“Disney Hall finally puts Downtown on the map and gives Downtown something of substance that was missing. Still, we have to ask: should the focus Downtown be on creating monuments or connective tissue? Downtown needs walkable streets, green spaces for loitering and for children, better transit linkages to Bunker Hill and the historic core. The lack of resources results in a focus on attracting developers, rather than on articulating an overall vision.”
— Ayahlushim Hammond, Community Redevelopment Authority
The Walt Disney Concert Hall is a daring building and a dazzling object that the rational mind understands as inert of stone, steel, and glass. But we instinctively react to the Concert Hall as if it were energized with something akin to a life force. It bursts onto the scene with such vivacity that it creates a continual urban celebration, like a Fourth of July municipal fireworks display with a limitless supply of incendiary devices. Reflected light radiates in all directions from its stainless steel cladding, with walls that cant up and out, moving away from plumb in multiple directions and at different angles. The building pushes against the confines of its corner lot, seeming to elbow its way onto the sidewalk and into the intersection. Walt Disney Concert Hall brings life to the streets from which it rises with a shining burst of optimism in the future of Los Angeles as a city. It causes us to think, as we perhaps have not thought collectively in a long time, about Downtown Los Angeles and the ways in which it represents not only the communal joys and advantages, but also the frustrations and challenges, of living in a metropolis that is one of the fastest growing and most environmentally precarious in the world.
The Concert Hall is the result of longstanding dreams to make Downtown the symbol of the city’s collective enterprise, by locating flagship buildings for government, commerce, and culture there. And, in the face of equally longstanding processes of metropolitan decentralization and disintegration, these dreams continue to drive hopes that the Concert Hall will have a regenerative effect on Downtown. To understand what the Concert Hall might mean to the hopes for the renewal of Downtown, we must revisit past proposals for revitalizing Los Angeles’s urban core. Of particular interest are those schemes that have failed, been controversial, and only partially succeeded. Herbert Muschamp, architecture critic for the New York Times, recently urged readers to take unbuilt designs for the urban sphere seriously, as “special causes . . . links in the chain of causality that produces, sustains, and transforms major cities over time.”1 In the belief that public familiarity with the history of visions for remaking Downtown Los Angeles might strengthen the groundswell that the opening of the Concert Hall has occasioned, it seems an opportune moment to review the special causes relative to improving Downtown Los Angeles that have been put forward during the twentieth century and that proponents of a revitalized Downtown passionately support today.
“Downtown has to make itself more physically appealing – beyond the first blush of enthusiasm – in order to reach the second and third level of residential growth. There is a friction generated by the needs of the indigent and homeless Downtown and the emerging residential community there. Catalytic projects like Disney Hall have to be seen in that context.”
— John Kaliski, Urban Studio
In the early twenty-first century, Downtown is a microcosm of the “prismatic metropolis” that Los Angeles has become.2 In the city of Los Angeles, the US Census 2000 reported a population of approximately 3.5 million, of which 40.9 percent are foreign-born and 57.8 percent speak a language other than English at home. Developing a unitary “civic center” with buildings of symbolic shared civic values is more challenging today in increasingly heterogeneous Los Angeles, or, for that matter, in any other globalizing city. Competing, or at least multi-present, centers represent a number of ethnicities Downtown. Chinatown, Little Tokyo, and Koreatown have all achieved the physical status of Downtown enclaves. The Latino population of Los Angeles, although strongly represented Downtown in an entrenched retail district along Broadway, still has not established an honorific core there – unless one counts the El Pueblo de Los Angeles State Historic Park (where the Latino Museum of History, Art and Culture has considered relocating), which is organized around the early nineteenth-century Spanish colonial Los Angeles Plaza and includes the commercialized and touristic Olvera Street district. Downtown also boasts a financial core of skyscrapers; a convention center with a relatively new sports arena; a market district specializing in flowers, produce, groceries, toys, small electronics, clothing, and other wholesale goods; a district of historic theaters and commercial structures; and several districts of new housing added over the last forty years.
