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A neighborly new police headquarters

It's not magical, but the new Los Angeles Police Department building downtown is a surprisingly successful piece of urban design.

October 24, 2009|CHRISTOPHER HAWTHORNE | ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

From the earliest stages of the design process, architects for a new Los Angeles Police Department headquarters downtown have been torn between two very different goals: giving the building a meaningful civic presence and keeping it safe from potential attack.

Architects Paul Danna and Jose Palacios have been determined all along to make a case that the LAPD -- dramatically enlarged and haltingly reformed by its outgoing chief, William J. Bratton -- belongs literally and symbolically in the heart of the civic center. But their designs have also suggested a building defensive and essentially suburban in its attitude toward the city, one stepping back 75 feet from the curb on three sides as a precaution against car and truck bombs and featuring a window pattern along Spring Street meant in part to thwart snipers.

The welcome surprise of the completed headquarters, which will be officially dedicated this morning, is the extent to which it succeeds as urban design -- not by magically resolving those contradictions but by seeing them, at least at the sidewalk level, as an opportunity.

Danna and Palacios, of the firm AECOM, worked with landscape architecture office Melendrez to create pockets of neighborly, pedestrian-friendly space in the building's sloping main plaza, which faces First Street and City Hall, and on a number of its edges. On Second Street they carved out room for a 1-acre park, edged by planters and benches -- some of which do double duty as security barriers -- and a rich variety of trees. To the east, they pulled a restaurant and a 420-seat auditorium -- neither of which is subject to the department's setback guidelines, which are designed primarily to protect LAPD office space -- from the mass of the main headquarters and placed them as free-standing structures along Main Street.

Collectively, these gestures have adroitly turned the LAPD's anxieties about security -- which are also, frankly, anxieties about the contemporary city -- into a force for effective urbanism. Space that might have languished as a no-man's-land of concrete and protective bollards has instead become open and usable.

They also point up an irony of Bratton's recent complaints about the bronze animal sculptures, by artist Peter Shelton, that sit atop limestone pedestals along the building's Spring Street side. Whatever you make of Shelton's eight-member menagerie, it is precisely the designers' treatment of the building at the pedestrian level that has helped salvage it as a piece of civic architecture.

As a presence in the skyline, alas, the headquarters -- 10 stories tall and covering 500,000 square feet -- remains cautious and largely unimaginative, a well-appointed office building wrapped in limestone panels and broad expanses of glass and taking the shape of a massive letter L, with long arms pointing east and north. A sharp-edged roof slices across and covers that L, giving the impression that much of the structure is wedge-shaped and opening up a large plaza that offers carefully framed views from the First Street side toward St. Vibiana's Cathedral and from the Main Street edge toward City Hall.

Danna and Palacios have tried to create a new home for a powerful institution -- one often connected in the public imagination with scandal or intimidating force -- that looks from certain angles like a place to sell life insurance.

If the LAPD's old headquarters, Welton Becket's crisply modern, almost delicate 1955 Parker Center, came to represent the "Dragnet"-era city and a simpler approach to policing, its new one, despite its lesser achievement as a piece of architecture, is freighted with symbolism far more complex. It suggests the multilayered institution Bratton leaves behind -- an LAPD technologically advanced and newly robust if far from entirely redeemed.

Inside, the building is architecturally straightforward. A shallow lobby offers views down to a public-records hall at basement level and, through floor-to-ceiling glass, out to the main plaza. Huge floor plates are stacked above, creating mostly open-plan, cubicle-filled office space that is served at each level by a dramatic corridor facing east and overlooking the city.

In total, the LAPD's recent surge of construction has cost $437 million. That figure includes not only the new headquarters but three other structures: a garage and mechanics facility on Main Street that is decorated with green and gray steel-mesh panels and was designed by John Friedman Alice Kimm Architects; yet another garage, this one underground, planned for Judge John Aiso Street; and a data center on East Temple.

All that room for parking makes you wonder how many LAPD employees even flirt with the idea of taking public transit. It has also managed the unfortunate trick of squeezing St. Vibiana's, so smartly restored two years ago, between giant LAPD bookends: the headquarters to the northwest and the Main Street garage to the south.

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