Cities boom and bust, and when they’re flush they are alive with architectural bluster. Sometimes this bluster leads to greatness. Think of Tikal’s towers and Chicago’s skyscrapers. Think of the vertical city of the Anasazi, in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, and the vertical city of the Manhattanites in New York. Think of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, and Cambodia’s Angkor Wat. Even cities on the periphery of global power burst with civic energy, producing masterpieces. Seattle commissioned Rem Koolhaas to design its Central Library; Redding, California, has Santiago Calatrava’s Sundial Bridge. And Bilbao changed the very idea of a building when it put up Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim. Ambition is written in the stone and steel and streets of cities.
Then there is Los Angeles, always the exception.
The city is a mecca for great architects, yet largely lacking in urban innovation. Several of the best residential houses of the twentieth century were conceived and built here, but the same cannot be said of grand civic buildings or parks or plazas or monuments. With a few notable exceptions—the Bradbury Building, City Hall, the Department of Water and Power headquarters—a genius for public architecture has largely been missing. Today, for each achievement—Gehry’s Disney Hall or Thom Mayne’s Caltrans District 7 Headquarters—there are dozens of prepackaged “destinations” parachuted onto sites that deserved thoughtful and responsive designs. The city is overrun with bland condos rising above transit stations and hyperkinetic, faux neighborhoods. L.A. Live comes to mind.
It’s not that there’s been a lack of ideas. Gathering dust in file cabinets and storage bins all over Southern California and beyond are proposals for the city going back at least 100 years. They are the never-builts, any one of which could have transformed both the physical reality and the collective perception of the L.A. metropolis.
Together, these unbuilt structures and unrealized master plans, civic centers, parks, follies, and transit schemes are a composite portrait of “what if” Los Angeles. It’s a picture that reveals a reluctant city whose institutions and infrastructure have often undermined inventive, challenging urban schemes. They also reveal a penchant for grandiose plans suited more to executives, officials, and studio heads than plebeians, waiters, and housekeepers.
The most prescient and still relevant among the large-scale visions is a plan from 1930 simply titled “Parks, Playgrounds, and Beaches for the Los Angeles Region.” Submitted by the Olmsted Brothers landscape design firm (founded by the sons of Central Park designer Frederick Law Olmsted) and urban planners Harland Bartholomew & Associates, the report recommended 71,000 acres of new parkland and called for the doubling of public beach frontage, along with 440 miles of parkways—a continuous ribbon of greenery, including a landscaped drive along the Los Angeles River. More than eighty years after business groups upended the Olmsted-Bartholomew Plan, Los Angeles is still a notoriously park-poor city.
Equally famous for its premature demise is the Maguire Group’s 1980 plan for downtown Los Angeles’s Bunker Hill, an animated and cacaphonous symphony of buildings designed by an architectural team of all-stars: Harry Perloff, Barton Myers, Edgardo Contini, Charles Moore, Lawrence Halprin, Cesar Pelli, Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer, Ricardo Legoretta, Frank Gehry, Sussman Prejza, Carlos Diniz, and Robert Kennard.
The idea, called A Grand Avenue, consisted of nine projects loosely connected by a variety of parks, plazas, and promenades—an “urban room,” built to convert “a prototypical ‘megablock’ development … [into] a richer, denser environment.” The all-stars lost the final round of competition to the team that instead brought us the California Plaza and California Center development, which Rem Koolhaas said “condemn[ed] L.A. to a perpetual life without a center of gravity.”
“One would expect a cogent expression about the particular character of Los Angeles, one of the world’s wonder cities,” said architecture critic Michael Sorkin about the California Center in a Peter Zellner essay that discussed fifty years of planning schemes for Bunker Hill. “This requires an act of imagination, an act which unfortunately proved unnatural to [the developers].”
Thirty years later, another grand plan for Grand Avenue is in never-built limbo—funds have yet to materialize for the Frank Gehry–designed residential towers that are part of a long-delayed nine-acre project intended to connect the Civic Center and Bunker Hill.
Apr 1, 01:05 PMPurchase or Subscribe to Slake: Los Angeles
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