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Civic pride shaping Civic Park

Downtown's $56-million project, which has its official groundbreaking Thursday, audaciously aims to be many things to many people — and that leaves some devilish details to sort out.

July 14, 2010|By Christopher Hawthorne, Los Angeles Times Architecture Critic

Downtown's $56-million Civic Park is finally showing signs of life — and not just because construction crews have begun working this week on the sloping site between the Music Center and City Hall, with an official groundbreaking ceremony scheduled for Thursday morning.

Over the last several months, a late-in-the-game effort by the park's designers, Rios Clementi Hale Studios, to give it a crisper look and strengthen its overall conceptual framework has paid real dividends. The design still shows the strain of trying to answer to dozens of interested public officials and constituent groups and their differing visions of what the park might be. Yet it has also begun to assert, for the first time, a coherent aesthetic identity.

There is another reason for growing — if still measured — optimism about the park's future: The president of the Music Center, Stephen Rountree, confirmed Tuesday that the Music Center has been in preliminary talks with officials from Los Angeles County, which owns the 12-acre park site, to take over management of the park and its programming.

Under the Music Center's control, the park could become an extended front yard for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Los Angeles Opera, Center Theatre Group and other organizations. In the most optimistic scenario, the Music Center's involvement could help spur fundraising for more sophisticated performance facilities than the ones now in the works. Imagine a new band shell in the center of the park, designed by a leading contemporary architect, as a spot for Gustavo Dudamel to lead the L.A. Phil in more intimate outdoor concerts than are possible at the Hollywood Bowl.

That ambitious marriage of architecture and programming remains a long way off. For now, the main challenge at the park, which was funded by a $50-million payment from developer Related Companies as part of its now-stalled Grand Avenue mixed-use project, remains the same: how to squeeze an effective design into a tricky, sloping site pockmarked with underground garages and concrete ramps. In that sense the park is a symbol of the hurdles Los Angeles as a whole faces in trying to retrofit its civic spaces for a future in which cars no longer play such a dominant role in urban planning or daily life.

In the design's most meaningful change, Rios and his colleagues have added a series of curving north-south pathways, some as narrow as 18 inches and others as wide as 6 feet, to an existing backbone of straight east-west corridors. The design of the new paths is loosely based on a so-called Goode projection, a kind of mapping best known for providing a way to display the Earth's surface on a two-dimensional surface.

As Rios explains them, the paths, whose curving lines recall those of a Goode map of the globe, emerged from an effort to think broadly about the remarkably diverse population the park is meant to serve. (As he likes to point out, an astonishing 92 languages are spoken by students in the Los Angeles Unified School District.) As a design gesture, the new paths turn those ideas about Los Angeles and its role as a global city into an organizing principle, at least abstractly, for the park and how visitors will move through it. Rios and other designers in the firm also studied maps and diagrams showing plane trips across the globe as well as various car and sea routes.

That concept is matched by the selection of plants, which rejects a doctrinaire or limiting insistence on natives in favor of a wide (but drought-tolerant) range of trees and flowers that aims to match the cosmopolitanism of the city as a whole. A preliminary plan to bring a collection of food trucks to a paved section near Spring Street could broaden the park's food offerings in much the same way

Along with slipping in a small dog run at the northeast corner, in the shadow of the Criminal Courts building, Rios Clementi Hale has also designed a pair of new support buildings at each end of the site — the park's first pieces of architecture. These are basic, attractive modern buildings beneath oversized sloping roofs. The one at the western side, near Grand Avenue, will hold a Starbucks; the other, on the edge of a large event lawn at the foot of City Hall, will serve as an ancillary building during concerts and also will be available for rental for birthday parties and other celebrations.

The firm has also designed a series of chairs, tables and other street furniture. Executed in a curving, streamlined style and colored a bright magenta, the furniture adds precisely the jolt of contemporary style that park has been missing.

And in a significant victory for good design, the firm convinced county officials to allow it to keep many of the chairs unattached — rather than bolted down for security reasons — so that visitors can move them around from the sun to the shade, or vice versa, and in the process begin to feel that the park is in some sense theirs to shape.

Significant questions still hover over the park and its future. One is whether an additional $27 million in state funds — already approved but caught up in Sacramento's budget crisis — will ever come through.

Another is whether Eli Broad, in negotiating the right to build a museum for his own collection on a city-owned piece of land at Grand Avenue and 2nd Street, will offer to lend sculpture or other outdoor-ready artwork from that collection to the park — or if he will underwrite an effort, perhaps in conjunction with the Museum of Contemporary Art, to curate a series of rotating outdoor exhibitions.

Broad said a few weeks ago that he was looking into such a program. But he's been publicly silent on the topic since then.

christopher.hawthorne@latimes.com

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