It is the City of Angels – cars, gas stations, fast food and Promised Land of film and entertainment industry – that provides the set of an urban renovation saga, with Grand Avenue and Philanthropist Eli Broad as the main characters of an intricate plot.
As part of the ongoing construction of The Broad – the newest contemporary art museum in LA and gift of Edye and Eli Broad – new plans for the 24,000 square-foot outdoor plaza of the complex were unveiled last week. The outdoor space is designed by the NYC-based firm already in charge of the museum design, Diller Scofidio+Renfro, and the plaza is scheduled to open in autumn this year. The project aims at providing an oasis of walkable public space in Downtown LA, combining a creative green layout with the great culinary experience of a new restaurant and a pedestrian connection from Grand to Hope Street for a more accessible space and a greater sense of community.
The project is ambitious for its urban, social and cultural objectives and although it is well articulated presents the usual challenges of such urban interventions, especially the one of becoming another tool for social control in the hand of private and corporate sponsors. The project tests the architects and promoters of the project to face the existing urban environment of this bit of Downtown LA, populated by giant competitors like Frank Gehry’s building for Walt Disney Concert Hall, as well as a multi-level plan (underneath Grand Avenue lies Lower Grand and at the back of the museum Hope Street is at a different level from Grand). Additionally, even before the specific challenges offered by the urban plot, the idea of designing a plaza in Downtown LA is itself in question and certainly what designers and investors are looking for here is to provide a bit of that “city effect” that Los Angeles constantly demands. To make the idea more believable the project will include a pedestrian connection with the planned 2nd and Hope Street Metro Regional Connector station that will bring visitors to the main Metro rail lines of greater Los Angeles.
Either as a spot of social gathering or just as a place to stroll and get a break from driving, the plaza design offers a full set of attractions; the main one seems to be the restaurant developed by leading restaurateur Bill Chait (who has already developed other successful venues in LA such as République, Test Kitchen and Bestia) which will be placed on the western side of the square in a freestanding structure.
Other essential elements of the design of the square will be the use of green components, another important ingredient to add to the urban landscape of the city of angels. To challenge the artificial look of the built environment the New York firm has introduced a bosque of 100 years-old Barouni olive trees (originally from Shasta Cascade region in Northern California), which will mark the connection between Hope Street Grand Avenue and the MOCA on the opposite side of Grand. A lawn in the middle of the plaza will host events of The Broad public programme including film projections and performances. The square will be furnished with tree stump tables and movable seating to allow free arrangement by the users.
Even if successful in meeting the museum necessities and in providing good shelter from the Californian sun and LA traffic, this piece of public walkable space in the middle of Downtown will still rely on the institutions (including neighbours MOCA and Disney Concert Hall) to guarantee the city effect and it is unlikely that it will become a stage for free use and appropriation by the public. The plaza design, like other projects for this new Miracle Mile of the city, will still rely too much on the role of major institutions and the sensational building structures they inhabit, which even by blending more in the future will tend to stay self-referential. Downtown and the LA area in general would probably benefit more from wider urban regeneration projects (even when promoted by private institutions) aimed at reconfiguring infrastructures, public space and public transportation programme at a broader scale and with foreseeing vision.
In which ways can the public help to redefine the use of sites like The Broad plaza and Grand Avenue?