PRINT October 2015


the Broad museum and urban development in Los Angeles

Aerial view of Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s Broad (center), Los Angeles, 2015. Photo: Jeff Duran/Warren Air.

ALTHOUGH I MOVED to Los Angeles in 1990, I still get lost downtown. What the municipal government somewhat wishfully calls the Central City area is actually an amorphous zone, more or less bounded on the south by the Santa Monica Freeway, on the west by the Harbor Freeway, on the north by the Hollywood Freeway, and on the east by Alameda Street. And it contains multitudes: government buildings and courthouses clustered around city hall; the financial district; Grand Avenue, which is home to many of the city’s museums as well as the Music Center, including Walt Disney Concert Hall; the Broadway jewelry district, full of classic movie palaces; the tent cities and single-room-occupancy hotels on Skid Row; high-rise office towers and hotels along Flower and Figueroa Streets; and the Staples Center and LA Live entertainment complex, all surrounded by seemingly endless blocks of warehouses and wholesale markets stretching out to the southeast.

Few commentators have valued the area. Architectural historian Reyner Banham regarded downtown LA as less worthy of attention than the “ecologies” of beach, freeways, flatlands, and foothills. Activist and scholar Mike Davis reviled the carceral approach to public space and the cruel treatment of the homeless he identified in the neighborhood. Urban geographer Edward W. Soja approaches it as a single element in a decentered urban region. Despite the high population density of LA, popular opinion long identified the city with centrifugal dispersal toward the suburbs, the paradigm of the American approach to space and city making. But today downtown LA is no longer an afterthought—it is increasingly characterized as the key to the city’s future. An area once famously characterized by Kevin Lynch in his classic 1960 book The Image of the City as “shapeless” is now acquiring iconic architecture and the lineaments of actual neighborhoods at an astonishing speed. Over the past few years, a construction boom of unprecedented magnitude has commenced. One recent article—doubtless incomplete and already out-of-date—lists ninety-six buildings in various states of development. Grand Avenue is now the main axis of what has come to be called the downtown renaissance—and the main focus of developer and philanthropist Eli Broad’s civic vision.

Broad has exerted steady influence here for several decades, as the founding chairman and a life trustee of the Museum of Contemporary Art—designed by Arata Isozaki and completed in 1986—and as a major funder of Frank Gehry’s Disney Hall. Now he has presented the newest addition to downtown’s bubbling urban cauldron, the Broad museum—designed by architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro to house his foundation’s collection of modern and contemporary art—as the culmination of the transformation of Grand Avenue into a civic centerpiece to rival the main boulevards of the world’s greatest metropoles, reflecting his “belief that all great cities need a vibrant center.” Its opening provides an ideal opportunity to reflect upon transformations in the neighborhood and on the role of art and culture in this ongoing process.

One might claim that failed centrality is the original sin of LA. The Music Center; the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica; the Hollywood Walk of Fame; the Getty Center; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the campuses of the University of California, Los Angeles and the University of Southern California; Griffith Park; the Grove shopping and recreation complex; and Disney Hall all serve as urban focal points, as did the Bunker Hill neighborhood that flourished downtown in the late nineteenth century and the Miracle Mile shopping district that emerged on Wilshire Boulevard to its west in the late 1920s. All have enhanced LA, providing it with socially, culturally, and ethnically variegated public spaces. Yet every attempt to endow the city with a symbolic center—a Times Square, Brandenburg Gate, or Arc de Triomphe—has fizzled in a metropolis whose sheer size (465 square miles) and predilection for automobility has made it the most polynodal in human history. The fantasy of a street that would function as “the heart of the city”—famously investigated by the Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne at its 1951 meeting—manifests itself as the repetition compulsion of LA urbanism.

Perhaps developers and civic leaders still equate the monocentric city with growth and progress, despite the flourishing polycentric city around them. In any event, the civic vision of Broad—who ironically amassed a fortune building single-family homes—defies judgment in the short term. Although it is still too early to discern the outcome of transformations under way downtown, it is clear that the confluence of factors bringing them about is truly new. The gridlocked highways and roads of the region make the prospect of further expansion into the San Fernando Valley and Inland Empire—along with the social inequity of thousands more moderate-income commuters driving two hours each way to work—unacceptable. Hemmed in by mountain ranges and the ocean, LA is finally running out of developable land. Today many of the remaining tracts are small parcels, and urban infill or the replacement of older buildings by high-rise structures can be seen across the city.

Decades of deindustrialization left downtown LA with a large stock of half-empty loft buildings, some of which possess architectural merit. After the city introduced an adaptive-reuse ordinance in 1999 that set lower parking requirements for the conversion of industrial lofts into apartments or live-work units, Spring Street became one of the city’s liveliest thoroughfares. Together with the expansion of the subway system toward the Westside, these changes suggest that despite the city’s famously ingrained automobile culture, living in LA might be viable without a car.

