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Sam Hall Kaplan

This Is a Temporary Headline

August 31, 1986|Sam Hall Kaplan

For the fifth time in this century, the downtown open space that, over the years, has been known as City Park, La Plaza Abaja, Central Square and, since 1918, Pershing Square, is to be renovated.

Hopefully, this time the renovations, based upon a design that won an international design competition, will prompt the revitalization of the forlorn five-acre square and not, as the last few efforts, be just another veiled, vain attempt to sanitize the city landmark.

Indeed, many of the obvious design problems of the present square were created by past "improvements." These include the oversized ramps to the underground garage that isolate the park from the surrounding streetscapes and the haphazard landscaping that forms a cheap wig for the garage.

Of course, the past "improvements" were not directed at creating a welcoming place for people to sit and stroll, a respite from an often hot and noisy downtown, but rather to drive out vagrants and their predators.

It was no surprise that the undesirables stayed in Pershing Square, while driven out were the gentlefolk. Bad design tends to have that effect.

Sometimes I wonder why the city has not sold off all its parks, treating them on occasion, as they do, as troublesome liabilities instead of marvelous resources, neglecting them or "improving " them.

Good design also has its effects--and limitations.

While it can shape a more pleasant environment and generate for people a more pleasant experience, good design will not solve the nagging social ills, such as haunt the historic downtown park. The answer to those problems go far beyond design and to the variety of humane programs the city's Community Redevelopment Agency and others have initiated and are struggling to implement.

Still, an engaging, pleasant, people-oriented environment is very much welcomed, particularly in a downtown that has so few such environments. And that is what is promised in the design of the Pershing Square redesign competition winner, developed with a flair by a team headed by SITE projects of New York.

The design also promises to generate among architects, landscapers and planners quite a bit of interest, weaving as it does into the plan a variety of uses and symbols evoking the Los Angeles experience. These create what designer James Wines of SITE termed a metaphorical "magic carpet," which is taken in the concept one step further by the square being landscaped in the form of an undulating carpet.

Adding to the design's flavor is such detailing as a grid of lights that--when lit at night--will make the park look like the city as seen from the air. The design certainly has verve, a trademark of SITE, which to date is known mostly for its fragmented facades of the Best stores.

But more than a cute exercise in "narrative" design--a design that seeks to tell a story--the plan, in creating various mini-environments appealing to a broad mix of users, presents the promise of a vital, intensely used public space. The hope is that Pershing Square will become more than a fanciful park, or a symbol, or just an oft-photographed static attraction, another Triforium, but rather a continual happening, just like the city itself.

This flexibility and other aspects of the design were summed up well by architect Charles Moore, who served as chairman of the competition's jury. He declared in a statement that "SITE won because uniquely it represented a whole new concept to meet the needs of all the people of Los Angeles who will be using the park. . . . Finally, we liked SITE's plan because it didn't seem to complete the whole business of making a park but rather started a park that we can't really imagine the end of."

What will have to be completed before the reconstruction of the park can begin is its sensitive funding. The redevelopment agency already has committed $6 million to the estimated $12.4 million cost.

The balance is to come from the downtown business community, which stands to benefit appreciably from a revitalized Pershing Square.

The effort by the nonprofit Pershing Square Management Assn. to raise the funds should be aided by the SITE design, which, in its distinctiveness, promises to provide downtown with a needed focal point and attraction. The schedule calls for construction to begin late next year and to be completed by the end of 1988.

Until then, we can only hope that the long and costly effort by the Pershing Square Management Assn. and the good will of those who have been involved, have been worthwhile, and that when the new Pershing Square is opened, it will be a park for all the people. That will be the true test of the design.

But the park will not be an island in the city, and while it is being reconstructed, much more thought is needed on how it may be better connected to the surrounding streetscapes, and how those streetscapes can be improved.

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