Comment: Sam Hall Kaplan

Comment: Sam Hall Kaplan

When I googled “Nokia Plaza, Los Angeles,” the first result (of about 254,000) flashing across my screen (in 0.16 seconds) was a grandiloquent conceit of the sports and entertainment assemblage L.A. Live, declaring, “Since the beginning of civilization, great gathering places have been the heart and soul of a community.”

Few would deny this axiom, or accuse L.A. Live’s parent Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG) of modesty. The slightly-less-than-an-acre plaza has been fashioned to serve as a focal point/photo op for the Denver developer’s ambitious $2.5 billion, 27-acre commercial conglomeration of high-end hotels, restaurants, cafes, cinemas, clubs, broadcast studios, and the Grammy Music Museum. There is even a bowling alley—something for every partygoer.

As for the plaza, embraced by video walls and studded with six 75-foot, LED-encrusted towers, it is strategically sited across from two other jewels in AEG’s crown: the Staples Sports arena and the Los Angeles Convention Center. It’s also within walking distance of the emerging South Park residential neighborhood. At a glance, this promises to deliver a healthy demographic mix of tourists, suburban day-trippers, and downtown denizens.


Looking back at the early stages of the project, the selection of the solid, if stolid, design firms of Rios Clementi Hale Studios for the plaza and RTKL for the L.A. Live master plan gave encouragement. Both firms have displayed in past projects a welcome sensitivity to the city’s urbane aspirations. And then there was City Hall, suppressing its recalcitrant bureaucracy and parochial politics to bless and subsidize the effort, lending downtown a presence at last. It only took 14 years of planning and three administrations, a blink of time in the evolution of L.A. from a cow town to a wannabe world city.

Yet for all these assets and good will, when the construction barriers came down and the red carpets were laid for the plaza’s dedication late last year, the heavily hyped effort was generally trashed by a chorus of critics and bloggers as a sterile, over-commercialized stage set. Even the temporary centerpiece, a 50-foot-high Christmas tree draped with 11,000 LED lights, attracted snickers.

Particularly pointed and painful to the project planners was the critique of The LA Times’ Christopher Hawthorne, who described the plaza as a still-born space serving “velvet-rope urbanism,” another isolated “self-contained outdoor mall” destined to become “a hermetic, inward-looking, and car-centric development in the classic Southern California tradition” and discouraging “any of the activities we traditionally associate with the use of collective space in a city.” To top off the put-down, Hawthorne subsequently nominated the project in the paper’s year-end cultural wrap as the “Worst Architecture of 2008.” And this was apparently written before the tree lights were turned on and the converging crowds caroled in a free concert series promoting the plaza.

To be sure, in this age of digitized delivery of news 24/7, there is a tendency to rush to judgment. This is especially difficult when commenting on architecture, whose true test is not the way it looks in plans or renderings, or at openings, but how it serves the people for whom it was designed.

No longer pressured by editors or deadlines, I waited for the dust to settle before ambling in and about Nokia Plaza over several days with family, friends, and by myself. As promoted, I found the plaza indeed a focal point, a place to meet and grab a bite, before or after attending some L.A. Live diversion. (Unable to afford Lakers tickets, I went to the engaging Grammy Museum with one of my musical sons.) The free, staged events were also fun, though fleeting, and the reserved sections did not seem very egalitarian for a public space. The people I observed tended not to linger, nor were they encouraged to do so, not even after the New Year’s had been desultorily rung in. It is obviously not yet L.A.’s Times Square or Rockefeller Center, and there is a question as to whether it will be, or should be.

As several have noted, Nokia Plaza is not a place to sit and read, or even have a cup of coffee. If a stall vendor offered a cup at a reasonable price, I could be tempted to sip al fresco, but I would never consider parading my dog there; too many smells and shuffling feet for a herding Corgi. Conversations are also hard when competing with the incessant video displays and piped music. As for South Park residents, they no doubt are welcome there, too, but I bet most will find other places for their leisure pursuits. At present, the plaza is not much more than an outdoor lobby for commercial attractions and distractions, and frankly not very neighborly, but it nevertheless serves its prime purpose as a gathering place, if not as an attraction for a casual crowd.

Nokia Plaza also fails to evoke anything that particularly expresses Southern California. Even the incessant lighting and the video screens seem more
Las Vegas, and the LED towers look like discarded back-lot sci-fi automatons, a curiosity from a distance but menacing up close. They could be removed, as could the planters and the plantings, though some temporary shading no doubt will be needed during the hot and hazy months. The transition from landscaping to cityscaping can be challenging.

Actually, for my taste, the plaza is too cluttered; certainly for its size. Public spaces should be more open to the ebb and flow
of differing crowds throughout the varying days and nights, the shifting seasons and disparate holidays. They need to stretch and breathe to encourage that certain serendipity that generates a distinct identity.

So let the celebrations, festivals, and concerts happen, close the adjacent streets if and when necessary, have chairs and tables at the ready, as well as food stands and stalls. Turn the sidewalks leading to the plaza into promenades. Invite in the buskers. Nokia Plaza, to succeed as a public space, is going to have to become pliable, which will take some creativity, and time.