Gleaming plans for LA's Union Station were presented last month at the unveiling of Metro’s six “vision plans.” The schemes are full of public spaces, downtown connections, and landscape integration from the likes of stars like UN Studio, Renzo Piano Building Workshop, Foster and Partners and Ingenhoven Architects.
Kudos to Metro for drawing such talent. The problem: none of the plans will ever be realized. This was just a design exercise that had no weight on the selection of the master plan, a development comprising some 42 acres that Metro owns around the station. That selection will be made on the basis of qualifications, interviews, and implementation strategies.
Metro is now the richest and most powerful public agency in Los Angeles, largely thanks to more than $30 billion from local ballot measure R. And there is no greater example than this that Metro is largely deaf to the needs of the design community and in turn to the community at large. On the surface, this pseudo design competition seems to be a cynical ploy to raise public (or perhaps more accurately, potential developers’) “excitement,” which it most resoundingly did not. Let’s give LA citizens some credit. They can smell a cop out.
It’s nothing new for LA County’s transit agency to attract criticism for its design policies and design efforts. Just look at their headquarters, designed by Orange County firm McLarand Vasquez. This boring beige building beat out none other than Frank Gehry’s inspired design. And what about transit-oriented developments (TODs) like Hollywood and Highland and Wilshire and Vermont? Nobody would call these projects anything but suburban-style non-architecture.
Christopher Hawthorne of the Los Angeles Times derided Metro’s new Expo light rail’s design for being “aggressively banal.” After riding on the line, I found the work much better than I expected. I particularly liked the still-developing landscaping and the well executed, somehow calming stations. (Perhaps, I was just responding to the lack of riders.) But I would not call the design sophisticated. The wavy canopies and blue columns, suggesting the ocean, have a hint of corniness, especially because so much of the line is located in gritty parts of the city, not by the ocean. Urban sophistication is something that’s sorely lacking throughout the city’s transit system.
But it’s not only a lack of elegant design that hampers Metro. It’s that the bureaucracy is organized to promote engineering and the bottom line over design at every turn.
The jurors selecting the master plan designer include no architects or anybody with significant design expertise. It does include Cal Hollis, a planner who came from the world of redevelopment; Jenna Hornstock, also involved with planning and development at CRA; and Roger Moliere, a legal and real estate expert who engineered Metro’s Joint Development program (the creators of its TODs).
While the Union Station Master Plan will no doubt provide helpful guidelines, development at Union Station will at the end of the day be determined by the developer leasing property on the site. How much input will design advocates—or the public—have on the design? They’ve had little say in Metro’s previous developments. Will this be any different?
Signs aren’t promising, in spite of the appeals from one of Metro’s few design advocates, Martha Welborne, executive director of Countywide Planning. And here’s a very bad sign: with its upcoming Purple Line extension along Wilshire Boulevard, Metro is planning to demolish the current Architecture and Design Museum, a promoter of architecture, design and, incidentally, public transit, along with several other galleries and art spaces, for a station that could easily go elsewhere. Next door, the Peterson Automotive Museum will not be touched. Need I say more?