Walt Disney Concert Hall takes its place in the Los Angeles Civic Center, the group of monumental government and cultural buildings that was erected after decades of struggle and controversy on Bunker Hill, Downtown’s most conspicuous land mass.3 The Concert Hall was sited very consciously on Bunker Hill in relation to a number of existing arts venues: the Central Library (Bertram Goodhue, 1926), the three theaters of the Music Center (Welton Beckett and Associates, 1964), Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA, Arata Isosaki, 1987), and the Colburn School of the Performing Arts (Hardy, Holzman, Pfeiffer, 1998). The Concert Hall stands here both as the result of a persistent consensus that Downtown should boast a concentrated, contiguous cultural district and as a new rallying point for the achievement of that urban goal. However, since the Concert Hall is prominently associated with what many see as the current resurgence of larger Downtown, it is worth surveying the urban context beyond Bunker Hill to learn what is at issue for the city’s core.
Walt Disney Concert Hall’s Genetic Code for Urban Revitalization
The Walt Disney Concert Hall Committee insisted in the 1988 competition brief that competing architects demonstrate an “understanding of the Walt Disney Concert Hall as a ëbuilding block’ of the city.”4 Thus a genetic code for stimulating urban renaissance was written into the conception of Disney Hall from the outset. Frank Gehry won the commission, in part, because he understood better than his competitors the life-enhancing effect on Downtown that such genetic material could have.
One telling Gehry drawing vividly communicates his grasp of the urban possibilities. It is a plan drawing in black pen on white paper, worked in Gehry’s full, swift line that was produced as a study during the competition stage of the project. Significantly, he drew concentric wave patterns around the hall that radiated from its welcoming lobby, which he insightfully described on another drawing as a “living room for the city.” The waves are perhaps transcriptions of sound flowing over the street, and they break across the terrace and sidewalk, billowing out across Grand Avenue from the Concert Hall site toward the empty blocks. Importantly, this key process drawing signifies Gehry’s conception of Disney Hall’s role as a primary instigator in the urban renewal process.
However compelling Gehry’s response, the mandate for the Concert Hall’s urban challenge lay with the building’s clients. Walt Disney Concert Hall was intended to enlarge the Music Center – officially, the Performing Arts Center of Los Angeles County. The construction of the Music Center atop Bunker Hill in 1964 had developed formerly “empty” land that had been razed at the end of the 1950s to address Downtown “blight.” Sited on a parcel that had been cleared almost thirty years earlier, the Concert Hall continued that urban renewal trajectory. Thus, it is not surprising that the Concert Hall Committee’s instructions urged not only that Concert Hall “convey a unifying theme . . . [and] compliment the Music Center,” but that it also “strongly influence the quality of design and construction of adjacent projects . . . [and] create a major cultural corridor on Grand Avenue.” They also joined a century-old civic discussion about the ways in which the physical environment of Downtown – its streets, buildings, parks, and landscaping – could serve as prominent symbols of aspirations to promote the common good.
Back to the Future of Downtown Los Angeles
The earliest concerted effort to rebuild Downtown Los Angeles took place in the first decade of the twentieth century, when Angelenos commissioned Charles Mulford Robinson to prepare a plan for the recuperation of the city’s center. One hundred years ago, the stimulus for urban renewal in Los Angeles and other in United States cities was the enhancement of Washington, DC. The 1902 scheme, known as the Senate Park Commission Plan, reorganized the National Mall as a luxuriantly planted field that would provide a suitable ground for the classically-inspired temples of science, history, art, and democratic governance. The publication of the Senate Park Commission Plan stimulated the nascent City Beautiful movement, a national drive for urban improvement in the face of increased industrialization and immigration, and “civic improvement expert” Charles Mulford Robinson was its foremost proponent.
