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The greening of Grand Avenue

November 25, 2006|Scott Timberg | Times Staff Writer

LAURIE OLIN made a name for himself as one of the nation's leading landscape architects by designing projects to suit the history and culture of each location: The eminently civilized Bryant Park, which sits behind the New York Public Library, and the tailored sculpture garden at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., seem to unfold naturally out of the verdant landscapes around them.

But working in Southern California, where Olin, 68, has been a major force in planning downtown's Grand Avenue Project, presented special challenges.

"The question for Los Angeles is, 'What's native?' " says the easygoing, slightly rumpled East Coast architect, surveying a bleak corner of 1st Street and Grand Avenue that is expected to be radically transformed.

"The resident plant community here is mostly coastal sage scrub, which is highly flammable. There's not a single tree you can see right now that's native -- nothing here is native. They're like you and me: They're all immigrants. There's a Mexican fan palm. These are ficus from East Asia. Almost everything you can see from here is from Asia or Latin America."

Instead of plants that evolved here, Olin relies on what he calls the region's "extraordinary horticultural tradition," which goes back at least to the 1890s.

Considered an heir to the gracious and civic-minded Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed New York's Central Park and planned Stanford University, Olin is pacing the area that will become the ambitious Grand Avenue Project, whose budget may increase from its original $1.8 billion. (The plan's developer announced recently that it needs tax breaks from the city to make the project feasible.)

It's hardly Olin's first visit to L.A.: He landscaped Pershing Square, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's sculpture garden and the J. Paul Getty Museum. Even so, he has a bemused relationship with Southern California and its idiosyncratic Mediterranean climate.

"People here are terrified of deciduous plants," he says. "If a tree loses its leaves, people think it's dead. Winter is like old age here. So we've learned that we need to have enough evergreen trees that it's not too gloomy and have tried to get the longest blooming season we can. Even in Los Angeles, after all, there's something called winter."

The project's first phase, in the area surrounded by 1st Street, Grand Avenue, Olive Street and the Colburn School, is conceived as two residential high-rises, numerous restaurants and retail, an upscale grocery store and extensive landscaping. For now, however, the spot is dominated by a charmless parking garage.

Olin, who has worked often with project architect Frank Gehry, is lending more than just his touch with shrubs and bushes. Earlier in the day, poring over a model of the plan, he points out new buildings he likes and old buildings he doesn't. He points to the area that's now a jumble of vacant lots and garage ramps that will become a 16-acre park, designed by Mark Rios and Brenda Levin, connecting the Music Center and City Hall.

"So part of my role has been working on the larger urban vision, the connections, the arrangement of the parts," he says. "Most people don't think of it, but a city is a landscape. You can add buildings to a landscape. I don't think you add landscapes to a building -- that's sort of a decorator's idea."

William Witte, president of Related Cos. of California, the project's developer, calls Olin "a big-picture consigliere" for the plan. "He brings a feel over many years of dealing with urban contexts. There have been very few vertically integrated mixed-use projects on the West Coast, so it's valuable to have someone who understands how all the pieces fit."

Olin was born in rural Wisconsin in 1938 and grew up mostly in Alaska, where, as he wrote in his book "Across the Open Field," "[m]y playgrounds were the woods, streams and hills of the Tanana Valley."

After earning a bachelor's in architecture at the University of Washington, he worked for a few years in that field. But Olin went through a crisis of faith in the early '70s, a time when a lot of his peers were feeling unstuck.

He took a sabbatical to England and wandered the ancient farmland and rolling downs of Oxfordshire and Wiltshire.

"I was not so sure I wanted to stay in architecture," he recalls. "I wasn't exactly trying to find myself but trying to find something meaningful to do with my life. I love architecture. But I moved to being interested in something else as well: the layering of living stuff."

South Britain has been landscaped continuously since the Bronze Age, with the stamp of the Romans and Saxons still visible. "Why the English landscape impressed me so much was because it was a working landscape that was very old, very dense in terms of population, ecologically rich and very layered.... Layers of time were still visible."

The scene inspired him "to produce a dynamic, culturally diverse, economically viable, dense landscape that was both beautiful and ecologically rich."

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