An artistic bend to the Los Angeles River: Lauren Bon & Metabolic Studio 
The Los Angeles River, concreted over in an act of mid-twentieth century water management, is slowly being reimagined through the work of artist Lauren Bon and her Matabolic Studio practice. Shane Reiner-Roth took a tour of the model of community-minded, sustainable regeneration.

The concrete channel of the Los Angeles River is perhaps most recognised outside of the state for its starring roles in films including Grease and Terminator 2. Within the city, however, it’s a scar cutting through neighbourhoods as testament to the destroyed tributary systems which led to the native settlements where the urban spread now sits. There are numerous ongoing schemes and masterplans to renew, regenerate, and reimagine the river, some top-down led by starchitects and bureaucrats, and some from the bottom up.

For, Shane Reiner-Roth visited Bending the River, one of the more community and sustainability minded ventures, led by artist Lauren Bon and Metabolic Studio.

"The artifice of things affirms that things, for the simple reason that they are made, can also be unmade and remade accordingly."
Mahmoud Keshavarz [1]

Stubbornly myopic, painfully dense, and agonisingly self-assured, the masculine engineer’s conquest of the built environment is plain as day when standing in the most desolate portions of the Los Angeles River.

Following a flood in 1938, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plastered the river with more than 3.5 million barrels of cement, transforming what had once been the primary water source for the region into a 51-mile-long risk management system.

While it does, in fact, prevent flooding across the Los Angeles basin, its ushering of the city’s water and waste into the Pacific Ocean has reduced a river that was once the lifeblood of Los Angeles into a monumental environmental hazard.

The blurred boundaries between land and river were engineered into a ruthless binary.

The office and three-acre grounds of Metabolic Studio, an interdisciplinary art and research hub directed by artist Lauren Bon, are perched above the Eastern edge of the Los Angeles River on a former parking lot that has since been named the Moon for its previously lifeless surface.

Since 2015, Farmlab, a subset of artists and ecologists within Metabolic Studio, has replaced the tarmac with salvaged floodplain material that had lain dormant beneath the Los Angeles River, blurring the distinction between the two sites following decades of separation.

Walkways are determined by the growth of native plant seeds scattered between the pavers with continually unexpected results.

A happy black cat named Luna (Spanish for moon) unwittingly spreads seeds across the site.

Several times a week, a van transports visitors from the Moon to the base of the Los Angeles River to explore the construction site of Bending the River, an adaptive reuse project devised by Metabolic Studio to redirect a small portion of the river’s water to irrigate the nearby Los Angeles State Historic Park.

Following more than “75 permits across varying levels of government within the city, county, state, and federal jurisdictions and the first private water right in the city of Los Angeles,” the project website reads, “this work will be completely off-grid, using solar, gravity, and salvaged floodplain to cultivate and regenerate the web of life.”

Bending the River is an artificial tributary that might be the first of many.

Before reaching its destination, the water will be cleansed in a treatment facility at Metabolic Studio via clay pipes.

As opposed to PVC pipes, which are typically used in contemporary hydro-engineering projects for their cost effectiveness, the clay pipes will not shed contaminants into the water, but will instead soften the boundaries between the Los Angeles River, Metabolic Studio, and the Los Angeles State Historic Park.

The placement of the clay pipes beneath the river required the excision of concrete triangles of a standard size, each of which weighs the equivalent of a truck.

They are currently resting amid the plant life and salvaged wood at Metabolic Studio, awaiting their next function as a sculpture whose site and scale will be determined in the near future.

It is an arduous task in line with the studio’s motto: “Artists need to create on the same scale that society has the capacity to destroy.”

The hurdles of bureaucracy that were put in place to support engineering feats like the Los Angeles River also hinder engineering feats like Bending the River.

What other hurdles must be overcome to undo the engineering blunders of the past?

What other hurdles must be overcome to undo the false divisions of things?

What other hurdles must be overcome?

[1] Rezai, M. & Khazaei, M. (2017) The Challenge of Being an Activist-Designer. An Attempt to Understand the New Role of Designer in the Social Change Based on Current Experiences, The Design Journal, 20:sup1, S3516-s3535, 5, DOI: 10.1080/14606925.2017.1352855

Shane Reiner-Roth is a PhD student at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and a lecturer at the University of Southern California (USC). He has published articles in publications including the Los Angeles Times, Log Journal, Thresholds, Mas Context, Pidgin, Manifest, and Room One Thousand, the Architect’s Newspaper, Architectural Digest, and KCET.

Lauren Bon is an environmental artist based in Los Angeles, CA. Her practice, Metabolic Studio, explores self-sustaining and self-diversifying systems of exchange that feed emergent properties that regenerate the life web. Her signature project, Bending the River, is an infrastructural artwork that redirects a small portion of the low flow channel of the Los Angeles River and redirects it to form a bend in the Los Angeles River. Bending the River secures water for the future for the former thirty-two-acre trainyard where Bon’s 2005 Not A Cornfield was, which is now the Los Angeles State Historic Park. Metabolic Studio engages the 240-mile cyborg Los Angeles Aqueduct watershed with a complex network of social practice, soil building, toxic residue lifting, native plant cultivating, seed and story sharing, sound activating and photographic experiments. Bending the River aims to utilize Los Angeles’s first private water right to deliver 106-acre feet of water annually from the LA River to over 50 acres of land in the historic core of downtown LA. This model can be replicated to regenerate the 52-mile LA River so that in the not so distant future, balance is brought about  through a patchwork ecological newtork of novel mini urban ecosystems. The key to achieving this lies in the unpaving the city, wherever possible and regenerating the  floodplain of the once unbridled  Los Angeles River.

Metabolic Studio is an interdisciplinary art and research hub based in Los Angeles, California. Directed by artist Lauren Bon, the studio operates with a mission to explore and address critical social and environmental issues through art interventions and innovative projects aimed at reparation. Their work often revolves around themes of water, land use, energy and seeking to reimagine and redefine the relationships between humans, non-humans, and living systems. They hope to bridge the gap between art, science, and activism, offering creative solutions and alternative perspectives on pressing social and environmental challenges.

learn more & visit

More information on Bending the River, including a live stream, can be found on Metabolic Studio’s website:

Regular tours of Bending the River show the work up close, and spaces for these can be found on this link:


All images © Shane Reiner-Roth.

publication date
05 October 2023

Adaptive reuse, Lauren Bon, Concrete, Environment, Farmlab, Flood, Floodplain, Hydro-engineering, Irrigation, Los Angeles, Los Angeles River, Metabolic Studio, Nature, Regeneration, Shane Reiner-Roth, River, Water