The progressive political and social tenor of the era is captured in the book published by Los Angeles preacher and settlement-house worker Dana Bartlett, The Better City, a Sociological Study of a Modern City (1907), which promoted addressing the needs of the city’s immigrants, orphans, elderly, and working poor through organized societies and other community efforts. Bartlett’s “better” or “greater” Los Angeles was to be a city that would “concentrate thought upon the ethical ideal – believing that a city may become noted for its righteousness, its morality, it social virtues, its artistic life as for its material resources.”5 In the same year that Barlett’s book was published, the Los Angeles Municipal Art Commission invited Robinson to give advice about a “better Los Angeles.” Robinson’s published report Los Angeles, California: The City Beautiful (1909) called for the “redemption of Los Angeles, its rebuilding along splendid lines . . . to pull together for the city’s good.”6 First, he recommended a transportation nexus around a new union railroad station to enhance the experience of entering and leaving the urban core. Second, he planned an administrative or civic center, to centralize the buildings housing civic government and, thus give prominent visibility to the city as the locus of democracy. Third, he envisioned a cultural center to magnify the effect of what was then known as Central Park – today, Pershing Square – by locating a new library and art gallery nearby. Each of these districts was to make apparent to all who worked and lived in Los Angeles, as well as to those who visited there, that the urban environment offered the best of modern amenities. Even more important, the symbolic value of the whole was more than the sum of these separate districts, because their aggregate effect was to persuade citizens that building the city anew was a necessary and noble undertaking.
Just as the 1902 Senate Park Commission Plan was adopted as a guide for the building the core of Washington DC, so a consensus formed around Robinson’s 1909 plan for Los Angeles which resulted in the eventual development of a cultural center, a public transportation hub, and a civic center. Only the cultural center arose in the exact location that Robinson recommended. It began to take shape when Bertram Goodhue’s boldly geometric Central Library (1926) was sited, as Robinson had suggested, at the southern foot of Bunker Hill. The library, which is one of Los Angeles’s most important early twentieth-century buildings, sowed the seeds of the blossoming Grand Avenue cultural corridor that the Concert Hall now crowns. The library’s impressive tower looked expectantly across Fifth Street toward Bunker Hill, and its eastern wing containing the children’s reading room and courtyard garden stretched toward Grand Avenue. Walt Disney Concert Hall renews the currency of Robinson’s plan for Los Angeles – not in its details, but rather its special cause of prominent focal points within the core linked by landscaped boulevards. The Concert Hall makes a sweeping urban gesture to the northeast with its entrance plaza that opens diagonally to the center of Grand Avenue and First Street, where the Music Center meets the Civic Center.
Greening the City’s Core on Bunker Hill
Decisions about the location of the Civic Center and the Music Center in relation to Bunker Hill mark the second historical phase of Los Angeles’s Downtown renewal process and opened the site that Walt Disney Concert Hall now so compellingly occupies. Although citizens who worked to improve the city were determined to build a civic center, they could not agree on its location. Their disagreements were exacerbated by the fact that the city’s commercial center was developing rapidly to the south, away from the historic Plaza. One position generally favored Robinson’s idea that the Civic Center should be inflected toward the Plaza, along a north-south axis. The opposing position supported a Civic Center along an east-west axis in relationship to Bunker Hill and with connections to the “new” Downtown. In 1924, the Allied Architects Association, a group of Los Angeles professionals who joined forces for the purpose of securing civic commissions, gave form to that vision, submitting a plan for an “Administration Center for the City and the County of Los Angeles,” which proposed building a civic acropolis atop Bunker Hill.
In the minds of many early twentieth-century urban improvers, Bunker Hill, a once leafy, prosperous Victorian neighborhood, was ripe for redevelopment, since it had been effectively strangled when prestigious downtown commercial development moved around its perimeter to the south and west, and as early as 1900 tunnels were cut beneath it to carry traffic to burgeoning West Los Angeles. By the mid 1920s, the predominant image of Bunker Hill was as a zone of increasingly derelict, degraded buildings and entrenched poverty. The basic concept of the Allied Architects’ plan was the greening of Bunker Hill. It envisioned wide swaths of multi-block parks stretching west from the Plaza up the slope of Bunker Hill and covering its crown – from the Central Library on the south to historic Ft. Moore (dedicated 4 July 1847) on the north. The perimeters of these parks were then designated as sites for buildings in which the public business was to be conducted. The plan thus predicted the razing of Bunker Hill as the potential site for buildings that would embody the city’s metropolitan image, and it envisioned that the Los Angeles City Hall would be built at the crest of Bunker Hill. Although City Hall (John C. Austin, John and Donald Parkinson, and Albert C. Martin, 1928) was built instead at the bottom of the hill on Main Street, the Allied Architects’ plan had an important urban legacy in the development of the eastern slope of Bunker Hill, where, today, public buildings line the terraced Civic Center Mall between Main Street and Grand Avenue.
