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Top 10 L.A. Architecture Stories of 2012

Grand Park downtown
Grand Park downtown
Jim Simmons

We spend most of the year criticizing Los Angeles' ugly buildings and other unfortunate aspects of the local built environment. Here's our chance to rundown some of the thoughtful, inspiring and downright stellar projects that make us L.A. proud, and that make our burg a better place in general.

Occupy L.A.
Occupy L.A.
Ted Soqui

10. Occupy L.A.'s Chalk protests

The Occupy movement's chalk protests actually began in May but by July, with tensions mounting and tempers high, the clash with police that culminated during downtown's monthly Art Walk on July 12th left three LAPD officers wounded and 17 arrested -- and made some surprised art walkers aware that a game of hopscotch might send them to the clink. The "Free Chalk For Free Speech" gathering in July was organized by demonstrators to protest the apparent arrest of people who had written on the sidewalk with chalk during previous events. The action consisted of handing out sticks of chalk and inviting passersby to make markings on the pavement -- some of these included arguably benign slogans like "Chalk the police" and "I want peace." Love them or hate them, Occupy L.A. is expanding the downtown gentrification debate and speaking out for the largely voiceless homeless population downtown with their continued actions in public (and some not-so-public) spaces of contention. Through their continued protests this year, the conversation that marinated in the tent city on the lawn of city hall in 2011, and its assemblage of issues that came to symbolize the movement -- foreclosure inequity, economic fairness, public rights to public land and the fostering of a community built on shared recognition -- endures, and reminds us what's a stake.

9. Beverly Hills' historic preservation ordinance

This year saw yet another tragic demolition of one of the southland's late-modern, residential gems. This time it was the Lloyd Wright-designed 1959 Moore House in Palos Verdes Estates, and even though the L.A. Conservancy filed a final-hours appeal for the protection of the home -- notable for its silvery, skewed angle roof and locally quarried Palos Verdes stone cladding -- the PVE city council denied it. Knowing full well that preservation efforts are lacking in, ahem, certain areas of the city, it's welcome news that other parts of town like Beverly Hills have adopted historic preservation ordinances that will protect "noteworthy structures" (meaning buildings more than 45 years old and/or buildings built by a "master architect" or "locally important architect"). Prompted by the demolition of the Friar's Club and an averted, close-call plan to bulldoze Richard Neutra's Kronish residence last summer, the Beverly Hills ordinance went into action this January and city representatives claim it will protect over 200 significant structures within the city's boundaries.

Studio Gang's architectural pavilion in Lincoln Park, Chicago
Studio Gang's architectural pavilion in Lincoln Park, Chicago

8. Sylvia Lavin's "Vanishing Point" article in Artforum

Sylvia Lavin's four-page article in the October issue of Artforum might ultimately make a bigger impact on the profession in the coming months than any building project could. In her article, the former chair of the UCLA school of Architecture and Urban Design takes on the pavilion -- those cool-looking, temporary mini-buildings on view at museum plazas and art foundation lawns. These simple structures, designed without any "real" architectural elements to get in the way of their formal acrobatics (like plumbing or multiple stories), she argues, have been played out and exist as merely "party décor." Lavin explains the historical importance of the architectural pavilion as an embodiment of experimentation. But now, in their proliferation, the easy appeal of the pavilion as a quick formal opportunity for hungry designers has bred a professional miasma with dire consequences for the development of meaningful experimentation in the field. Lavin urges architects to do some serious soul searching when it comes to the proposals they put forth for public use, and to reconsider urbanity at large, politics, the end user and afterlife of the object. Thankfully, this L.A. academic has the keen eye to spot an architectural identity crisis when she sees one -- and the cojones to call it out.

 

Parking garage at the UCLA Outpatient Surgery and Medical Building
Parking garage at the UCLA Outpatient Surgery and Medical Building
Tom Bonner

7. UCLA's Outpatient Surgery and Medical Building

No doubt the new UCLA Outpatient Surgery and Medical Building on 16th street in Santa Monica is a beautiful building. Its evenly-balanced concrete volumes envelope the light glass atrium at its heart that brings a warm, transparent glow after sunset and a sunny, serene setting by day. But what's more significant than its elegant composition is the compassion with which Michael W. Folonis Architects considered the succession of movement through the building by patients who visit sometimes up to two times a week for chemotherapy and other cancer-related outpatient treatments. An innovative, 380-space automated underground parking system was developed by the design team with Criterion manufacturing solutions exclusively for the outpatient center with the intention of reducing stress on patients (no searching for a parking place or remembering where it was), and to save on energy and space. The result is a badass parking structure like an enormous automat vending machine for cars, nestled neatly within a comfortable gem of a building.

