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GRAND AVENUE PROJECT

Gehry Sees His Glass Towers Transforming Downtown L.A.

He Hopes to Foster a Vibrant Urban Scene

April 24, 2006|Cara Mia DiMassa | Times Staff Writer

Architect Frank O. Gehry plans to erect a translucent, glass-curtained tower rising 47 stories above his landmark Walt Disney Concert Hall as the centerpiece of the Grand Avenue project, a bold statement that would alter downtown Los Angeles' skyline and reinforce the civic center area as a hub of cutting-edge architecture.

His schematic designs, which have been eagerly anticipated in world architecture circles for months and are to be unveiled at a news conference today, call for two L-shaped towers, the 47-story structure and a 24-story building, at opposite ends of the block east of the concert hall.

The designs are for Phase 1 of an ambitious plan by developer Related Cos., philanthropist Eli Broad and top city and county officials to transform a part of downtown known as a 9-to-5 office community that turns off the lights at sunset into a vibrant place where people would live, shop and dine.

"I think that there is a desire on the part of the city and county to do something special there," Gehry said. "We are trying to make that happen, so that that connectivity would result in a sense of place that's bigger, that the whole would be greater than the sum of the parts."

The plans to be disclosed today will detail the initial step in a $1.8-billion, three-phase project, which ultimately would include eight condo and office towers, shopping arcades, a 16-acre park and a boutique hotel.

City and county officials see it as a way of tying together many of the cultural monuments that line Grand Avenue, including the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Music Center and the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.

"This area is not a thriving residential, high-end section yet," Gehry said. "It needs a mix of populations. It's got to be a mix of different age groups, economic groups and ethnic groups to really function."

The design attempts to connect the new buildings to the Disney Hall by installing a grid of light strings crisscrossing Grand Avenue, from the towers and pavilions to the hall. Also to that end, Gehry wants to repave Grand Avenue in a pattern of varying shades of stone, to create connections among the street, the buildings and the planned civic park nearby.

The taller of Gehry's buildings would be covered in a dramatic glass design. Preliminary models show either striped panels of alternating shaded glass or a pleated glass surface that looks like fabric folded around the building. The smaller building would have a more austere form, looking like a light-filled glass box.

Three shopping and dining pavilions would rise near the base of the two towers, mimicking the undulating lines and rough forms of Disney Hall but constructed of stone and glass rather than steel. Elaborate plantings of trees and other greenery on above-ground floors would create the effect of a hanging garden.

By placing the tallest buildings at opposite ends of the block and the lower ones between them, Gehry's design would preserve sightlines to Disney Hall, assuaging concerns that the project would essentially block the view from many points downtown.

Gehry's foray into high-rise design -- his first major retail development -- gives the project and the surrounding area an instant architectural cachet. Along with Disney Hall, Jose Raphael Moneo's cathedral and Thom Mayne's headquarters building for the California Department of Transportation, the plan creates a pocket of world-class building design in the city center.

Most large-scale downtown projects built in the last few decades have been primarily functional, said architectural historian Robert Winter. As a result, he said, downtown has suffered, "with all that money wasted on mediocre and sort of dumb architecture."

"There's very little good modern architecture in downtown Los Angeles," said Winter. He had not yet seen Gehry's designs but said he was "terribly delighted" by their possibilities.

The Grand Avenue project is part of a major renaissance in downtown Los Angeles, which after decades of decline has become a destination for professionals, artists and others, who are moving into long-vacant former office buildings-turned-lofts and new condos.

The completion of Disney Hall in 2003 helped spark downtown's revival.

And with 20,000 new residents expected in the next decade, officials hope this project will help provide services, including a market, restaurants and other businesses, that downtown dwellers say they need.

"We are working on designing the buildings in scale with what's around us, so we create an open village or community relationship to the buildings that exist," Gehry said. "And doing it in a California way, so it looks and feels like L.A., with plantings and trellises and stuff like that."

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