Monday, March 04, 2013

Christopher Hawthorne: Los Angeles' Architectural And Urban-Planning Failures

pershing square
Pershing Square in more glorious times

L.A. Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne nailed it in Sunday's paper: Although Los Angeles is home to some fantastic architecture and civic innovations, those things are overshadowed by all the things that we've gotten wrong. "Los Angeles has become as well known for its high-profile architectural and urban-planning failures — for the buildings, institutions and public spaces we can't seem to get right — as for its innovations or breakthroughs," he writes.

L.A.'s civic mistakes are legion and noticeable from the moment you fly into the city and walk through our tragically horrendous international airport. LAX is an embarrassing travesty. As is our river. And a lot more.

A few choice excerpts from his must-read piece:

As a gateway to the city, Los Angeles International Airport could hardly be more dispiriting. A jumble of mismatched, outdated terminals, LAX gives visitors a resounding first impression of civic dysfunction.

The city, which owns the airport, has tried several times to remake LAX. The latest attempt is a master plan by Fentress Architects, which is also designing the nearly $2-billion Tom Bradley International Terminal.

But the truth is that the airport's biggest liability is not simply architectural. Somehow Los Angeles built a major rail route, the Green Line, past LAX 20 years ago without adding a stop at the airport.

And guess what? We are about to build another light-rail route — this time the $1.7-billion Crenshaw Line — near the airport and make precisely the same mistake again.


Since 32 of the river's 51 miles are within the L.A. city limits, the mayor has a powerful say over its future. The goal should not be to take the river back to some idyllic, preindustrial past. Instead we should look for a few places where we can crack open its hard shell and interact with it in new ways.

A number of intriguing ideas have already emerged, building on advocacy by the Friends of the Los Angeles River and a master plan the City Council adopted in 2007. Among the most promising is a proposal by landscape architect Mia Lehrer and three architecture firms for the so-called Piggyback Yard, a 125-acre site across the river from Union Station.

It would add walking and biking paths along newly green riverbanks, as well as a park with soccer fields and a botanical garden. It would also act as a powerful pilot project, helping the public see the river's larger potential.

Pushing landowner Union Pacific to sell or make the site available to the city should be high on the next mayor's agenda.


No such defense can be made of the city's repeated missteps at Pershing Square. The 5-acre park in the heart of downtown is manageably small and self-contained. It is also a perfectly depressing symbol of L.A.'s neglected public realm.

The square was once the most vibrant public space in Los Angeles. The decision to build a parking garage beneath it in the 1950s added entry and exit ramps that cut the square off from the sidewalks around it. A 1993 redesign somehow made that sense of disconnection worse.

Now entertainment giant AEG, the company that brought us L.A. Live, owns the Staples Center and wants to build a pro football stadium downtown, has pledged $700,000 in seed money to reimagine Pershing Square. City Councilmember Jose Huizar, who represents much of downtown, has said that when it comes to a redesign, "everything is on the table."

Here's one thing that shouldn't be: AEG's direct involvement in the revamp, given its track record of sleekly generic architecture and design.

Hawthorne also discusses the frustration of how we're still struggling to build a subway to the sea. And he chastizes the city for spending so much time, money and energy on a flawed attempt to turn Grand Avenue into something it's not.

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