The Allied Architects’ special cause was that of a landscaped “heart of the city,” through which key institutions, monuments, and destinations were to be linked by pedestrian-friendly greenways. It is a goal that is still promising today, but remains incompletely realized. At either end of the Civic Center Mall, two stirring works of civic architecture are situated. Below, City Hall opens broadly toward the Bunker Hill acropolis through its celebrated bronze doors, its walls emblazoned with the quotation, “The city came into being to preserve life; it exists for the good life.” Brought back to prominence in 2002 through the citizen-sponsored Project Restore, this gleaming, off-white Beaux-Arts civic skyscraper boasts a 452-foot tower in the ancient tradition of a lighthouse – the symbolic beacon of a port city. On the ground level, it is a crossroads building, as its portals, which open to the four streets surrounding the city block that it occupies, symbolically gather to it all comers from the urban territory it surveys. Above, the John Ferraro Building of the Department of Water and Power (DWP, Albert C. Martin, 1964) is an almost pure exercise in mid-century modernism, with horizontal reinforced-concrete slabs and vertical steel supports. Its open-bay floors emit light through at night, and it shines out above downtown like a gigantic lantern. Yet both the DWP and City Hall preside over a Mall that is largely used only from nine to five, Monday through Friday. Understandably, the growing numbers of homeless in Los Angeles have found their way to the public landscape of the Civic Center, and makeshift fencing and routine purges by law enforcement officers are a deplorable response on the part of the city.
Walt Disney Concert Hall promotes the resuscitation of the Civic Center Mall and encourages the opening of its green spaces to the city beyond. Brilliantly, Gehry struck the hall’s axis diagonally through the block, pointing its open-cornered entrance toward Grand Avenue and the Civic Center Mall, rather than orienting it exclusively toward the Music Center. Here, the Concert Hall’s volley takes aim at the defensive dike that urban accretions such as entrances to underground parking garages and various measures against encampments of the homeless have thrown up around the mall. Cognizant of the promise of the Concert Hall’s urban position, the Music Center sponsored a workshop in December 2000, in which architects Frank Gehry, Arata Isosaki, and Rafael Moneo, landscape architect Laurie Olin, and real estate developer and Music Center Board member Stuart Ketchum participated. As a result of the workshop, the Grand Avenue Committee, a public/private partnership, was formed in 2001. They propose to transform the twenty-acre Civic Center Mall into a lively, twenty-four-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week public space, which Committee co-chair Eli Broad refers to as Los Angeles’s new Central Park. Their plans connect the Civic Center Mall at long last with Grand Avenue, from which it is currently screened by a drop in elevation and a massive retaining wall that contains spiral ramps leading to the County’s parking garage under the Music Center and Mall itself. In the scheme, a wider sidewalk on the Music Center side of Grand Avenue, created by shifiting the roadbed to the east, offers an improved environment to pedestrians. A pedestrian bridge over the garage ramps mitigates their obstructive effect until the time when funds may be available to move the ramps to the edges of the park. An outdoor amphitheater sited between the County Hall of Administration (Stanton, Stockwell, Williams, and Wilson; Austin, Field, and Fry, 1956) and the County Courthouse (J.E. Stanton, Paul R. Williams, Adrian Wilson; Austin, Field, and Fry, 1958) accomplishes a visual and physical passage from the Music Center plaza into the park. However, unless Downtown housing provisions are made – whether homeless shelters, or single-room occupancy and low-income units – and commensurate social services are provided, the promise of City Hall’s message is empty, and the Central Park that the Grand Avenue Committee has mobilized to achieve will fail.