This rising tide for developers and members of the creative class downtown has been a catastrophe for its most vulnerable residents, who until recently were the majority. Homeless advocate Alice Callaghan has noted that the transformation of a building at Fourth and Main into upscale housing has exacerbated the conversion of single-room-occupancy hotels. Units in these buildings, which numbered ten thousand in the ’60s, are today down to thirty-six hundred. Although some historic downtown buildings (such as the Rosslyn and Simone Hotels) have been converted into SROs, demand far exceeds supply. As light manufacturing, which long provided financial stability for Skid Row residents, vanishes from the neighborhood, the double wallop of spatial and economic displacement pushes ever more people onto the street.

The recent influx of media companies and other so-called creative industries downtown makes clear that art and culture are increasingly viewed by the administration of Mayor Eric Garcetti as economic engines and catalysts for a revitalized public life. But it may be misguided to believe that an economy rooted entirely in fields such as advertising, architecture, art, design, entertainment, television, film, journalism, and music can yield social peace and justice and avert even greater extremes of wealth and poverty. That the immense concentration of private wealth and development acumen in the region has not been effectively channeled toward building more affordable housing and reinventing light manufacturing downtown is a civic and political scandal.

Yet as a promissory note for a robust and inclusive public culture, the architecture of the Broad—the new kid on a block hemmed in by monolithic office towers and the sculptural fixity of Disney Hall—is undeniably successful. Every time I see the building’s honeycombed facade, I am reminded of the texture and pattern of the chain-link wrapper Gehry used to shroud his own 1978 house in Santa Monica. Like that building, the Broad conveys infectious optimism, here channeled through a tectonic impulse that evokes the boldest work of Eero Saarinen, such as his 1962 TWA Flight Center in New York. The building’s twenty-four-thousand-square-foot plaza, planted with hundred-year-old Barouni olive trees, conveys a palpable desire by DS+R to reinvent what it might mean to be a good neighbor in a city where this has legendarily proved difficult. Its lifted corners evoke the ship-prow shape of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts’s Alice Tully Hall in New York and welcome the many pedestrians who will soon arrive from the subway station under construction just one block away.

The push to centrality represented by the Broad is paralleled by the influx of new exhibition spaces into the adjacent Arts District. Art galleries have clustered at various times around La Cienega, La Brea, Melrose, Beverly, Wilshire, Bergamot Station and Colorado in Santa Monica, and Washington in Culver City. Even more remarkable than the move of twenty (and still counting) galleries to the Arts District and its surroundings—including old-timers such as Rosamund Felsen Gallery and CB1 Gallery and big-name newcomers like Maccarone and Hauser Wirth & Schimmel—is that for the first time, downtown is the neighborhood most identified with creative activity and the area of choice for young artists. Although rapidly commercializing, the Arts District was for decades among the most industrial and depopulated areas of the city. When a local supermarket chain opened a branch about two miles farther west in 2007, it noted that its previous store downtown had closed in 1950.

Eclipsing Venice, Culver City, and Hollywood as the premiere art-community-in-the-making, the Arts District originated with the quiet arrival in the late ’60s of artists in search of cheap studios. The adventurous programming of Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions and Al’s Bar became anchors of the neighborhood. The passage in 1981 of an artist-in-residence ordinance allowing artists to live in industrial structures and the arrival in 2000 of the Southern California Institute of Architecture quickened the transformation.

Fewer people were displaced from the Arts District than in the Central City, although successive cycles of boom and bust were common in the ’70s and ’80s. Today media and technology companies are already forcing out artists, and debates rage about how best to preserve the neighborhood’s character. Comparisons to Manhattan’s West Chelsea and Meatpacking District abound, and the completion in 2019 of the Sixth Street Viaduct by architect Michael Maltzan may well provide LA with a public-space project as catalyzing as the High Line. Maltzan, whose designs include the 438-unit residential complex and “mixed-use development” One Santa Fe (2015), as well as several housing projects for the homeless, is a master of the bold architectural gesture. His viaduct fuses infrastructure, traffic engineering, landscape, public space, and park-and-recreation facilities, and spans the Los Angeles River with ten graceful arches poised to become as iconic as the shining skin of Disney Hall.

For all the relative density of the Arts District, its sheer size still necessitates traveling around by car. And even after stations on the Purple Line open, the area is unlikely to attain the foot traffic of New York’s SoHo or West Chelsea (although a bus loop surely would help). Is the Arts District just another instance of urban pioneers gentrifying and transforming a neighborhood, or does the involvement of artists, gallerists, architects, developers, and policy makers introduce new wrinkles into a familiar story? Perhaps, like the films produced by Hollywood, LA urbanization entails both generic structure and variation. Like the transformations to the west on Grand Avenue, the Arts District is a work in progress, and the possibility that it will become a vibrant and robust addition to the city, realized both from the bottom up and the top down, should not be discounted. For the moment, the arrival of so many new art institutions in a single neighborhood is a gift, the most recent—but surely not final—chapter in the saga of centralization in LA.

Edward Dimendberg is a professor at the University of California, Irvine, where he teaches courses on architecture and urbanism in the school of humanities.