Los Angeles has had the kind of battering that might have daunted the spirit of many a large city, but the tumultuous onslaught of disasters to which it has been subjected (including riots, fires, floods, landslides and earthquakes) seems to have released a great urban energy and optimism.
A will to forge and claim a new urban identity for Los Angeles is emerging. As if to prove this point, the transformed Pershing Square, the traditional civic space of Downtown Los Angeles, was opened with enthusiastic celebrations on February 6, only 20 days after the devastating earthquake that measured 8.6 on the Richter scale. Cynics might regard the rehabilitation of Pershing Square as just another round in the struggle for supremacy that powerful business interests have played out between Downtown, Westside and the burgeoning sub-centres since the 1940s -- the time when Wilshire Boulevard's Miracle Mile became Downtown's first serious competition. But the history of Pershing Square, the aims of the City's Downtown Strategic Plan and the design of the square itself testify to aspirations of more depth and integrity than those revealed in the corporate slickness of other recent Downtown developments.
California Plaza on neighbouring Bunker Hill is a well detailed and constructed series of landscaped spaces, amphitheatres, performance plazas and performing fountains, which intertwine cleverly around four sleek new high-rise buildings and lsozaki's Museum of Contemporary Art in a huge two-block development. Though it creates a superb array of spaces, it nevertheless manages to say 'keep out' to all but middle-class professionals and business people.
In contrast to the 'could be anywhere' international glossiness of California Plaza, Pershing Square has brought back to Downtown some of the pure Los Angeles spirit and imagination for which the city is renowned. It has a vitality and exuberance that should appeal to all manner of people and an openness that will invite them in.
Pershing Square lies between Fifth and Sixth Streets and Olive and Hill Streets, on the eastern edge of the Financial District, in what has been described as a bleak no man's land between Corporate Downtown LA and the Latino District.
Unlike the original Pershing Square, the new one is boldly urban and architectural. It is close in inspiration to the European model, particularly the complex new hard-surfaced urban spaces that Barcelona has used as a catalyst for regeneration. In the way that the Barcelona spaces were designed to draw fragmented parts of neighbourhoods together, Pershing Square has a significant role to play in the healing of Los Angeles -- bringing together the Latino and the Anglo, the rich and the poor, and breaking through the physical and psychological barriers that separate them.
This might seem an impossible expectation for a mere five acres of urban space, but if all the initiatives of the recently published Downtown Strategic Plan are carried out, Pershing Square will not have to achieve this gargantuan task completely alone. The 20-year plan proposes to recreate Downtown as the heart of the county and it cites public open space as the main determinant of the quality of public life. Pershing Square is one of the four principal civic spaces that will 'serve as a focus to their surrounding areas' and will be 'linked together by landscaped and pedestrian-friendly avenidas'. A 'catalytic' project will construct the first phase of the 25-mile civic space framework in which Olive and Hill Streets become landscaped avenidas connecting the Civic Mall with Pershing Square.
The plan contains strategies to create a more integrated and cohesive community by bringing neighbourhood life to Bunker Hill, regenerating the old Broadway Theatre District (without losing the lively Latino population) and physically connecting the higher land of corporate Bunker Hill and the lower multi-ethnic areas with new buildings, pedestrian routes and places and the reinstatement of the old Angels' Flight Funicular.
The recently opened Metro, which radiates from Downtown to outlying suburban areas, the plans for its expansion and the integrated Downtown Transportation Plan all affirm the intent to recreate Downtown as the centre of Los Angeles. If all the proposed actions of the Strategic Plan are carried out, Los Angeles may begin to lose its world-wide reputation as a 'city of suburbs in search of a centre'.
Pershing Square started life as a cow pasture in the 1860s, evolved into a picketfenced garden in the 1880s and became a typical showpiece of Beaux Arts park design in the early 1900s. Between the beginning of the century and 1940, before the automobile became the dominant mode of transport and mobility, LA's fundamental credo, Pershing Square was the symbolic centre of the Downtown region, and Downtown was the heart of LA.
In the 1950s the square was raised to accommodate the construction of an underground car park. Ramps replaced the original pavements on all four sides -- cutting Pershing Square off from its surroundings. The growth of the Civic Centre in the mid-1960s and the subsequent rise of Bunker Hill as the corporate centre meant that both public and private investment were diverted from the Pershing Square vicinity from that time. It became so run-down, seedy and dangerous that, in an 1980s refurbishment, the Biltmore Hotel turned its back to the square, moving its main entrance from Olive Street to the other side of the block.
In 1984, the city authorities gave Pershing Square a million-dollar face-lift for the Olympic Games. The effects were short-lived, but this period marks the beginning of a new urban consciousness that led to the production of the 1993 Strategic Plan.
In 1987, an international competition held for the redesign of the square attracted 242 entries. The winning scheme by SITE Projects -- a microcosm of the city in aerial view -- was abandoned when backers deemed it too isolated from the street and surrounding buildings, and too expensive to construct and maintain.