Accommodating Rapid Transit and Making Places for People on Bunker Hill
Another scheme for the Los Angeles Civic Center – also produced during the period when its location was under consideration – advanced special causes that are pertinent today as well. This was the 1925 project of Lloyd Wright, Frank Lloyd Wright’s oldest son, who lived and practiced in Los Angeles from 1919 until his death in 1978.7 Like the Allied Architects’ plan of the previous year, Wright’s plan emphasized the symbolic resonance of public buildings sited atop the Bunker Hill. Wright’s plan presciently devoted sites along Grand Avenue to buildings housing the fine arts, from the Central Library grounds to the crown of Bunker Hill that is now newly occupied by Rafael Moneo’s dramatic – and yet serene ñ Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels (2002). However, the contribution of Wright’s plan that is relevant now lies in the realm of transportation planning. In suggesting complex, layered, and separated movement systems for vehicles (including airplanes!) and pedestrians throughout the Civic Center site, Wright’s plan acknowledged that increasing congestion were deeply problematic issues for cities. His excavated, rapid-transit throughways predicted the freeway troughs that would be cut around Downtown in the 1940s and 1950s, but Wright discretely buried his vehicular “speedways” under broad terraces where pedestrians had the rights and pleasures of passage.
Wright’s concept of three-quarters of a century ago holds out hope today, and the Concert Hall provides the impetus for redesign and remedies for the discontinuities of the Downtown street fabric created by freeways and tunnels. Yet, the Concert Hall itself requires accommodation along Grand Avenue, which the Grand Avenue Committee’s proposals have also addressed. Their plans for curving Grand Avenue and enlarging the sidewalk aprons at the Music Center and the Concert Hall would not only enhance pedestrians’ experience of the street but would also give the Concert Hall additional breathing room.
Sweeping north from the Central Library, past MOCA, the Colburn School, the Concert Hall, the Music Center, and the Civic Center, Grand Avenue reaches the Cathedral and the ignominious freeway crossing that separates Downtown from one of Los Angeles’s most magnificent urban vantage points – the outcrop on which Fort Moore once overlooked the Plaza. Buildings formerly housing the Los Angeles Metropolitan High School and, most recently, the Board of Education currently occupy the site. Visionary efforts spearheaded by Eli Broad are afoot to create a new magnet high school devoted to the arts, on the model of the LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts in New York. A limited competition recently named the Viennese firm Coop-Himmelb(l)au the winner of the commission to develop pieces of the project tangential to Grand Avenue. According to plan, the whole site will be returned to a more public use, which will include exhibition and performance spaces. It is expected that tens of thousands will be attracted every year to this spectacular overlook, with its most impressive panoramic view of the Cathedral and the city.
Anticipating this project, the Grand Avenue Committee has explored designs for widening the Grand Avenue bridge over the Hollywood Freeway to complete the extension of the arts and culture promenade from one side of the Bunker Hill acropolis to the other. In tandem, the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) has commissioned a public arts project for the bridge. The price of realizing these dreams is dear. The Metropolitan Transit Authority and Caltrans have contributed funds have contributed funds for improving Grand Avenue between Second Avenue and Temple Street ñ from the Concert Hall to the Cathedral ñ and work is underway, but no one knows where financial support will be found for reworking the street beyond this two-block event.
The Concert Hall’s urban prospects along Grand Avenue are also dependent on the critical “empty” lots on Bunker Hill that are its immediate neighbors. These lots – County-owned Q and W2, directly east of the Concert Hall, and City-owned L and M2, on its south – were razed by the CRA in the late 1950s. Since Lots Q, L, and M2 all border Grand Avenue, they are of crucial concern to the Grand Avenue Committee, whose goal is to initiate and guide their development. Millions of square feet will be devoted to multiple uses. Lots L and M2 are zoned by the City primarily for housing, with some entertainment and retail functions. While offices are expected to predominate in the 1.5 million square feet of mixed use space that has been permitted on Lot Q, it will also support residential, cultural and entertainment spaces. A workable team approach is needed – rather than cutthroat real estate practice and fractious City/County politics as usual. The CRA’s wholesale destruction of the historic residential district atop Bunker Hill has long been the subject of controversy, and housing activists have demanded an accounting for the lost when Bunker Hill was demolished – 10,000 were left without homes ñ and the addition of new housing in any redevelopment scheme. Indeed, it is possible that civic pride in the Concert Hall will help lay this controversy to rest, but only if the issue of providing affordable housing downtown is finally addressed.
