State of the Union

State of the Union

Spoiler Alert: The schemes you are about to see, while inspiring and informative, will not become reality.

Such is the strange state of affairs at LA’s Union Station, where LA County’s transit agency, Metro, asked the six shortlisted teams to masterplan the 42 acre area it owns around the station to present “vision boards,” containing conceptual renderings—with no specified limitations— for the neighborhood as it might look in the year 2050.

The boards, presented in front of a packed house at the station yesterday, will hold no weight in the team selection. That choice will be made, by the end of June, on the much more nuts-and-bolts basis of qualifications, interviews, data collection, draft alternatives and implementation strategies, aka “scope of work.”

“It’s about fun and inspiration and the future of Los Angeles,” said Martha Welborne, Metro Executive Director, Countywide Planning, of the vision boards. She appears to be fighting an uphill battle to get the bureaucratic and engineering-driven agency to embrace design. “It’s about opening up their imagination before they have to get serious about the limitations,” she noted, of the architect/engineer teams’ proposals. “These are not going to get built.”

All six shortlisted teams embraced the unusual challenge, developing proposals for the Union Station site and well beyond that, while strikingly different, all sought an area that would become a civic destination, better connected to the larger city, and to Southern California’s climate and landscape. Union Station, while beautiful, is currently an island in an urban wasteland, cut off from the cultural riches around it, including downtown Los Angeles and El Pueblo de Los Angeles, the city’s historic center.

While the request for qualifications specified architecture and engineering teams, area landscape firms —including SWA, Mia Lehrer, West 8, and Peter Walker— have taken on large roles as well.

EE&K and UN Studio proposed a plan called “Meet Me At Union Station” that includes a large new layered building behind the station with a mixed-use program and integrated with staggered public spaces both above and below, largely open to the elements. Grimshaw and Gruen’s plan envisions large, glassy buildings along the perimeter of the site, as well as a giant folding planted bridge, which appears to be programmed with either residential or commercial uses, connecting to downtown. In the nearby distance are a series of solar arrays spreading out like flowers.


Foster and IBI’s plan put forth east/west and north/ south axes of mixed-use activity emanating from the station, and a gigantic new park extending all the way to the Los Angeles River. Moore Ruble Yudell/Ten Arquitectos/West 8 called for practically no new buildings around the station. Instead they focused on a series of “shaded groves and lush courtyard gardens,” both in front of and behind the station. NBBJ/Ingenhoven also focused on the courtyard typology, creating what NBBJ principal Jonathan Ward called “not a glass and steel icon but an iconic experience” around the station. The transit center would have large green plazas in front and back, with the train tracks covered with a giant planted infrastructure. 

“Towns are not created by buildings but by the voids between them,” noted Ingenhoven managing director Ben Dieckmann.

Finally Renzo Piano Building Workshop/Parsons Transportation Group put forward a proposal that Piano described as all about “concentrating energy.” Its highlight: giant drip-castle-like buildings inspired by desert landforms, rising behind Union Station like fingers. The team proposed planting the bases of the buildings with a “living skin,” in a similar fashion to Piano’s California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.

“We’re using this project as a re-imagining of what California could have been if it were more driven by its natural qualities,” said Roland Genick of Parsons.

Since the schemes will not be used to determine the winner of the RFP, the results stand as colorful proposals to solve the egregious problems of the station’s neighborhood, and with much of downtown. Almost every team envisioned caps over freeways and planted bridges linking to the rest of the city. Most proposed greenery in and around the Los Angeles River. The majority added density, greenery and mixed-uses and removed major urban blights, including two large jails and other forbidding buildings. One of the few major differences between proposals was in how closely large buildings would be placed to the existing landmark train station. The overall square footage for the transit-oriented site could measure up to 6 million square feet—including offices, residences, retail, entertainment, parks and a potential high speed rail station—a staggering amount of new building near the center of the city.

The teams would not criticize the process for obvious reasons (although other architects have done so, off the record, many wondering why Metro couldn’t move forward with an architectural competition), and many spoke highly of the focus and direction it has given them. “After the initial moment of anxiety it was inspiring,” noted Grimshaw principal Vincent Chang. “It got us asking good questions,” added EE&K associate principal Jonathan James Cohn. “Now the DNA is set. We know the things that we want to accomplish.”

The shortlisted teams, which have already beat out heavyweights like Zaha Hadid, OMA, Morphosis, and SOM, have already completed their interviews. Metro staff is scheduled to recommend a winner by June 28, and the master planning process is set to begin by July and be completed in two years.

Meanwhile, when asked why there had been no design competition, Welborne noted various reasons, including a lack of funding, a huge amount of square footage, a complex program, and question marks like whether High Speed Rail would be happening at all. “We do what the board wants us to do,” she said.  “As usual, LA is different.”