Westin Bonaventure Hotel Tour with the L.A. Urban Rangers: Great Adventure or Postmodern Dystopia?
Approaching the Bonaventure from below.
"All right! Is everyone ready for [slight, suspenseful pause] the Great Bonaventure Adventure?" asks an unusually cheery man clad in all-khaki.
The resounding answer from the forty plus adventurers is yes, followed by slightly embarrassed laughter. We are in Bunker Hill, on one of Thursday night's Urban Rangers hikes organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art. What follows is neither an adventure or a hike in usual terms, though sandy-haired Ranger Ron is trying to make it just as fun.
We begin traipsing down Grand Avenue, herd-like, in the direction of the Westin Bonaventure Hotel. Suddenly, we receive instructions to stop and "look up at all the tall buildings." Okay.
Then, our ranger directs our attention to another vista -- the first from which we can see the Bonaventure from the distance. It's as if we've spotted the elusive giraffe in the bushes on safari. The hotel seems detached from the rest of the cityscape as it glimmers subtly in the dusk, prompting a lot of oohing and aahing. We traipse onward.
At the hotel, we are instructed to divide into groups of four to five people, and designate someone as timekeeper. We have 15 minutes to ride all four elevators of the hotel, and we must stop on the 10th and 3rd floors as well as the lobby. Ranger Ron: "Is anybody panicking?"
This is where it gets tricky. The Bonaventure Hotel has the uncanny power to completely disorient visitors. It was built in 1976 by architect John Portman, and is Los Angeles' largest hotel. At the height of the '80s postmodern-L.A. theory craze, Marxist critic Fredric Jameson called the hotel "a total space, a complete world, a kind of miniature city." Jameson understood the Bonaventure as a simulacrum of Los Angeles, in glossy, high-end hotel form -- but it was built as a city you weren't supposed to leave.
Entering the labyrinth
It's hard to disagree once you're inside. The reflective windows remind you of the hotel's interior as you're looking out, making the outside landscape an extension of the hotel itself. Even though it's laid out in a four-cornered pod-like pattern, everything looks completely uniform on the inside. Hallways appear never-ending as they twist around the central shaft of the building.
Jameson also makes the astute observation that none of the hotel's three entrances -- one on Figueroa, and two on elevated Bunker Hill gardens -- lead off from a large main plaza, or take you to the reception: instead, they subtly cut you off from the city. I ask Ranger Ron about this on our first elevator ride. His answer? "Oh, maybe they wanted to mix things up a little." Sinister postmodern fantasies aren't part of the Urban Rangers experience, apparently.
Neither are cinematic ones -- the Rangers don't mention that the futuristic building makes a cameo in Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless, as well as in True Lies (Arnold Schwarzenegger rides a horse into one of the elevators), to name only a few of the many movies that have been shot in and around the hotel.
The hikers are ready to go.
The Great Bonaventure Adventure perhaps only scraped the surface of the city's weirdness, but the Urban Rangers are well aware of the complexities that are particular to the City of Angels. Sara Daleiden, one of four founders of the collective, explains, "Any piece of land here is just a layering of public and private space." Plazas look like public parks, but are owned by corporations (in Ranger speak, they're "Corporate Meadows.") They almost make you forget about it, "but then you see the video cameras and security guards."
The Urban Rangers are trying to take back public space and help people understand their own city. Overall, around 700 people showed up for the tours -- most were Angelenos, many were MOCA members, and all were very enthusiastic. Everyone was utterly confused by the recent development projects downtown, and slightly less confused when the tours ended.
Portrait of Los Angeles Urban Rangers, from left: Therese Kelly, Nicholas Bauch, Sara Daleiden, Ron Milam and Jenny Price
So what are the three strangest things about downtown? According to Daleiden:
1. "It's really cool that the Bonaventure Hotel actually functions as a compass -- each peak points in a different direction. So you can orient yourself using the urban landscape."
2. "Sometime during the year, they bring goats out onto Angel's Flight to graze on the vegetation. For a week, there are a bunch of goats downtown, taking care of the lawn."
3. "We have the largest concentration of government complexes outside of Washington D.C. on the other side of the 110. Think about the Department of Water and Power -- without that, Los Angeles wouldn't be able to function. People don't realize that it's a miracle the city has water. There's a lot of political wheeling and dealing that goes on to make that happen."
Oh, and in case you were wondering, the yellow elevators (facing west) have the best view of the downtown skyline. I leave you with Ranger Ron's parting words: "We hope you enjoyed the ascents and the descents."
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