Master Planning and Organic Redevelopment
If there has been almost a century of consensus regarding the desirability of the clustering of public institutions around a cultural center and a civic center in Downtown Los Angeles, there has been far more ambivalence about the urban fabric that supports such building groups and endeavors. The decision to create an acropolis of monuments on Bunker Hill can be traced to master-planning schemes of the City Beautiful era. It was furthered by planners who shared visions of a downtown characterized by a monumental center and notable ensembles of business buildings. This was the prominent position advocated in planning documents such as the Preface to a Master Plan (1941), but also by citizen task forces – such as Greater Los Angeles Plans, Inc. and the Central City Committee – and by Calvin Hamilton, the City’s Director of Planning from 1965 to 1985. However, these initiators and their initiatives recognized the necessity for regional planning on a metropolitan scale, and they also furthered the “centers concept” of multiple, high-density centers dispersed from the core, to which lower-density residential neighborhoods would be tethered. The builders of the Music Center, for example, accepted that its theaters would rely on patrons, who would commute Downtown to events. While the persistence of this “acropolis complex” may have produced the Concert Hall at its site on Bunker Hill in the late 1980s, it is widely understood almost fifteen years later that the hall’s long-term survival as a cultural nexus depends in large measure on the vitality that will swirl around it twenty-four hours a day. Walt Disney Concert Hall is a rallying point rather than a solution.
The seeds of revitalized Downtown housing were sown in the master-planning days of 1970s, when CRA’s “Central Business District Redevelopment Project” (1972) – known as the “Silver Book Plan” because of the color of its cover – guided renewal. The plan emphasized the achievement of a “balanced environment” through political and economic provisions for low- and moderate-income housing, which has been the CRA’s mandate since its founding in 1949. Detractors of the Silver Book Plan have argued, however, that although it guided the clearance of “blight,” it saw too little below-market-rate housing replaced, leaving downtown more housing-poor and income-segregated than ever.
If voters are to be engaged in planning and architectural issues, they must be presented full documentary portfolios that include images as well as words and numbers. Intelligently and persuasively, the two committees who undertook major planning efforts for Downtown in the wake of the Silver Book Plan published comprehensive sets of images of their proposals. The special cause of the packaging of both these plans was the dramatic illustration of the gains for Downtown that they could achieve. Robert Harris, Professor of Architecture and Urban Design at the University of Southern California, co-chaired the committee that produced the first, the “Downtown Strategic Plan,” which was unveiled in 1993. This plan originated in initiatives undertaken during Mayor Tom Bradley’s administration (1973-1993), and emphasized a newly invigorated street life in the core, born of residents who would be attracted by the renewed and more appealing cityscape. It emphasized connectivity among ten mixed-income Downtown neighborhoods and districts, establishing an improved pedestrian environment through the greening of streets and the expansion of open space and parks. It further proposed sixteen catalytic projects in order to create focused nodes in these districts. Not to be forgotten for his support of the Downtown Strategic Plan is developer Ira Yellin, a member of the plan’s steering committee who died in September of 2002. A passionate advocate of Downtown and its historic architecture, Yellin renovated key buildings that strengthened the plan’s redevelopment nodes, including the Bradbury Building (1893), the Million Dollar Theater (1918), Grand Central Market (1987-1995), and Union Station (1939). A prime example of the plan’s proposed interventions was the renovation of the Broadway Spring Arcade Building (1923). The seductive perspective drawing published in the plan showed the arcade with renovated loft floors providing a live-work environment in the midst of historic buildings and theaters, transit networks, and nearby cultural activities.