6. Southern California Institute of Architecture's Design School Ranking

Whether there's any credence whatsoever to Design Intelligence's yearly U.S. Architecture & Design schools ranking list (the subjectivity of the list has been debated at length), it's a victory for L.A. architecture academia that this year's second place spot went to SCI-Arc, the scrappy, non-pedigreed institution on the edge of downtown that seems to be churning out more and more students every year despite the depressing trends for employment after graduation. What's most telling about this year's ranking is that while eastern schools like Harvard and Columbia had a choke hold on the top spots traditionally, the list is finally beginning to boost L.A. schools. (Only in the last decade the list began to include a few select midwestern schools like Cincinnati and Michigan, and Southern schools like Rice and the University of Texas). It's arguable that UCLA has just as fine a program, if not better, and that USC's and Woodbury's programs are on the not-too-distant hunt with better facilities and younger, cooler faculty. But, with L.A. finally on the map now, those that do the ranking are finally giving credit where credit is due.

5. Crenshaw-LAX line launch and a chance for better station design

With the unofficial groundbreaking for the new light rail and subway line in June of this year (when contractors began relocating utilities for the project), Metro will have the chance to redeem itself from the abysmal design of the Exposition line stations (which opened this past spring). Reamed by critics and users alike, the Expo stations' bad designs were the second biggest Metro story, aside from the light rail's highly-publicized safety concerns. The Crenshaw-LAX line will link the existing Expo and Green Lines, and service six stations (Metro planners are also working actively to secure funding for a seventh stop in Leimert Park Village). Even though it won't be operational until 2018, these six-to-seven Crenshaw-LAX stations will be designed in 2013, and this time Metro needs to take a stand for good architecture. They owe it to the larger city and to the residents of the Crenshaw corridor.

 

The proposed 6th Street Viaduct
The proposed 6th Street Viaduct
HNTB MMA ACMartin

4. 6th Street Bridge Viaduct design proposal by HNTB, Michael Maltzan Architects and AC Martin Partners

It'll be an expensive project if it's realized, but the 6th Street Viaduct bridge design promises to engage the city on multiple levels as a piece of infrastructure that is also a public space, as an Eastside/downtown link, and as a formal monument to the transit-centric history of the city. With its wavy, Richter-scale arches swooping across the expanse of downtown's east side (in the renderings), the replacement for the existing, structurally unsound 6th Street bridge features lofty stairways giving way to views of the entire city, and an edenic garden and abundant recreation spots at its underside -- designed by Hargreaves Associates landscape architects.

3. AEG stadium smack-down

Thanks to the review and decisive recommendations set forth by the Mayor's appointed "Vision Team" panel of architects for AEG's stadium development and convention center revamp this past year, we averted an architectural crisis of bad buildings downtown (maybe). Certain chunks of the proposed design - specifically the LACOEX convention hall portion of the project, designed by Populous Architects - were even sent back to Populous for a redesign. The Vision team report's authors, including Hitoshi Abe, chairman of Architecture & Urban Design at UCLA; Scott Johnson of Johnson Fain; Joseph Coriaty, a partner at Frederick Fisher and Partner; and Paul Danna, principal at SOM, warned that LACOEX's proposed pedestrian entrance at Pico boulevard would force visitors to enter through a dark, unsafe space potentially choked with delivery truck fumes. Why isn't this call-to-action type of peer review the norm?

2. Christopher Hawthorne's Boulevards Project

The Los Angeles Times architecture critic's pitch to embark on walking treks across L.A.'s avenues and boulevards -- and then to write about it -- was, apparently, a tough sell to to the paper initially. But the exploratory nature of Hawthorne's ongoing series (he's explored the length of Sunset Blvd. from the beach to east L.A., Atlantic Blvd. from the San Gabriel Valley to Long Beach, Crenshaw Blvd. from mid-city to Palos Verdes, and Harbor Blvd. from La Habra to Costa Mesa to date) has continued to uncover latent connections between local neighborhoods, ties to industries and agencies that foster or hinder such connections, and highlight the consequences of physical, built spaces that simultaneously shape public interaction in city and re-shuffle the cultural landscape. Hawthorne's expert ability to dissect and bring to light issues at the heart of L.A.'s converging circumstances -- on its streets -- brings a greater understanding of how our interconnected urban ecosystem is evolving.

And the number one L.A. architecture story of 2012 after the break...

 

Grand Park downtown
Grand Park downtown
Jim Simmons

1. Grand Park downtown

Back in 2008, landscape and architecture firm Rios Clementi Hale studios unveiled its plan for "L.A.'s Central Park," launching the project's 4-year-long roller coaster ride towards the realization of this 12 acre green space nestled within downtown from Grand avenue to Spring street. Detractors said it couldn't be done during the recession, it was put on hold, then funding was reduced and the design downsized. But now, in 2012, the park is mostly functional and bustling with visitors. Portions of the park are still receiving their finishing touches and tweeks, but despite some criticism for its awkward grade changes (keep in mind this is the site the team had to work with), the panopticon-esque siting between various bureaucratic agencies like the Stanley Mosk Courthouse and the District Attorney's office, and the hurdles of developer-vs-public partnerships (successfully and expertly coordinated by County Supervisor Gloria Molina), Grand Park remains a triumph in public space making for L.A.

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