Along one edge of the old Ambassador Hotel site, where the Los Angeles Unified School District has been building a controversial collection of schools, there is a new park dedicated to the life and work of Robert F. Kennedy. Created by artists May Sun and Richard Wyatt and running parallel to Wilshire Boulevard, the park includes a series of quotations from Kennedy, who was shot and killed inside the hotel on a June night in 1968, and a few others.
FOR THE RECORD:
Ambassador Hotel: An article in Sunday's Arts & Books section about the architecture of the schools built on the site of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles said that Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was shot and killed in the hotel. Kennedy was shot there June 5, 1968, but he died the next day at Good Samaritan Hospital. —
Among the lines by Kennedy is one that seems tailor-made to address the controversy that has followed the LAUSD's attempts, adamantly opposed by the Los Angeles Conservancy and other preservationists, to knock down Myron Hunt's 1921 hotel complex and replace it with a new campus costing more than $578 million, a streamlined but conservative piece of work by Pasadena firm Gonzalez Goodale Architects. "The world," it reads, "demands the qualities of youth: not a time of life but a state of mind, a temper of will, a quality of the imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over the love of ease."
For most of its civic life, Los Angeles has been propelled — even defined — by those qualities. They made the city a center for forward-looking, innovative architecture; they also meant that L.A. rarely paused to worry before knocking down aging buildings to make room for new ones.
The way the Ambassador dispute unfolded made one thing clear: That city is gone. Los Angeles is no longer a young city quick to raze its architectural treasures. The growing prominence of institutions like the Conservancy meant that we were at least going to have a broad conversation about the value of the hotel and its architecture.
But that conversation was neither especially sophisticated nor terribly productive. And it led to a solution that was tone-deaf architecturally: After failing to reach any common ground with the Conservancy, the district directed Gonzalez Goodale, in designing a new high school building, to match as closely as possible the size and shape of the old hotel. Other elements of the historic campus, which included contributions from Paul R. Williams and Gordon Kaufmann in addition to Hunt, have been re-created in ersatz fashion, including the old Cocoanut Grove nightclub, which has been reborn as a kitschy auditorium.
L.A. and its cultural guardians, in other words, had the decisiveness neither to save the original hotel complex as a school nor to make a clean break with the past by building an ensemble of entirely new buildings. Instead the LAUSD settled on an architectural path — confused, expensive and a little macabre all at the same time — that suggests that the city has now entered a kind of limbo when it comes to cultural maturity. It is neither young enough to energetically (if blithely) embrace the future nor self-aware enough to fully protect its architectural heritage, particularly when that protection requires significant investment from cash-strapped public agencies.
What other city would knock down a major cultural landmark — a hotel where half a dozen early Academy Award ceremonies were held, to say nothing of the site's architectural and political significance — but then insist that the school replacing it squeeze into the same shape, so that anybody who remembers what used to be there is confronted not with tangible history but a ghostly shell of the original?
That logic is a bit like cutting out a piece of paper the exact size and shape of a dollar bill and trying, with a straight face, to buy a newspaper or a pack of gum with it. The lesson it teaches is that what matters is not historical substance but its flimsy outline.
For all the constraints the firm had to work with, certain elements of the Gonzalez Goodale design, collectively known as the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools, show initiative and strength. Among them is the decision to flatten much of the site's rolling topography and knit the schools into the street grid of the surrounding blocks.
Given that the campus is really a collection of neighborhood schools that most students will reach on foot, that change makes a good deal of sense. It is also an implicit recognition of how this part of Los Angeles has changed since the hotel's heyday. No longer a glamorous and essentially suburban outpost removed from the life of the city, the school site now sits in the middle of a diverse, crowded mid-Wilshire residential district whose families had been sending their children on long bus rides to other LAUSD schools.