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Third Los Angeles Project

Turf Battles: The Lawn in Los Angeles

The suburban lawn – widely regarded as a water-wasting indulgence in an era of drought – received a small measure of redemption Feb. 17 at the kickoff of the 2016 Third Los Angeles series in Occidental’s Choi Auditorium.

“It’s interesting how the lawn has been politicized. It used to stand for democracy, and now it stands for waste,” said New York architect Elizabeth Diller, part of a four-person panel assembled by adjunct professor and Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne to explore “Turf Battles: The Lawn in Los Angeles.”

While Diller and her fellow panelists – Occidental Biology Professor Gretchen North, landscape architect Jim Burnett, and Jennifer Watts, curator of photography at the Huntington Library – all agreed that while the lawn needed to be rethought, none felt it should be eliminated entirely.

“Lawn used in a sparing way makes a lot of sense – it has a cooling effect, it does some amazing things, and is aesthetically beautiful,” said Burnett, whose firm removed acres of lawn when re-landscaping Sunnylands, the former Annenberg estate in Palm Springs. “But when you look at Palm Springs from the air, there’s way too much lawn. It’s a question of scale.”

A more eclectic approach to yard plantings is better for the environment, but the approach some have taken – spreading gravel over black plastic sheeting – creates a heat island “that is hot and ugly and doesn’t absorb carbon dioxide the way grass does,” said North. “There are better ways to save water.”

The move toward drought-resistant landscaping reflects a return to the past, noted Watts, who displayed stunning photos of the lawn-free San Gabriel Valley in the 1870s and 1880s. “Midwestern settlers were slow to embrace the lawn,” she explained. “Their landscaping reflected a fascination with exotic vegetation, plants like yucca and pampas grass -- a lot of dirt and no grass.”

A short film by Colin Marshall, "The Lawn," was commissioned for the evening as part of Marshall's series on The City in Cinema.