How do you create a coherent plan for a disjointed section of downtown Los Angeles while erecting a grandiose monument challenging the supremacy of the Statue of Liberty as a celebration of immigrant America?
Three avant-garde young architects think they have the answer. Bahram Shirdel, William Taylor and Andrew Zago, practicing under the name of AKS Runo, were commissioned by the Mayor's Blue Ribbon West Coast Gateway Committee in 1987 to develop ideas for an area stretching from Little Tokyo to Chinatown.
At the heart of the ambitious project is a proposal to deck over a 5 1/2-acre stretch of the Hollywood Freeway north of City Hall.
"Nick Patsouras, the Gateway's board chairman, asked us to do a master plan for the area, in the usual way these things are done," said Shirdel.
"But we talked him out of it. You can't make architectural and urban design sense out of this remarkable and unprecedented city by falling back upon conventional planning strategies."
"Los Angeles can't be mapped in the mind, as more traditional metropolises can," Taylor said. "L.A. is not so much a place as a continuous event that defies conventional comprehension. The only way to engage this city is by entering into an ingenious and open-hearted dialogue with its energies."
AKS Runo's response to Patsouras' request was to begin by constructing a large-scale model of the area. From Little Tokyo to Chinatown, from Union Station to the Music Center, the architects etched the grid of existing streets and structures into a sheet of aluminum.
On this elementary "design field" they plotted a series of "sequences" and urban "events" they feel will "create a new awareness of Los Angeles as a totally new form of city."
"We set ourselves against the obvious strategies of connecting the jumbled pieces of the district with arcades, paseos and planted paths," Shirdel said. "That is the Santa Barbara approach to town planning, which would seem very phony here.
"We also talked Nick (Patsouras) out of his original idea of putting up a huge and static monument upon a decked-over section of freeway. If the ambition is to create a focal point for Los Angeles, a true destination that can be called the center of the city, you need to study its intrinsic urban forms, not impose an alien idea copied from New York and St. Louis."
Limitations and Frustrations
The three Harvard-educated designers are newcomers to Los Angeles. Last year, they opened a studio in an empty bank building in Hollywood.
Discontented with what they perceive to be the limitations and frustrations of current architectural education and practice, Shirdel, Taylor and Zago declare that "Architecture demands to be more than just a building or a facade of culture, but a pure idea that provokes a form of thought in itself."
This novel approach attracted the attention of Patsouras when he was searching for unusual ideas to help crystallize his dreams of a West Coast Gateway for Los Angeles.
"When I read about these guys, I realized they were talking my language," Patsouras said. "Their attack was radical and imaginative, not bogged down in the boredom of much current city planning and design ideas.
"Their contribution has been to free up the whole concept of the Gateway, and so release a flood of possibilities."
Last month the West Coast Gateway Committee announced a plan to hold an international design competition for a portion of the master plan to be built on the decked-over freeway "that will serve as a western welcoming symbol and testament to the immigrants who have contributed so greatly to the city of Los Angeles and to the nation."
The competition, juried by an international panel of arts professionals, architects and writers, will be open to anyone who cares to enter, whatever their professional background.
The Gateway is scheduled to be ready to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Columbus' discovery of America on Oct. 12, 1992. Total cost of the project, including decking over the freeway, is estimated at $40 million-plus.
"It is hard for Patsouras and the Gateway Committee to free themselves from the monument notion," Taylor said. "But that is not our real interest. We don't think any of the current urban design vocabulary really applies to Los Angeles."
"This city happened in a very particular way," Zago asserted. "What it cries out for is a sequence of connections and social and physical bridges that knit the often disjointed pieces together."
An example of this "knitting together" offered by AKS Runo is a redesign of the wide green lawn that edges the southern facade of City Hall. Presently a blank space that attracts derelicts, the patch could be rethought as a connection between the Civic Mall and Little Tokyo, and the commercial district down Broadway and Spring Street.
Replace 'Blank Hole'