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A Vacancy for L.A. Developers

Early bold plans for the city have given way to bottom-line building. Ira Yellin was an exception; his death leaves us one less visionary.

September 22, 2002|NICOLAI OUROUSSOFF

With the death of developer Ira Yellin this month, Los Angeles architecture lost one of its most important advocates.

As far back as the 1980s, when downtown Los Angeles was considered by most an irrelevant urban wasteland, Yellin was one of the area's most ardent boosters. His first major success was the refurbished Grand Central Market, a cavernous food hall that has become a communal focal point in downtown's old historic core. That was followed by others, including the restoration of the Million Dollar Theater, the Bradbury Building and Union Station--all significant landmarks. Together, these projects were critical in reestablishing downtown as a viable urban center.

But if Yellin's career was an example of the pivotal role a developer can play in mending a city's urban fabric, it also underlined a more troubling reality: the pathetic quality of most development in Los Angeles and elsewhere. In today's development world, unrepentant city lovers like Yellin are the exception. They have been replaced by an army of corporate hacks. The effect this will have on the city's future is immeasurable.

Perhaps more than any other American city, Los Angeles' urban identity was shaped by the moxie of its real estate developers. Its vast tracts of semiarid desert land were seen as ripe for an endless range of suburban fantasies, from the car-inspired aesthetic of A.W. Ross' Miracle Mile to the theme-park canals of Abbot Kinney's Venice and Sid Grauman's theatrical excesses.

Such developers transformed Los Angeles into one of the world's most radical urban visions, the first postindustrial city, precariously balanced between fantasy and reality.

Today, the number of urban visionaries working in Los Angeles can be counted on one hand. In the 1980s, the development team of Robert Maguire and James Thomas sought to raise the architectural standards of conventional development in Los Angeles. Their 1980 proposal for the redevelopment of Grand Avenue--a vibrant mix of architectural styles and public spaces--was an inspired attempt to invigorate the area's moribund street life. But the partners lacked the political muscle to get it built.

More recently, Maguire has been working on a large commercial parcel that is part of the controversial Playa Vista development. The project--at the edge of the Ballona Wetlands--has understandably raised the hackles of environmentalists, but at least Maguire's portion rises to a higher architectural standard than the norm.

Another local developer with a more nostalgic sense for the theatrical is Tom Gilmore, who has been steadily renovating a collection of 1920s-era downtown landmarks, including the Palace Theater and the former St. Vibiana's Cathedral.

The most visible player on Los Angeles' development scene, however, is former real estate magnate Eli Broad. Strictly speaking, Broad is no longer a developer, but he has brokered a number of deals that have left a lasting impact on the city's architecture. In the late 1990s, he coordinated a major fund-raising drive that resurrected construction on Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall. More recently, he worked with Caltrans on the Morphosis-designed District 7 Headquarters Building in downtown. There, Broad strong-armed contractors to reduce their fees and even pitched in money of his own to ensure a higher level of design.

To many architects, working with developers such as Broad is a Faustian bargain. Architects crave the opportunities that such a partnership can provide; they also resent the degree to which many such developers insist on meddling.

But architecture has always been an impure art. As sculptor Richard Serra recently noted, what distinguishes artists from architects is that architects have to worry about the plumbing. They must also contend with an existing social context, rival political forces and the sometimes mundane, bottom-line needs of their clients. The ability to resolve such conflicts into a cohesive vision, in fact, is exactly what makes architecture such a heroic endeavor.

The real issue, therefore, is not the fact that developers exist. It is that the fundamental character of the typical developer has changed. The audacious visionary of the 1920s is a thing of the past. Today's equivalent is usually a corporate bean counter--one whose only real interest is how to create a maximum profit at minimum risk. Such developers are apt to be oblivious to the things that make Los Angeles a unique urban experiment. They rely on dull formulas that add little of value to our urban existence.

Examples of such projects are spreading over the city like a fungus. The carpet of faux historical townhouses at Playa Vista, grotesque urban malls such as Trizec Hahn's enormous Hollywood & Highland complex--these projects have contributed more to the city's homogenization than to spark urban renewal. They are creations of an emerging global monoculture, and they threaten to sap L.A. of its mystique as a truly original urban organism.

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