Downtown developer Tom Gilmore, who arrived in Los Angeles in 1989, when the Downtown Strategic Plan committee began its work, has been both the beneficiary of their pictorial bible and the prophet of their dogma. From his company’s offices in a sector that he has christened the “Old Bank District,” Gilmore works to replace housing that was lost in the razing of Bunker Hill and other Downtown neighborhoods with loft conversions of commercial structures. He practices what might be called “organic redevelopment,” urban renewal that differs from that of an earlier era of master-planned redevelopment not only in its incremental approach, but also in the types of projects undertaken, which focus on infusing existing viable industrial and commercial districts with housing. He calls for “indigenous retail” and “full-spectrum housing,” as well as the coherent, enlightened social policy planning that is necessary to achieve it. Yet he struggles to produce the legislated affordable housing quotas without the massive subsidies that were at the CRA’s disposal during the Silver Book era. If he is successful, his consuming dedication to the creation of residential space in the northeast quadrant of Downtown will transform that area, which may well become a model for other sectors of the core.
In 1995, during Richard Riordan’s administration (1993-2001), the Civic Center Authority, which had been dormant since the 1980s, was revived and, perhaps inspired by the Downtown Strategic Plan, returned to an intense study of the heart of the heart of the city. This committee produced the “Civic Center Shared Facilities and Enhancement Plan,” which the authority issued in 1997 (and reissued in 2000). Its crowning achievement was a richly visual document that relied on brilliantly concise and revelatory imagery to convey its vision and a “marketing” synopsis of sorts cleverly named the “Ten Minute Diamond.” Chief among the visionaries were Doug Suisman, architect and urban designer, who served on the consulting team, and Daniel Rosenfeld, who as the City’s assets manager was conducting a study of City-owned real estate for the Department of General Services. The Ten-Minute Diamond took City Hall as a compass point and drew an imaginary diamond-shaped perimeter around it, such that any point on that perimeter would be no more than a ten-minute walk from its rotunda. The sine qua non of the Ten-Minute Diamond plan was the creation of a system of variously designed public open spaces for pedestrians – linear garden paths – that encouraged habitation. It sectioned the Civic Center into four quadrants – Hillside, Old Pueblo, New Town, Riverbed – and detailed what ought to be done to bring each into being. This idea of naming Downtown districts was a stroke of genius, since it created a framework for making places where, essentially, there were none. It was a corporate identity campaign for the body politic. Suddenly the city became knowable; the planners’ goal, however, was not signage per se but signage used as a tool for sensitivity training. Cynically, one could make an analogy to the mapping of Disneyland – Main Street, Frontierland, Tomorrowland, Fantasyland – and Suisman acknowledged that he worried about “coaxing reluctant imagery” from the city’s history and its system of corridors.8 Yet the Ten-Minute Diamond forged a Civic Center zone of intensity and focus in which many of Downtown’s most prominent public buildings and historic sites were located, providing nodes of intrinsic utility and interest to Angelenos and visitors alike. It brought Downtown into relief and, with intelligent sincerity, countered what French sociologist Jean Baudrillard found in Los Angeles in 1986: “no intimacy or collectivity, no streets or facades, no centre or monuments…an extravaganza of indifference.”9
The Ten-Minute Diamond clarified the locations where new projects of civic import might best be sited. The Caltrans District 7 Headquarters building – designed by Thom Mayne and his firm Morphosis – is rising on the block bounded by First, Second, Main, and Los Angeles streets, directly across from the site proposed in the plan. Mayne diagonally juxtaposed the building to City Hall, incorporating to the design a public gathering space that enjoins the open-arms embrace of City Hall. The California Endowment’s new headquarters designed by Rios Associates, Inc. (now Rios Clementi Hale Studios) will articulate a neglected zone on Alameda Street between Union Station and City Hall in the Old Pueblo Quarter. Anchoring the Riverbed Quarter, the proposed Children’s Museum designed by Morphosis and Central Avenue Art Park designed by Michael Maltzan will fill the block in which the MOCA Geffen Contemporary and the Japanese-American National Museum now float in a sea of parking lots. These new interventions would, in turn, create a transitional zone to the emerging Arts District near the Los Angeles River. Just outside the Ten-Minute Diamond, this more bohemian district – in contrast to the “high” cultural district atop Bunker Hill – is coalescing around the independent architecture school Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc), which took up residence there in 2001 in a former freight depot. SCI-Arc’s director, architect Eric Owen Moss, and Dan Rosenfeld, currently Principal of Urban Partners, LLC, which he co-founded with Ira Yellin, are contemplating the construction of housing, which would return a sense of urbanity to the area and would involve the school as a key player in the development of Downtown.
