Icon 170 – The California issue: a journey through the Golden State, looking at everything from the influence of Silicon Valley and the branding of Hyperloop to the design of burger joints and the burgeoning cannabis industry.
In Icon 170 architectural historian Simon Sadler profiles Tesla founder Elon Musk, referencing the New York Times’ recent claim that the state of California is now the de-facto opposition party to Donald Trump’s erratic presidency. Certainly, the orange one has a challenging relationship with the Golden State, accusing it, among other things, of voter fraud on a biblical scale. His ire just might bear some relation to the populace turning out in droves for Hilary, but I suspect the antagonism runs deeper. With its interest in renewable energy and progressive attitudes towards gender, sexuality and race, California is the antithesis of Trump’s promise of a Mexican-free, coal-fired future.
But even Trump cannot deny how successful the state has been. In 2016, it was the sixth largest economy in the world, just behind Great Britain. Post-Brexit, it will surely overtake us. Silicon Valley lies at the heart of the economic boom. The result of a weird alignment of forces – the military-industrial complex, counterculture and utopianist entrepreneurialism – it has influenced everything from the way we communicate to how we travel. The Valley has changed the general perception of design, too. Apple’s talisman, Jonathan Ive, remains the nearest thing the industry has to a household name.
And yet, for a place that prides itself on providing answers, California is facing some pretty challenging questions. Los Angeles, an anthem to the motor car, is wrestling with the uncomfortable truth that expansion is a dead end. The city, defined by its sprawl, is considering a more vertiginous approach that works in tandem with transport infrastructure – an alien concept to established Angelenos. For those on the outside, it seems incredible that there is no high-speed train between Los Angeles and San Francisco. But California is still a place where people think big. Musk has a plan to join the two cities by firing passengers through a pressurised tube at 700 miles an hour. Should Hyperloop come off, it would achieve two things: first, it would cement California’s position as the world leader in design thinking; second, it would further underline the current president’s irrelevance. Here’s hoping Elon pulls it off.