As the Music Center Turns 50, It Should Shake Up the Way We Use Its Courtyard
Courtesy of The Otto Rothschild Photographic Archive

As the Music Center Turns 50, It Should Shake Up the Way We Use Its Courtyard

On Dec. 6, dancers from L.A. Dance Project will slide and sway across the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion’s stage in resident choreographer of the New York City Ballet’s and California native Justin Peck’s premiere of Helix, a rhythmic piece based on Esa-Pekka Salonen’s 2005 musical composition with the same name. The score for the piece will be performed simultaneously across 1st Street at the Disney Concert Hall, compliments of the L.A. Phil.

The co-production is part of the Los Angeles Music Center’s 50th anniversary, and the collaborative activation of two venues at once is an indication of the Center's desire to rethink its place in the city, both urbanistically and culturally. Problem is, an unknowing downtown resident, passing visitor or wandering pedestrian would never know the event is happening within two of the Center’s three mutually adjacent, but isolated venues. Helix reinforces the reality that the Music Center’s venues and their respective companies remain estranged from each other and the city after 50 long years.

Atop eight levels of parking bays, loading areas and county parking below that, the Music Center's seven-acre plinth casts a long shadow across Grand Avenue and buoys the three venues that house L.A.’s artistic power houses: Center Theatre Group, L.A. Phil, L.A. Opera and the Los Angeles Master Chorale. The Chandler, Taper and Ahmanson venues act exclusively in a shotgun style — one in front of the other — and therefore operate next-to but ultimately unrelated to each other. Bracketed by the Ahmanson Theater's and Taper Forum's (both completed in 1967) soaring porticoes to the north, and the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion's (completed in 1964) glassed-in foyer to the south, the courtyard in between opens to the sky and offers privileged views of City Hall across the east and vistas of the Santa Monica mountains out west. Buffered by buildings or streets on all four sides, the courtyard is accessible only by valet drop off, stairs or elevator.

The Center's architect, Welton Becket, envisioned the campus as the western equivalent to New York's Lincoln Center in the same showy style as many late-modern American cultural centers. But critics rued its awkward self-consciousness and fortress-like quality from the get go (and still do). Author Mike Davis called Grand Avenue's development in general a “city subsidized, white collar colonization of Downtown,” referring to the destruction of Bunker Hill, that array of shabby Victorian walk-ups, and single-room flats wedged into the hillsides where Grand Avenue exists now. (That long-gone city life is best seen in Kent Mackenzie's 1961 film The Exiles, which follows a night in the life of Native American working-class residents in the pre-Grand Avenue neighborhood.)

Bunker Hill's coveted space above downtown was acquired eventually by developers and bulldozers in 1960, and Grand Avenue's construction consequently swiveled the business center of Los Angeles from east to west, leaving the east side of downtown to languish over five decades. Of course the Music Center isn't entirely responsible for the sins of Bunker Hill, but the displacement is still significant and directly related to downtown's current problems. Downtown has finally re-established a pedestrian-friendly residential population, but it’s done so in the former business core where turn-of-the-20th century structures were never configured to accommodate domestic neighborhood living (unlike downtown neighborhoods in New York or San Francisco) and it still lacks neighborhood infrastructure like small parks, foliage, and places to walk the dog and the kids.

Feeling the need to satisfy not only their established patrons but also a new group nearby neighbors, the Music Center's boosters recently proclaimed themselves rededicated to their cultural mission, and proposed a series of improvements (they've been saying this for a while) to reshape the pedestrian-starved, sequestered outdoor courtyard between the Chandler Pavilion and the Taper. The Center should proceed forward using the courtyard as is, but with a dose of creative, space-activating programming.

The courtyard area of the Music center is often incorrectly referred to as a plaza — typically a plaza is a public area connected by two or more streets that converge together in an open space. With only one point of access, a plaza becomes a cul de sac, and with no access at all, it’s a courtyard.

Presently the open area contains the Pinot Grill, by Patina, which is a fine place for sipping chardonnay and people watching before a show. There is also the playful water feature (installed in 1987) and sculptures that offer visitors a break in the banality of the space and that mark milestones in the Music Center’s history, most significantly French sculptor Jacques Lipchitz’s monumental piece Peace on Earth dedicated in 1969, and strongly opposed by Becket (it remains the most-photographed sculpture in L.A.). Free ukulele lessons and sing-a-longs are examples of current and past programs that also attempt to public-ize the space and transgress the disconnectedness of the courtyard, and this is meaningful because it communicates that something is still alive up on Bunker Hill.

But transforming the courtyard into a true plaza will mean the Music Center adjusts its comfort level with the messy, odd and awkward occurrences that are intrinsic in a public place. Galas and events as currently structured don’t test the boundaries of the Music Center’s privileged place at the crest of downtown.

It will be hard to resist hiring an architect to redesign the courtyard – that’s the top-down way the Music Center usually solves problems, but an architect might get stuck where so many others have up on Grand Avenue, designing another isolated pavilion or predictable outdoor stage. Unlike the Music Center’s dislocated cousin next door, the Disney Concert Hall, where intimate meeting spaces fold into the building's curves only where the structure allows, the courtyard at the Music Center has an open-air verticality upon a flat gathering space that is flexible and able to accommodate public events, however disconnected they may be from their civic context.

Why not encourage programming that takes advantage of the spare, open space and uncovers new ways in which to perceive and perform on the courtyard? Right now, Los Angeles is flush with organizations and groups who are adept at this kind of exploration and continue to break ground via crossover art forms, audience participation and speculative activation of sites. Machine Project’s fall programming at the Greene and Greene home in Pasadena partnered contemporary artists and designers with portions of the home, where, by working within the existing space of the iconic structure, each artist revealed opportunities for group engagement — like napping sessions on the sleeping porches and participatory sound performances over the home’s antique intercom system. Over in Westwood, Chinatown’s radio station-cum-art-collective KCHUNG took over the Hammer Museum’s front lobby for the duration of last summer’s biennial exhibition "Made in L.A." – their sometimes sloppy, shape-shifting clatter replaced that institution’s normally staid, and utterly private foyer with the inclusionary vibe of a house party.

The Music Center could also learn from last year's dance performance Invisible Cities at Union Station, which proved a better activation of space by dancers and their disconnected music (on headphones worn by the public audience), than Helix's. Invisible Cities' roaming performance made spontaneous, genuine connections between the city's public spaces and viewers. Perhaps a similar combination of viewers, dancers, neighbors, artists, schmoozers, wine sippers, fleeting spectacles, event happenings, even protests can provoke something new over the next 50 years.


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