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Look at Downtown, the New Los Angeles

February 16, 1986|James Sanders | James Sanders, an urban designer, directed the Bryant Park Project in New York City and has helped develop guidelines for Pershing Square.

NEW YORK — Los Angeles is breaking the rules. Again. The source of contention? The same as last time: Downtown. Back in the late 1950s and early '60s, the problem was that Los Angeles was supposed to have one, and didn't. Now the problem seems to be that Los Angeles isn't supposed to have one, and does.

People from other places used to dismiss Los Angeles as, "70-odd suburbs in search of a city." But behind that remark lay truth. Los Angeles was pioneering a new sort of city, one breaking a mere 6,000 years of tradition; and urban planners, no less than out-of-town smart alecks, were at a loss to understand it.

The broad web of newly built freeways superimposed on a thin layer of low-density settlement was creating a city where downtown was no longer a center of gravity. Virtually since the Bronze Age, cities had grown concentrically from a set of interchanges of roads and water. American cities added a special twist, with soaring shafts a quarter-mile high to punctuate that intersection, creating the image universally recognized today as "city": a skyscraper skyline.

But in Los Angeles, growth, based on the automobile, was spreading out horizontally, along the boulevards such as Wilshire, in linear developments, each miles in length. An urban generation was coming of age that, in many cases, had never even been downtown. This was new: A wholly decentralized, low-rise layer of development, stretched in long even lines across a great basin. (For seismic reasons, no building was higher than 13 stories).

Urban planners didn't understand it and didn't like it. Cities had centers, where people collected and intermingled for commerce, culture and society. They were places of concentration. Whatever it was , Los Angeles wasn't like that, and the planners condemned it. "Autopia," they called it. Meanwhile, Angelenos blithely went on, completing the freeway system, pushing farther into the northern valleys and southern fields.

Reconciliation came with the late 1960s and early '70s. A new generation of planners and critics took a fresh look at Los Angeles and came away with something much like, "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em." English critic Reyner Banham (whose 1971 book, "Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies," is still a classic) accepted the city's developmental premise and drew attention to its qualities as an important American prototype. The influential husband-and-wife team of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown took their Yale architecture students to Nevada and emerged with a book called, shockingly, "Learning from Las Vegas," a strong case for the legitimacy of highway strip development. Architects and urbanists nationwide came to realize that Los Angeles had been a forerunner of future American development.

As the pendulum swung, a new orthodoxy emerged (urban planners seem to love rigid rules): "Strip" city is the right way, the only way for cities like Los Angeles to grow. Stop worrying about downtown, they said. Los Angeles probably shouldn't even have a downtown.

But take in the view today from Grand Avenue and Fifth Street looking north to Bunker Hill and see otherwise. Los Angeles, about as concerned as it's ever been with planners' orthodoxy, is building itself a massive downtown--a vertical downtown, with soaring towers, plazas, museums, housing and parks. There is even a serious plan for a subway.

There is also delicious irony here--and reason for concern. Making a good downtown is not easy. And though no one can dispute the strength and power of the emerging downtown, its quality, its quality of life, is another matter.

The new growth didn't start yesterday, of course. Skyscrapers have been rising since the repeal of the height limitation in the late 1950s. But in the last few years, something has changed.

Partially, it's a physical difference. For years, the new towers tended to cluster in the "flatlands" along Flower and Figueroa. As tall as they were (and some, like the Arco twins, were very tall), they felt a bit defensive, brave pinpricks set against the sky, tentatively breaking the sweeping horizontal line of freeways and distant mountain ranges. But as the growth moved north and started climbing Bunker Hill, the image changed. The towers added the hill's natural height to their own, and began to seem a confident upward gesture.

From the "lower" streets of Fifth and Sixth, they created a new kind of view. At Fifth and Grand, one must literally crane one's neck to take it in, the thrust gathering force as the eye sweeps up the sharp slope of Grand Avenue and then, like a racing skier shooting off the end of a ramp, takes a final leap into the sky with the sheer knife edge of the Crocker tower, the eye not stopping until it has literally "scraped the sky." This is not just tall building: It is an intense--even poetic--rush of verticality.

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