Los Angeles, the ultimate postwar city, can be likened to an equipotential field: anything is more or less possible anywhere.  One comes to feel, therefore, that its diversity of opportunities and resources are secretly cached within its vast grid and that the fun is in breaking the code.  There is a fear that attempts to impose structure on this seemingly self-regulated chaos would destroy the essential character of the city.

Yet, because of an ever increasing population, the need to increase density and/or consolidate uses becomes mandatory. Coupled with the fact that the distances between work, home, and shopping continue to grow under current zoning regulations, transformation of the city is inevitable. The challenge is to define and preserve the unique positive qualities of Los Angeles in the face of this change.

Both our residential and commercial streets are lined with an amazing array of building types, each asserting its prototypicality. It is this juxtaposition of urban fragments and the resulting tension between various implied futures that gives Los Angeles its face – and can concievably allow new interventions without a loss of soul.

The following critique will attempt to look beyond style and analyze projects which consolidate uses within a single complex. Two criteria form the basis for judgement: one, how well the intensification of uses focuses activity on, and thereby urbanizes, the street and two, whether the project acknowledges the heterogeneous and accretional character of the city.

The Beverly Connection

Designed by Lomax Rock, The Beverly Connection is situated on La Cienega between Beverly Blvd.  and Third Street, across the street from the behemoth Beverly Center. It is a city block-sized project comprising the renovation and modification of several existing buildings and the construction of several new structures linking these formerly independent buildings into a mega-complex.  The result is a perimeter of closely-spaced pavilions that face both the street and the interior of the block.

The Beverly Connection can be imagined as a “fried egg” scheme, with direct connections between its interior core and the adjacent streets.  The project is exceptional for its impaction of the parking and Ralph’s supermarket in the middle of the block.  Other ground floor shops face both street and interior. Second floor shops are located along an internal mall, which also has a direct connection to the street, albeit up a long, grand stair.  Both pedestrian passage and vehicular access are detailed as a continuation of the street into the block’s interior, maintaining the sense that the stores face the public realm.  The face of the parking structure is activated with the movement of people using a variety of vertical circulation pieces.  The structure of the buildings, whether concrete or steel, is exposed and in-filled with appropriate materials.  A sophisticated language of elements is the result, and the interior space of the complex has a real presence due to their scale and rhythm.  It is unfortunate, however, that the Ralph’s market has no windows facing this space.

While this complex somewhat successfully inverts the typical shopping mall for the benefit of the street, its urbanistic strategy could be strengthened in several respects.  The complex remains introverted and one wishes that stronger links could have been made back to the smaller-scaled Third Street and Beverly Boulevard sidewalks.  Also, the intensification of activity along a regional thoroughfare such as La Cienega would better complement the locally oriented shops along Third Street.  Nevertheless, and even granting that some of the decorative elements are a little overwrought, this project comes close to feeling like an extension of the city.

Venice Renaissance Johannes Van Tilberg & Partners

Venice Renaissance

The city of Los Angeles is in the process of amending zoning requirements to encourage mixed-use development in some areas of the city.  In exchange for the provision of some moderate to low income housing, developers will get a break on the number of parking spaces to be provided and also be allowed an increase in density.  Even without taking advantage of these incentives, the Venice Renaissance project by Johannes Van Tilberg and Partners provides a dense mixed-use development with low-to-moderate income senior citizens’ housing, while providing parking spaces beyond the current requirements.

Located on Main Street between Rose Avenue and Navy Street in Venice, Venice Renaissance comprises four floors of housing above a podium containing 33,500 square feet of retail facing Main Street with public parking behind.  Residents’ parking is below grade. The housing consists of two components: 22 senior citizens’ units along Main Street and 67 condominiums facing the ocean and overlooking common gardens built on top of the public podium.  The F.A.R. is 2:1 (not including parking).

The block is broken into five buildings along Main Street, at which points are provided direct access to public parking and residential lobbies.  Unfortunately, evidence of these residential entries is indicated only by signs and in-house telephones. The lobbies themselves are obviously not for entry or for lounging-the front door for the housing is really located in the parking garage below. The transition between housing and street is something less than ceremonious and suggests the citadel mentality that underlies the happy Mediterranean exterior.  (Note that the carpeting on the stairs stops at the second floor and gives way to exposed steel – as if the residents aren’t really expected to make the transition from apartment to street on foot.)  The upshot is that although the uses are stacked they are not really integrated.

On the other hand, the Main Street edge of the complex is truly generous.  A continuous arcade runs the length of the street and large open retail spaces face on to it.  The column spacing and groin vaults give the long passage rhythm and scale.  However, a distinction can and should be drawn between the relevance of Mediterranean or classical elements such as arcades, deep-set windows, and plaster walls, and the application of more literal classical details.  The relentlessly smooth walls could be more appropriately scaled by variations in color, texture, and pattern, rather than the use of classical column capitals.

It should be added that for all its urban pretensions, issues of connection to the street and the relationship of its relentlessly tall and long west wall to its smaller neighbors at the interior of the block keep the project from fulfilling its contextual ambitions. However, in all fairness, it must be said that the architect has cleverly fought the tendencies of this kind of density to completely overwhelm its context by the conventional articulation of base, middle, and top and by breaking down the massing into discrete components.

Ben Caffey

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