new dreamer-in-chief. Elon Musk, the technology billionaire behind Tesla, maker of the Golden State’s most coveted electric cars, and SpaceX, the commercial space travel company, wants to revolutionise mass transit in California. This week Mr Musk published plans for the Hyperloop, an elevated, sealed tube between San Francisco and Los Angeles that would use air-cushioning to propel pods carrying travellers at speeds of 700mph – and shorten to 35 minutes a journey that can take six hours.

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It is a marvellously bonkers idea that has been embraced by the tech community but politely dismissed by some California politicians, who point to potential stumbling blocks with land acquisition costs.

But even if it comes to nothing, Mr Musk will be in good company, as shown in an exhibition pulling in the crowds in Los Angeles. Never Built: Los Angeles at the A+D Architecture and Design Museum brings together some of the most outlandish public projects to have graced the US west coast in the past century. The common theme is that none of them made it past the drawing board.

Banx cartoon

Among the worst are plans from 1963 to build a gigantic earth-filled “causeway” in the Pacific that would have linked Santa Monica with Malibu (and ruined the view of the ocean for coastal dwellers, not to mention the surf and beachfront property prices). The scheme, unsurprisingly, was quietly shelved.

A number of the forgotten designs look suspiciously like Mr Musk’s Hyperloop. A proposed “airtram” from 1936 was the brainchild of Joseph Strauss, the engineer who built the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. It promised “the speed of the airplane, the comfort and quiet of the automobile”, with cars “propelled by silent drive motors”. Forty years later came plans for an air-cushioned “people mover” to shuttle commuters in small pods around a loop in Los Angeles. The project died in 1980 when Ronald Reagan, the newly elected president, suspended public funding.

Some of the plans are downright weird: Bible Storyland, apparently inspired by Disneyland, would have occupied a site to the east of Los Angeles, and featured a reconstruction of the Garden of Eden. Heart-shaped to symbolise “God’s love for humanity”, it was abandoned when local clergy declared it blasphemous.

Mr Musk should take heart from some of the names featured in the exhibition. The 1925 master plan for downtown LA by Lloyd Wright (son of Frank) would have turned the city into a perfectly symmetrical, modern-day version of the Acropolis, with airstrips next to City Hall and all roads conveniently buried. Disney also features: his plan was to build the first Disneyland theme park across the street from his Burbank animation studio. It was rejected by Burbank council, which said it feared a “carny atmosphere”. Well, yes: that was the point, as Disney proved when he took the project to Anaheim, 36 miles away, where it became the state’s most popular – and lucrative – tourist attraction.

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Scandal wars

Thousands of miles may separate the west and east coasts but that has not stopped fierce rivalries in sport (think of the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team’s enmity with the Boston Celtics) or music (with hip-hop stars engaging in fierce verbal battles in the 1990s that escalated into lethal violence).

Now politics can be added. In New York, Anthony Weiner’s mayoral campaign continues, despite recent revelations about his eagerness to send women pictures of his anatomy. The scandal engulfing the mayor of San Diego is perhaps more lurid: Bob Filner, a Democrat, faces allegations from 13 women that he sexually harassed them.

Mr Filner has admitted “harming women” and said he would address voter concerns by taking two weeks off for therapy, a response widely ridiculed. Also mocked was his request that taxpayers cover his legal fees arising from lawsuits filed by his accusers.

Now comes the ultimate ignominy: he has been banned from Hooters, a burger restaurant known for its buxom waitresses. The stunt is unlikely to persuade the brass-necked Mr Filner to do the honourable thing and resign – yet neither has anything else so far.

matthew.garrahan@ft.com

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