The first reaction after glimpsing at the entries of the five finalists selected in the Pershing Square redesign competition is to suggest that a sixth choice be offered and that it be labeled "none of the above."
Prompting the initial reaction was the selection, among the five, of an entry by Kevin Boone of New York, proposing that the troubled square be redeveloped into a "Botanical Freeway" of raised and curving trellises in the form of roadbeds and ramps.
In pursuing an obtuse theme about the freeway as a metaphor of the machine age, yet organic like a garden, the plan shreds and shadows the plaza. Ignored is the frail fabric of the surrounding cityscape in need of mending, and the frail image of the plaza itself.
The freeway scheme is a cliche vision more appropriate to the rebuilding of the West Side Highway in New York than reshaping the historic square in downtown Los Angeles, and does not particularly reflect well on the jury that selected it as a finalist.
But dismissing the selection of the Boone proposal as an aberration brought on by the mental fatigue of a jury that had to review 242 submissions, and looking more carefully at the four other finalists, one has to feel that Pershing Square has been served well by the competition.
Each of the four other entries selected as finalists has merit, and together, offers a variety of design ideas that could lend needed new life and hope to Pershing Square. Certainly, almost anything would be an improvement of the square, which, at present, is not much more than a shabby wig for a garage roof.
It should be noted that each of the finalists turns the five-acre space into a park more than a square, rebuilding and landscaping it with all sorts of amenities and plantings. This is in obvious recognition that Pershing Square no longer functions as a traditional square.
The more successful squares in the world, such as St. Mark's in Venice, Marienplatz in Munich, and the Grand' Place in Brussels, are mostly bare spaces with at best an occasional planter. They draw their energy from streets and pedestrian ways flowing into them, not around them, from their historic settings, and from the cafes and shops that line their edges.
But let us face it: Pershing Square has been isolated by the surrounding streets and skimpy sidewalks, by the ramps to the garage beneath it, and by its general unappealing condition, aggravated by a few predators. It is in reality neither a square nor a park, but a raw space that poor planning and neglect has set adrift in the city.
To be successful, Pershing Square is going to have to become Pershing Park, with activities and amenities to attract people into it; it will have to generate its own energy, create its own crackling edge.
That is why the idea of moving the popular Children's Museum there was so appealing. It certainly would have created the excitement that the square needs. Unfortunately, the proposal died. Still, there are other ideas, as the competition revealed.
Most ambitious was the proposal by John Wong of the SWA Group of Sausalito. It called for a complex of gardens, fountains, a performance area, an open-air cafe, glass kiosks and a rambling glass conservatory. A problem with the proposal is that a little too much is going on, and the central conservatory is a bit too central, dominating the park. But the total effect is inviting.
Particularly attractive is Wong's use of water in the park and the treatment of the surrounding streets and sidewalks, reaching out, as it were, with the botanical theme to embrace the city.
Less ambitious and more traditional was the proposal by Frank Welch and Associates of Dallas. Welch uses pergolas to edge the park, and towers to mark the four corners. They are a nice touch.
But the proposed central "memorial" fountain area Welch details would be a bore, even with the added attraction of a nightly laser show. Not particularly exciting either is Welch's planting plan. The effort falls with a bit of a thud between a park and a plaza.
The proposal by Barton Phelps and Hak Sik Son of Santa Monica strains to be a history lesson, as well as a park and a plaza. The idea of basing the park design on the 1849 survey map of Lt. Edward Ord that shaped L. A. is cute, but no doubt would wear thin for most persons other than transient tourists, occasional school groups and visiting architecture writers.
Similar schemes in Washington, D.C., by the firm of Venturi and Rauch, and in New Orleans by Charles Moore and a trailing entourage, have become not much more than architectural one-liners.
But the Phelps and Son proposal does include some sensitive detailing and the ingenuous suggestion of placing a restaurant and other facilities in an attractive, well-conceived two-story structure that would cover the obnoxious garage ramp on 5th Street. For that idea alone, they deserve the $7,500 the finalists received for their first-round submissions.