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Beauty and the behemoth

Neighbors have firm opinions about downtown Los Angeles' 'strong' new Caltrans building.

September 27, 2004|Diane Haithman | Times Staff Writer

Thom Mayne, designer of the new Caltrans District 7 headquarters, would enjoy this architectural review from John Kim, the neighbor across the street:

"It's beautiful, I've never seen this kind of building in all my life," says Kim, 73, who has operated tiny John's Burger restaurant at 101 S. Main for 22 years. Dodging customers impatient for their fries, Kim stares up at the massive structure that opens today. "I feel like in an 8.0 earthquake, nothing would happen -- I mean, strong," he says.

But Kim adds that he -- along with more than a few of his customers -- isn't sure he likes the front of the building, although he can't explain exactly why. "It's just funny," he observes, wrinkling his nose.

From Kim and his patrons, Mayne is getting just what he's been hoping for, a strong reaction to a strong building -- a structure that one disparaging Times letter writer dubbed the "Death Star" -- taking its place with the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels and Walt Disney Concert Hall as the latest architectural landmark heralding the renaissance of downtown L.A.

"Some people have told me it scares them, that it's a really tough building, and I'm going, 'Great!' What I wanted was something that was really strong and really tough and had a huge amount of energy, and I don't care whether people like it or not; that's irrelevant," Mayne says excitedly during a recent informal tour of the site. "I think what's important in architecture is that it's not neutral."

It's hard to feel neutral about a 716,200-square-foot edifice covered with an otherworldly scrim of energy-conserving louvered screens, lifting and closing to control light and air. "They're like gills -- you see them when they are operational," Mayne says.

Diana Leszczynski, who lives in a nearby loft, says she loves the Caltrans building's austerity. "Given the Disney Hall, that there is one big modern structure down here, it's nice to have two," she says.

Although Mayne says he doesn't care whether the public likes his creation, he's quick to predict this building with gills will not be a fish out of water here. The mandate of Caltrans, he said, was to create a government building that also would provide public spaces, even with post-Sept. 11 security concerns in mind.

"Our biggest concern was that pedestrian traffic flows around it well," says Christopher Martin, chief executive of A.C. Martin Partners, executive architects on the project. "The worst example is Westin Bonaventure Hotel: Blank walls coming down to the sidewalk. Where are the doors? There's edges of communities that intersect, the Toy District, Little Tokyo, the Broadway District, the Civic Center. We didn't want to take the intersection of all these districts and be a null point where you couldn't gain access."

The first floor will feature a public restaurant and an art gallery behind a plaza with benches and a planned landscape of reeds or grasses. A courtyard was designed to hold as many as 1,000 people for civic events. "It's such a bold and provocative design, people will want to stage events there that we haven't even thought of yet," says L.A. City Councilwoman Jan Perry, whose district includes portions of downtown. Such public spaces may provide some comfort to those who miss the businesses that once inhabited the block, including the Latino Museum of History, Art and Culture and the Kosher Burrito, a community fixture for half a century.

Despite best intentions, Little Tokyo denizens to the east of Caltrans are feeling snubbed by the fact that the building has a definite back, with parking and service entrances as its only distinguishing features. The back wall is the new view for many guest rooms in the New Otani hotel. While hotel officials were unavailable for comment, one unhappy nearby office worker said she'd like to create a special New Otani brochure for tourists: "I'd take a photo showing a square of black wall and say: 'This is the view from the third floor.' Then I'd take another photo of a square of black wall and say: 'This is the view from the fourth floor...."

The Rev. Noriaki Ito of the Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple, president of the Little Tokyo Community Council, calls the building "awfully imposing" and adds that he wishes the Little Tokyo side was "a little more attractive." Still, he believes that the building can only bring more traffic to area businesses, and he thinks the courtyard might be used for large-scale Little Tokyo community events.

David Poffenberger, a USC architecture student who occupies a seventh-floor unit in the Higgins Building at 2nd and Main streets, is less optimistic. "I think the scale is wrong -- I don't have any other criticism of the architecture other than scale," he says. "It just seems like the city is trying to kill any potential that it has for being alive by creating these superblocks that close down at 5 p.m. I can't believe how huge this thing is."

Ken Montgomery, resident of a loft in the nearby Old Bank District, approves of Caltrans' inclusion of public spaces but just plain doesn't like the thing. "It's a funky building," he says. "You know how when you're driving on the highway and you'll see road improvement work and a sign that says something like 'Caltrans: Your tax dollars at work'? Well, I don't think people would be very happy if they thought this is where their tax dollars are going."

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