Often the difference between a good city and a great one is its defining public park, which becomes a destination, a refuge, and a transformer of peoples’ conceptions of the place. Can you imagine New York without Central Park? Paris without the Tuileries or the Luxembourg Gardens? Contemporary Chicago without Millennium Park?
But when you think of Los Angeles, central urban spaces do not spring to mind. Downtown, which has been undergoing a metamorphosis in the last few years, is still culprit number one in this shortage. Its most notable park is Pershing Square, a concrete-dominated postmodern monstrosity that draws more vagrants than tourists or residents. Other small parks in the area suffer similar fates.
What was once an off-putting, sterile, unfinished, and overlooked space called the Los Angeles County Civic Center Mall is now inviting, vibrant and, yes, transformative. While it’s not perfect, it’s an example of how for once the city’s public realm has aspired to greatness, not good-enoughness. It’s also a perfect example of how LA’s attitude toward urbanity has transformed in recent years, however the city kicks and screams.
The long park slopes downhill along a 12-acre, 4 block stretch between the Music Center to the east and City Hall to the West, lined on both sides by austere modernist municipal buildings like the Hall of Records and the County Courts building. Along its length are a series of lawns, plazas, and terraces, including the Fountain Plaza, containing the renovated Arthur J. Will Memorial Fountain and the Performance Lawn, designed for shows and events. In coming months it will also include the Community Terrace, which will contain among other things a new subway station, and the Event Lawn, for larger events at the base of City Hall. These components are layered with a huge variety of plants and trees, crisscrossed by long, curving walkways and edged by linear paths.
It seems like a simple formula, but it’s not. In fact, it’s an amazing balancing act.
For one, Rios Clementi Hale has deftly combined grand gestures with intimate moments. The magnificent vista of City Hall, which can be seen from pretty much anywhere in the park, is the true “wow” moment, which the firm enhanced by moving and trimming trees to frame the view. Much more subtle, informal zones were created by planting (or re-planting) 150 trees and adding 24 gardens worth of draught tolerant plants arranged in a multitude of configurations.
Courtesy LA County
The firm also kept the parts of the old park that worked and scrapped the ones that didn’t. They removed the tops of the huge curved parking ramps that once blocked the park’s physical and visual connections to Grand Avenue. Now one can walk straight into the park, enjoying the wonderful, dancing fountain (which has been thoroughly rehabilitated with the help of Fluidity Design) and gazing at City Hall beyond. The Music Center, the DWP Building, City Hall and the flanking municipal buildings are all in clear dialogue. We get the best of Modernism; its inspiring gestures, not its arrogant mistakes.
The bottom quarter of the park, which was once a parking lot, will soon be a grassy lawn. And some of the red granite walls that once disturbed the park’s unity have been removed; although a few remain, raised above the park’s plane like standoffish older relatives. A few cast-in-place concrete benches remain, but these are not obtrusive. They add a nice retro touch, their heaviness offset by sinuous magenta metal street furniture designed in house by Rios Clementi Hale and manufactured by Janus et Cie.
That new furniture, much of which can be picked up and moved around the park, lends a touch of light-hearted fun, which has long been lacking in this somber part of town. It also lends a feminine touch in what has long been a white male bastion. Much of the design was inspired by the city’s off-the-charts diversity. Not only are metallic entry columns, created by design firm Sussman Prejza, etched with welcomes in countless languages, but the plants hail from regions around the world, including Africa, Asia and South America.
The park’s architecture is quite contemporary but not distracting. The lime green coffee shop to the south, with its angled canopy roof and standing seam metallic façade, somehow fits right in. The park’s staff building to the north is covered with white perforated metal. It feels new, but somehow feels like it’s always been there, like a part of the landscape.
This careful balancing act is of course not without its flaws. The park could use more shade, including umbrellas on its plazas, although that situation will improve as plants mature; there’s too much concrete, which hardens the feel and reflects too much harsh light; the parking ramps along Hill Street, whose removal was deemed too expensive, block the park’s connection to that street; and considering its location in one of the deadest parts of Downtown the park still needs many more amenities, which the county promises are coming. Perhaps along with food carts the park will also get some more impressive public art? Did city leaders get a look at Millenium Park’s Cloud Gate by Anish Kapoor?
Courtesy LA County; Sam Lubell
Related deserves credit for maintaining control over construction, which they accomplished by leasing the land during the project’s development (they handed it over to the Grand Avenue Authority, a county and city joint venture, upon completion). And the Music Center, which will now program the park, seems determined to provide events from fairs to symphonies to farmers markets that will keep it busy and in peoples’ minds. We’ll see how that proceeds.
The park is already making an impact. The civic center, and the city, already seem more connected and alive. The Grand, which has so long stayed on hold (with the exception of a new residential tower next to the new Broad Museum) already feels like more of a possibility, which of course Related claims was its plan all along.
Is this Central Park? Of course not. But the very fact that it invites such comparisons without howls of laughter is a triumph. This is a good example of what LA’s staggering amount of design talent can accomplish when given a fair chance to shine in the public realm. LA is still a big, stubborn, maddening giant. But sometimes we look around and see that things are getting better.