The Square was finally rebuilt through the initiative of the developers Marguire Thomas Partners (MTP). The Pershing Square Property Owners' Association agreed with MTP's proposal to tax themselves to raise $8.5 million dollars, which was added to the $6 million pledged by the Community Regeneration Agency. MTP proposed the Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta and Philadelphia landscape architect Laurie Olin to design the scheme, and started the process with a grant of $1.5 million. The newly constructed Square is the result of a collaborative effort by the developer, the property owners, the City, the CRA and the architects.
As you approach the Square from the west, walking down from the sleek office towers of Bunker Hill and California Plaza, through the chic landscape of marble steps, reflective pools and stainless steel sculptures set in restrained plantings of greys, whites and greens, you see in the distance flashes of singing subtropical colour -- yellow ochre, purple, fuchsia pink, terracotta -- in a grove of palm trees. This is Pershing Square.
From the east, as you leave the noise and bustle of the run-down multi-racial market area and Broadway's theatre land (now bargain basement shopping land) you are drawn to the square by the vibrant colours and stark geometric forms of the architectural elements. From streets overshadowed by tall buildings you come into five acres of public space created specially for meeting, celebrating, contemplating or watching a performance.
From whichever side you approach, Pershing Square is a shock of colour, an eye-catching dynamic mixture of forms, an exhilarating contrast to the glossiness of Bunker Hill and the shabbiness of Broadway.
The clients, many of them adjoining owners, wanted a space that was open, accessible and green. Given that the previous square covered five acres of car parking in a thin layer of traditional park landscape (worn grass, dusty trees and tired shrubs) and was a place where only the dispossessed and homeless would dare venture, it is hardly surprising that Laurie Olin decided to 'open the park up so that you can see in and not feel claustrophobic, but also feel that you are in great bowl surrounded by buildings, yet out of sight of the traffic'.
The new Pershing Square has an uncompromisingly Modern design, totally urban in concept and detail. Its architecture has a scale that responds to the high-rise buildings that surround it. Its surfaces are mostly hard -- patterned and red-tinted concrete and crushed granite. Ramps and stairs weave through the changes of levels linking the different areas and creating a multiplicity of spatial experiences. Planting is used both to accentuate the shape of the spaces and as free-standing blocks of colour and form.
The 10ft drop over the site is accommodated by dividing the place into three distinct areas with three main features -- a large calm pool to the south, a central space with purple campanile (the Latno symbol of the centre of the city) and a northern grassy amphitheatre. But the whole is a subtle, complex arrangement of parts, spaces and elements, a masterly exercise in creating a variety of discrete and defined areas, each with its own character and spatial qualities and each with a precise role to play in forming and articulating the larger composition. Nowhere is there the sense of an overpowering monofunctional space.
The main pivot of the square is the 125ft high purple campanile. It is linked to the south end by a purple pergola that frames views of the organge grove and the yellow cube of the delicatessen in the central space. At the end of the pergola, a Barraganesque aqueduct cascades water into the large black pebblelined circular pool. This slowly drains and refills, giving the illusion of a tidal beach. The focal point of the north end of the square is the gently sloping bluegrass amphitheatre in which are set simple concrete benches that will seat 2000 people.
The smooth surface of the area leading to the pool is ripped by a 20m quartzite 'earthquake fault line' that extends its vibrations into the 'ocean'. The square's art consultant, Barbara McCarren, is responsible for this and the many other concepts that provide a sense of place and history. The orange grove has a star walk, reminiscent of the star-studded pavements of Hollywood Boulevard. On the low wall near the brilliant yellow deli are 'telescopes', not for viewing the stars, but slides of Pershing Square's past. Old postcards of the square are set into benches and the original bronze statues of the square are placed on high pedestals in a palm grove on the eastern boundary. What could have been a reminder of the park's sad history is redeemed by Legorreta's dazzling pink grove of columns.
Throughout the square, walls are used to define spaces and create views. They become picture frames, backdrops for sculpture and places to sit. When the planting matures, the space will be layered and softened. The colours of the orange, camphor and liquid amber trees, the coral and jacaranda flowers will be delicate complements to the strong architectural elements.
'If you do something that has dignity people will respect it. If you give people a happy, inviting space you instil a sense of pride in the users,' says Legorreta.
Pershing Square is certainly an inviting space, but in this notoriously crime-ridden area, security has not been left to depend on respect alone. There is a small police station in the yellow pointed wedge at the high northern corner. The openness of the design makes surveillance from here and the surrounding streets easy and unobtrusive. The area is brilliantly lit at night and is patrolled by six rangers. The delicatessen also provides a watching presence.
Despite these precautions, the Square is the only new space in Los Angeles that can be truly called public. The hope is that it will bring back those mixed crowds of Anglos, Black and Latino pedestrians of different ages and classes -- a feature of Downtown in its prime -- and that it will be a catalyst in turning around the fortress syndrome that is fast becoming a new characteristic of the city.
If Pershing Square succeeds in these aims, the words of Carey McWilliams, 1940s Californian novelist, which are inscribed along the back of the sand-blasted concrete bench at the square's southern end, may once again be true for Los Angeles.
'Then it suddenly occurred to me that in all the world there neither was, nor would there ever be, another place like this city of angels ... Here indeed was the place for me, a ringside seat at the circus.'
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|Title Annotation:||Pershing Square in Los Angeles, California|
|Publication:||The Architectural Review|
|Date:||Jul 1, 1994|
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