After the Second World War, cities devastated by the conflict had to rebuild themselves. Los Angeles, devastated by self-inflicted Urban Renewal, began the rebuilding process soon after. This issue examines the several ways in which corporate architects adapted modernism to reconstitute the civic realm of Los Angeles.
“… because that is all downtown Los Angeles deserves,” wrote Reyner Banham in Los Angeles: The Architecture of the Four Ecologies. Written in the halcyon years before the energy crisis or crippling traffic congestion and well after the Watts Riots, this classic survey is essentially a manifesto for the suburban metropolis. Banham’s four ecologies map a decentralized city organized by regional geography and the freeways rather than a centrifugal expansion originating from the pueblo plaza or City Hall. From his perspective in 1971, downtown was certainly not the focus of the city and nothing more than a historical footnote.
But with the opening of Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles seems to be rediscovering its center, and the rhetoric of a downtown renaissance has reached a crescendo. Following the Cathedral, Staples Center, SCIArc, and even MOCA – the hopes for downtown’s socio-political destiny as the cultural center of Southern California are focused on the Concert Hall. Los Angeles has waited sixteen years for it, and its architectural iconography can hardly be separated from the anticipation that Gehry will deliver the “Bilbao effect” for downtown. Rendered in stainless steel, the Concert Hall is the ultimate “silver bullet” project – a structure so heavily endowed with civic will and capital that (supposedly) it can regenerate downtown single-handedly.
Not withstanding the recent Grand Avenue Project, impelled by the Concert Hall’s success, the iconographic messiah building might be nothing more than a myth. While discussion during the Concert Hall’s six year construction has centered on its impressive structural gymnastics and the hope that Gehry’s architectural singularity will put the LA’s center on the map again, a steady revitalization of downtown has in fact already been happening, occurring incrementally through successive planning studies, modest projects and hidden legislative changes – some much older than even the Concert Hall. The Hall may deserve applause, but downtown’s 3000 new housing units represent not just a lucrative residential real estate engine, but also an emerging community of invested residents, who are probably the surest catalyst for downtown’s long term transformation. While the Concert Hall leaves little doubt of its catalytic influence on the immediate context, all the fanfare may be a pawn in the game of downtown’s renaissance, and one that despite all the utopias of the last century, may have innocuously found its own way to resurrection.
We have collected a few “notes” to explore the physical and planning context of the Concert Hall’s promise, with an interest in locating the rhetoric of a Downtown Renaissance. Carol McMichael Reese opens the discussion with an essay (first published in the Walt Disney Concert Hall’s official monograph) that positions the Philharmonic’s new home within the historic lineage of urban visions that have sought to crystallize downtown. With this backdrop, it is possible to see the Concert Hall as the teleological end to a century of civic center plans, a much-needed “dramatic podium” for a city center “ in need of landmarks”, a symbol of the power of architecture to incite and nurture urbanism. Peter Zellner also reminds us that the recently promoted and ambitious Grand Avenue Project – an outcome of the Concert Hall’s optimism and the potential sequel to Gehry’s powerful urban argument – is but another episode in the fifty-year history of urban visions for the Bunker Hill acropolis. From one of the least utopian, yet most pragmatic plans proposed for downtown, Robert Harris, co-chair of the Downtown Strategic Plan (DSP) Committee, also sees the Concert Hall as one among the many catalytic projects the DSP anticipated. He voices the dilemmas that led to the embalming of the plans, whilst arguing that the DSP’s strategies for safer streets and better neighborhoods are coming to life through downtown’s ongoing, incremental housing and reuse boom. Likewise, the offhanded reference to the Concert Hall by Tatiana Begelman in her survey of downtown’s lofts, apartments and SROs suggests the boom as autonomous and oblivious to the hall’s myth as the “key” for downtown’s emergence as a vibrant city center. Yet for all these plans and developments, a final conversation from an event sponsored by the collaborative LAH*UB suggests that downtown’s status as the city’s center remains inconclusive. With the failure of Pershing Square and the present ambiguity of the civic center mall, the panel members – John Given, Julie Eizenberg, Roger Sherman and Doug Suisman – fail to agree on the importance of downtown as a gravitational weight to a polycentric urbanity or the object of a dubious search for “public” or “social” space. And thus we return to Reyner Banham’s thirty-year old survey of Los Angeles, where downtown is but one center among many, and not even the most important at that.
Yet, we are convinced that downtown Los Angeles assuredly deserves more than a just “a note”. With architectural monuments confirming its position in Southern California, and residences in long-forgotten commercial buildings establishing coherent neighborhoods, a downtown generated of new-found realisms is gradually becoming clear. LA’s urban core is emerging as a “collage city”, rejecting the fixation on “no-topia,” with the idea of reusing the existing city as an irreplaceable cultural and economic resource, for collective form, and multiple utopias. The emblematic struggle to define LA’s urban core has been a palimpsest, constructed and reconstructed over time, each phase displacing its predecessor and generating newer “notes” on its modernity. As we currently enter yet another era in downtown’s rebuilding, one that confirms LA’s sheer size and diversity as a challenge to any singular urban polarity, the task at hand is an unbiased, unapologetic version of downtown’s history to scrutinize the realities, possibilities and validities of its many dialogues and dialects. A note is not enough – indeed a scholarly history of downtown LA is most overdue.