Another major ground swell of revitalization on the edges of the Ten-Minute Diamond is the establishment of a new state park – as yet unnamed – in the area just north and east of Chinatown and Union Station, which the plan identifies as the Alameda District. Formerly known as the Cornfields, this thirty acre parcel on the western bank of the Los Angeles River represents the triumphant acquisition in 2001 of open space for notoriously “park-poor” Los Angeles. Led by the Friends of the Los Angeles River, a consortium of activist organizations dedicated to the special cause of reclaiming the river along its fifty-one-mile path through the metropolitan area achieved this landmark goal. From Charles Mulford Robinson’s plan of 1909, which proposed to link the disparate sectors of the city by planted parkways, to the Ten-Minute Diamond of 1997, which made the heart of the city legible through the green weave of a Civic Garden and landscaped paseos, the purchase of the Cornfields marked the culmination of a century of movement toward a Downtown humanized by the interweaving of the built environment and parklands.
One of the largest contiguous metropolitan areas in the world, Los Angeles is immense. Its built fabric is ubiquitous. Given the sweep of the landscape across which Los Angeles spreads, any building that would have a fighting chance of contributing to a sense of urban identity must assume a powerful form equal to the staggering beauty of the conjunction of ocean, plain, and foothills. Downtown Los Angeles is visibly marked on the skyline by an impressive cluster of skyscrapers and clearly circled by a ring of intersecting freeways, so that, from afar, the center of the city is palpable. Within the heart of the city, however, this clarity and cohesion dissipate. Mindful of French philosopher Henri Lefebvre’s assertion that urbanity demands a center, we can observe Angelenos struggle to promote a shared urban consciousness through the last century’s failed or only partially successful attempts to create a strong image of the core.10 The center is not only in need of landmarks but also of sustained planning and building that will make it a place where the city’s diverse population can live, work, and take their leisure. This is the socio-topographical imperative of Los Angeles, which Frank Gehry understands. It is also why the Walt Disney Concert Hall is so important to Los Angeles both as a singular form and as a refractive lens through which the needs of Downtown are brought sharply into focus. Wrapped in raised gardens and balconies, the Concert Hall provides a dramatic podium for surveying Downtown Los Angeles and its breathtaking setting. Yet Gehry also believes in the power of civic architecture to strengthen human connections, not only to places but also to one another. Gehry’s desire that the Concert Hall be a “living room for the city” takes shape particularly in the billowing lobby so open to Grand Avenue, where passersby can stroll at will in and out during many hours of the day and night. In Los Angeles, Gehry has achieved the social diagram that he found compelling in his chief precedent for Walt Disney Concert Hall, Hans Scharoun’s Berlin Philharmonie (1963): “It’s a wonderful place to be because the place puts people together and makes it easy . . . the building allows and engenders and encourages in some miraculous way, a kind of interaction.”11
This essay is dedicated to Ernest Fleischmann, Managing Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, 1969-1998, and lifetime member of the Board of Directors, and Frederick M. Nicholas, Chair of the Walt Disney Concert Hall Committee, 1987-1994. Without their devotion to the arts, artists, and Los Angeles, Disney Hall might well not have been built.
Adapted/edited from the original publication Symphony: Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall (Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Los Angeles Philharmonic, 2003)
Carol McMichael Reese is associate professor of architecture at Tulane University. Her books and articles focus on contemporary architecture and urban planning in the Americas. In 1985 Reese was commissioned by the Getty Research Institute to document the building of Walt Disney Concert Hall.