A Note on Downtown…

“… because that is all downtown Los Angeles deserves,” wrote Reyner Banham in Los Angeles: The Architecture of the Four Ecologies. Written in the halcyon years before the energy crisis or crippling traffic congestion and well after the Watts Riots, this classic survey is essentially a manifesto for the suburban metropolis. Banham’s four ecologies map a decentralized city organized by regional geography and the freeways rather than from a centrifugal expansion originating at the pueblo plaza or City Hall.  From his perspective in 1971, downtown was certainly not the focus of the city and nothing more than a historical footnote.

But with the opening of Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles seems to be rediscovering its center, and the rhetoric of a downtown renaissance has reached a crescendo. Following the Cathedral, StaplesCenter, SCIArc, and even MOCA – the hopes for downtown’s socio-political destiny as the cultural center of Southern California are focused on the Concert Hall.  Los Angeles has waited sixteen years for it, and its architectural iconography can hardly be separated from the anticipation that Gehry will deliver the “Bilbao effect” for downtown. Rendered in stainless steel, the Concert Hall is the ultimate “silver bullet” project – a structure so heavily endowed with civic will and capital that (supposedly) it can regenerate downtown single-handedly.

While discussion during the Concert Hall’s six year construction has centered on its impressive structural gymnastics and the hope that Gehry’s architectural singularity will put the LA’s center on the map again, a steady revitalization of downtown has in fact already been happening, occurring incrementally through successive planning studies, modest projects and hidden legislative changes – some much older than even the Concert Hall. The Hall may deserve applause, but downtown’s 3000 new housing units represent not just a lucrative residential real estate engine, but also an emerging community of invested residents, who are probably the surest catalyst for downtown’s long term transformation. Not withstanding the recent Grand Avenue Project, impelled by the Concert Hall’s success, the iconographic messiah building might be nothing more than a myth.

Yet we are convinced that downtown Los Angeles assuredly deserves more than a just “a note”. With architectural monuments confirming its position in Southern California, and residences in long-forgotten commercial buildings establishing coherent neighborhoods, a downtown generated of new-found realisms is gradually becoming clear. LA’s urban core is emerging as a “collage city”, rejecting the fixation on “no-topia,” with the idea of reusing the existing city as an irreplaceable cultural and economic resource, for collective form, and multiple utopias. The emblematic struggle to define LA’s urban core has been a palimpsest, constructed and reconstructed over time, each phase displacing its predecessor and generating newer “notes” on its modernity. As we currently enter yet another era in downtown’s rebuilding, one that confirms LA’s sheer size and diversity as a challenge to any singular urban polarity, the task at hand is an unbiased, unapologetic version of downtown’s history to scrutinize the realities, possibilities and validities of its many dialogues and dialects. A note is not enough – indeed a scholarly history of downtown LA is most overdue.

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