“A note on downtown … because that is all downtown Los Angeles deserves,” wrote Reyner Banham in his 1971 survey Los Angeles: The Architecture of the Four Ecologies. But today, downtown LA assuredly deserves more than a footnote. It is in the midst of a major building boom, including thousands of residential lofts, apartments and condos in both renovated buildings and new mid-rise and high-rise towers, and a recent wave of cultural structures ranging from Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall and Rafael Moneo’s Los Angeles Cathedral. These latter two are the most prominent additions to a civic center surrounding the 1920 City Hall that is the largest complex of government offices outside of Washington DC, and is poised to grow even larger, with plans in the works for a new Federal Courthouse and a new headquarters for the City’s Police Department.
The CalTrans building, completed in 2005 by Pritzker Prize laureate Thom Mayne and his firm Morphosis, is the most recent addition to this architectural wonderland.
Yet unlike the follies aligned along Grand Avenue – the Concert Hall and the Cathedral, or the soon-to-come Arts High School by Coop Himmel(b)au and the earlier Museum of Contemporary Art by Isozaki and Colburn School of Art by HHPA – the CalTrans building is not designed for cultural spectacles but is a work-a-day office for the regional bureaucratic functions of the state’s transportation department. As such, the CalTrans building is most appropriately viewed against the offices of other large regional agencies, like the Department of Water and Power. In this context, Morphosis has created the most stunning architectural expression of bureaucratic power Los Angeles has seen in decades.
Sheathed in perforated metal panels that hide windows representative individual offices and persons, the façade of the CalTrans building suggests a singular technocratic mind. Nick-named the “Death Star” during construction because of its dark grey skin, the rectangular CalTrans building has a greater affinity to the nemesis from that other sci-fi series: the “Borg Cube” of Star Trek. Extending the metaphor, the CalTrans organization bears a remarkable similarity to the Borg’s anonymous mech-collective, with their motto “Resistance is Futile”. Undoubtedly many of the neighborhoods that have stood in the path of CalTrans freeways have felt their resistance was futile.
Pedestrians attempting to penetrate the CalTrans building will likewise engage in an exercise of futility. At the sidewalk, a 10-20 foot high concrete wall with virtually no fenestration or openings defines the CalTrans building’s “bunker” appearance. This includes facades facing the front door of the New Otani Hotel (the most prominent in Little Tokyo), the historic St Vibiana’s Cathedral (now a performing arts center) and the First Street corridor that connects Disney Concert Hall, City Hall, Little Tokyo, and East LA across the river. But in one corner, the CalTrans building opens to the sidewalk with a barren concrete plaza on which faces a hidden entry lobby, where the average pedestrian longs for a grove of shade trees. Photogenic, and popular with auto commercials and music videos, the CalTrans plaza however is hardly an inviting public space.
This plaza faces City Hall and a one-block site that was until recently slated for a Civic Park, suitable for celebrations, protests and other mass gatherings. Instead, another bunker of a building – the future headquarters of the LAPD – will occupy this site. Just up the street are the offices of the Los Angeles Times and the luminescent the Department of Water and Power headquarters. Although the activities of the city’s agencies are now constrained by judicial consent degrees and environmental reports; and the paper no longer serves as the mouthpiece of the city’s conservative development elite; the Times, DWP, LAPD, and CalTrans, in complicity with City Hall, effectively defined the physical organization and visual landscape of greater Los Angeles up to the 1960s. Thus considering the history of Los Angeles – colored by the Rodney King beatings and the mythologies of “Crash” “Chinatown” “Dragnet” and “LA Confidential” – this corner of downtown is arguably the nexus of the city’s historic power structure.
Yet this convergence of power has not resulted in a similar convergence of civic and urban space. Instead, the public realm of the civic center is likely to suffer from the contradictions represented by two differing ideas of civic architecture – the high-security bunkers of CalTrans and LAPD buildings versus the progressive architectural expression of beaux arts / art deco City Hall, with its wide stairs and rotating beacon that once beamed across the city from its crown like a lighthouse announcing the presence of enlightened government.