By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
The trouble, says Councilwoman Jan Perry, who now represents the hill, is that “Design is very subjective; what one may think is incredible another may think is really ugly. This is a very level competition. It offers some parity to enable a developer to forge ahead in defining their ability to create the project.” Still, counters architect and SCI-Arc director Eric Owen Moss, Los Angeles needs “a good podium” for a discussion about Bunker Hill. Otherwise, we are leaving it to developers to define Grand Avenue.
UCLA’s Weinstein, who is a consultant with Frank Gehry’s team, agrees. “It should have been a developer design team. That’s how they did the new Caltrans building. A developer came in and said, ‘I’m prepared to build this.’ There were signed completion bonds and all the hard financial stuff, but there were also drawings, models, photo montages, all kinds of eyewash. This helps to precipitate the issues. Nobody knows what the potential of all this land is until you’ve gone through the first exercise. It’s just a shrewd guess by informed people about what is possible. Then you invite public comment, you parcel it out, and then you see if the market is interested. Of course it’s interested!”
It’s ironic that in a city alive with architectural invention and talent, no invitation was issued. What might have come of an open design competition was, for starters, a dialogue among some of the city’s most thoughtful and thought-provoking architects and planners. Three of them, in fact — Moss, Mayne and Craig Hodgetts — attempted to share their ideas with one of the four developers, Forest City, but never heard back. More’s the pity because Moss’ ideas deserve to be heard.
“Los Angeles is sort of an adolescent city,” he says, “a newer city exploring itself and trying to understand itself, its weights, its hierarchies, its priorities. That’s why you have these discussions: The urban psychology has to be that the process is still open, still experimental. It means that there is no master plan in a conventional sense. If you assume at the beginning what’s going to happen at the end, you are rerunning what is already known.
“If you think the city is composed of standard parts,” Moss continues, “you can look it up in the dictionary — the Ringstrasse, the Rambla, Fifth Avenue. You want a great city, you’ve got to have a great avenue. There is another possibility: We are not like them in a fundamental way. In L.A. you get Century City, a line on Wilshire Boulevard, Warner Center. I don’t think this is necessarily an argument for not intensifying the development along Grand Avenue, but it is an argument for being cognizant of L.A. We don’t need the Arc de Triomphe. We need room for additions, pieces and modifications; an egalitarian, ecumenical means of being able to look at what you have and course-correct it. There would have to be situational sites which allow you to re-imagine and rebuild.”
The “huge challenge” of Bunker Hill, adds Scott Johnson of Johnson Fain, “is to knit back the center of a series of neighborhoods that from the beginning have been isolated. Bunker Hill was a hill, and the roadways and trolleys went around the hill. Urban renewal and clearance really decimated the neighborhood and left it undefined.”
Interestingly, Johnson Fain is moving its offices from a nondescript, 18-story black citadel at Flower and Wilshire, in the Financial District, to a former automobile dealership in Chinatown, a community booming thanks to artists and hipsters and architects in search of ever-cheaper-by-the-square-foot space and the frisson of Vietnamese vermicelli and old women carrying umbrellas. Johnson, who built his own home on a commercial lot on Larchmont Boulevard, has an astute feel for the city’s currents.
“I see Grand as the city’s most important north-south axis. It connects history to demographics. It runs from Juan de Portolá settling just north on the L.A. River, to Chinatown, the Pueblo, Bunker Hill, through the downtown business corridor south to Exposition Park. The cross axis, First Street, represents the demographics. The San Gabriel Valley, artists’ lofts, the commercial district, government, culture, off and out into Mid-Wilshire and West Los Angeles.”
The project, then, is schizophrenic: Grand Avenue must be two things, the center and the sinew.
Twenty-five days before his proposal was due in to Grand Avenue Committee, Frank Gehry was seated on the stage of the Japan America Theater for “A Gathering by Design,” his attempt to “broaden the discussion to include architecture” by inviting the public to mix it up a little over Grand Avenue. (Although the handpicked audience of architects and architecture students, Gehry’s friends and fans — including Brad Pitt — was hardly a broad constituency.) Among the all-star cast, which included the Pritzker Prize–winning Hadid, Gehry’s was the voice of authority. He’d been tinkering with plans for Bunker Hill since the late ’70s. At least twice before, he’d made models “destined for obsolescence.” When he agreed to assemble his current corps, he said, he had thought Grand Avenue was a “design competition.” Now, his group, Bunker Hill, LLC, was openly attacking the developer-first-design-later process.
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