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CRITIQUE : CREATING COMMON GROUND : New Design of Pershing Square Seeks to Create an Urban Oasis

August 11, 1991|LEON WHITESON | Whiteson is a Los Angeles free-lancer who writes on architectural topics

Pedestrian traffic into Pershing Square will be considerably increased when the new underground Metro Rail station, under construction on Hill Street across from the square, is completed in 1993. The new Hill Street Station, which officials estimate will become the busiest access point in the Metro Rail system, could pour thousands of office workers and visitors into the park in the course of an average day.

Dense groves of trees will screen the park from the surrounding streets. Within the park the trees create shady view corridors where visitors may stroll or sit.

A small, bright yellow cafeteria pavilion beside the Olive Street parking garage lobby is the only retail presence currently planned for the park, apart from informal kiosks selling food, drinks and souvenirs at each corner entry. Revenues from these retail outlets will, it is hoped, help offset the cost of operating and maintaining the park.

The plan's estimated $14-million construction cost would be covered by the CRA's still-committed $6 million subsidy, plus $8 million raised from the surrounding property owners.

It is clear that the park's planners and designers have thought deeply about the need to develop a physical environment they hope will encourage the social revitalization of Pershing Square.

The new plan's architecture and landscaping rely on the strength of a few simple gestures to create this encouraging ambience. The bold shaft of the purple campanile, the shady, ordered groves, the beds of flowering perennials and the intimate scale of the park's two sections all conjure up the sure sense of a humane urban oasis.

"We want the park to be a family place," Rising said. "A place where people will gather to see jugglers and magicians and musicians, maybe on their way to visit downtown's new art museums."

One could carp that making the park safe for families implies the exclusion of the homeless.

And the decision to screen the square from its surroundings behind trees and fences has the advantage of providing security and control, and also offers a refuge from the traffic swirling around its edges. But it has the disadvantage of psychologically isolating the park from the city's urban fabric. Only Legorreta's purple campanile will be visible above the groves that will border the redesigned square.

This vivid tower is typical of the Mexican architect's brand of stripped down, highly colored postmodern "Latinismo." Used here, the style seems to be the Anglo establishment's sophisticated gesture to Latino sensibilities. But its mannerisms may be too artful and abstract to attract the populist Broadway crowds.

As a further gesture to Latino sensibilities, it has been suggested that the redesigned Pershing Square might be renamed "Plaza de Los Angeles."

But these are minor caveats. The basic questions that will haunt the new design are:

Will it dissolve the stubborn social membrane that isolates Latinos from Anglos, Broadway from Bunker Hill? And will it help heal the widening metropolitan rift between haves and have-nots made blatant in the contrast between spruce downtown office workers and their homeless and desperate fellow citizens?

The blunt fact is that the harsh realities of downtown Los Angeles, mirrored in the park's current sad condition, won't be easily tamed by an act of architecture alone, however graceful and considered.

Physical solutions can only go so far toward altering complex social tensions. Something has to change in the basic human structure of our increasingly fragmented metropolis before Pershing Square can once again reflect the city's honest pride.

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