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Pershing Square's new design is flat and simple – and that's a good thing

Pershing Square's new design is flat and simple – and that's a good thing

French landscape firm Agence Ter has won a design competition to remake Pershing Square in downtown Los Angeles. (Pershing Square Renew)

French landscape firm Agence Ter has won a design competition to remake Pershing Square in downtown Los Angeles. (Pershing Square Renew)

Pershing Square's new design is flat and simple – and that's a good thing

by Wade Graham, May 13, 2016

On Thursday, Los Angeles got some good news. Pershing Square, the park at the heart of a revivifying downtown, has been handed over to Agence Ter, a French landscape architecture firm, for its next big makeover. The plan, which was chosen from among four finalists in the Pershing Square Renew design contest, won with a stratagem of simplicity and a modicum of good sense. It has at least a chance of re-establishing the five-acre square, bounded by Olive, Hill, 5th and 6th streets, as a great urban public space.

The odds weren't in the park's favor.

Long ago, Pershing Square (once known as Central Park and even earlier, Plaza Abaja, or lower plaza) was Los Angeles' premier civic gathering place, a grand city refuge. But in the 1950s it was remade as the lid of an underground parking garage. Then urban renewal widened its surrounding streets into raceways meant to move as many cars as possible away from downtown. Ever since, the park's been an arid and frustrating conundrum, cut off from potential users by walls, ramps and the massive one-way thoroughfares on its borders.

Attempts at remedying the square's ills in the 1980s and '90s proved unsatisfactory, leaving the city with the current arrangement of patchwork grass and pavement, punctuated with inexplicable architectural ornamentation: rows of standing pink stucco tubes, huge metal spheres placed here and there, and a strangely looming purple stucco tower.

In 2015, when Pershing Square Renew, a public-private partnership, announced its redesign competition, its first decision was a puzzling one. The competition wasn't open to all comers but instead cut straight to the stars: Only A-list architects and landscape designers were invited to enter, cutting down on the chances that a truly out-of-the-box solution to the park's problems would materialize.

Submitted “starchitect” resumes were whittled down to 10, and then to four finalists: James Corner Field Operations (designer of New York's High Line and Santa Monica's Tongva Park), working with local architect Frederick Fisher; Thom Mayne, of Morphosis, working with landscape architects SWA; wHY + Civitas, a joint effort of firms in L.A. and Denver, and Agence Ter, with its own cast of local supporting players.

What emerged was predictable: bright, shiny, starry sameness. All four park concepts were composed mostly of standard parts from the kit that defines today's “landscape urbanism.”

Even the winning Agence Ter design is busy, just not quite as busy as the other possibilities. They were all crammed full of what's known in the design business as “program, “ a nearly identical laundry lists of amenities: “flexible” spaces for farmers' markets, theater and music performances, cafes, dog runs, edible gardens and splashy fountains for kids. There were biomorphic canopy structures, plots of thatchy native plants, and themed nooks labeled to accommodate “tai chi,” “moonlight,” “sun” and even “thinking.” The three that were passed over also featured a passel of too-familiar design tics and gimmicks: oblique paths, squiggle shaped planting beds, built up berms and manufactured hills and valleys.

All four park concepts were composed mostly of standard parts from the kit that defines today's 'landscape urbanism.'

Sustainability was de rigeur: Several plans included rainwater harvesting for irrigation, which is a good idea. But water treatment wetlands, included by SWA/Morphosis and wHY + Civitas, are purely didactic exercises in infrastructure that ought to be left to the Department of Sanitation. Taken to an extreme, the green impulse yielded this absurdity: SWA/Morphosis' solar-powered hydroponic farm tower, meant to grow organic salad greens for an onsite restaurant and to provide “green” job training, making the square a “net-positive ecotopia” that would prove Los Angeles was a “global leader in green technology and sustainability.” That's design aimed at pleasing political impulses of the moment, not creating a park for the ages.

Worse, three of the four plans fundamentally failed to redeem the square from the Original Sin committed in 1951, when parking-lot access ramps and walls severed it from the city on all four sides. Each of these designs left one or more of the park's edges cut off from the street by a raised structure in order to accommodate access to the garage. The Corner/Fisher scheme was the biggest failure in this regard, almost entirely blocking access from 5th and 6th streets with two grass-covered slopes, their low points at the center of the park and their high sides looming over the sidewalks on the north and south sides of the park, creating a sort of tennis-stadium effect, where visitors would face inward, looking at each other, waiting for something to happen, instead of interacting with the neighborhood.

Agence Ter's plan succeeds because it is the least like a post post-modern amusement park. It is all on one level, connecting directly to slimmed-down and repaved streets (Olive is reduced from five lanes to three), and accommodating just two perpendicular driveways into the underground garage. Most of the square is left open, either studded with trees or as an unprogrammed Great Lawn. A block-long shade canopy extends along Hill Street, like a 19th-century open market, topped with solar panels, ready to shelter farmers' stands, restaurants, performances, or kiosks that pop up by design or happenstance.

This plan comes closest to realizing the holy grail of good public squares, which is providing people a place to stage their own programs, spontaneously and unpredictably, without micromanagement by designers. The best such spaces, such as the typical Italian piazza, may have nothing in them at all, just four streets edging a wide-open, shared commons, where life may play out according to its own plans.

Now the winning Pershing Square scheme has to navigate the journey from heavily photo-shopped architectural renderings to a real, built, physical space. If in that process the plan becomes even simpler, downtown Los Angeles will regain a dignified, functional and lovable public space at its pedestrian heart.

Wade Graham is a Los Angeles landscape designer and author, mostly recently, of “Dream Cities: Seven Urban Ideas that Shape the World.”


Why We Hate Pershing Square

Why We Hate Pershing Square

A 1951 photo of Pershing Square shows the clearing it underwent to construct an underground parking garage.&nbsp;(Los Angeles Times)

A 1951 photo of Pershing Square shows the clearing it underwent to construct an underground parking garage. (Los Angeles Times)

By Wade Graham, Los Angeles Times, Sunday, September 27, 2015

(LA Times page)

It would seem to be just in the right place for a city park: a five-acre square in the heart of downtown Los Angeles, bounded by Olive, Hill, 5th and 6th streets, with the elegant front of the Biltmore Hotel on one side, the busy office towers of Bunker Hill on another, and the lofts, restaurants, and nightlife of our newly vibrant urban core on the others. It is clean enough, and well-enough patrolled, and it offers a children’s playground, a dog run, and benches and grass to sit on.

And yet it feels all wrong:  the rows of standing pink stucco tubes the size of water heaters, the huge metal spheres placed here and there, and the strangely looming tower are inexplicable. A maze of proliferating walls chop its expanses of concrete into odd shapes, and block access from the surrounding streets.  In spite of ample lighting, past sundown the square feels unsafe. Outside of weekday lunch hours, and weekend special events, it is mostly given to the homeless.

In the midst of downtown’s extraordinary revival, Pershing Square remains a perplexing failure.

It wasn’t always like this: Set aside in 1866 as La Plaza Abaja, “the lower plaza,” it was L.A.’s indispensible civic space for more than 80 years, with grass, palm trees and lush tropical vegetation. It was  a place to meet, stroll, muster troops, and argue a cause, with its speaker’s corner like London’s Hyde Park. And, like New York’s grand urban refuge, it was even called Central Park for many years.

After the turn of the century the square was redone in the formal Beaux-Arts style by John Parkinson, the architect of City Hall a few blocks away. In 1918, it was renamed for John “Black Jack” Pershing, the victorious American general of World War I. His statue still stands, next to a monument to the 7th California infantry regiment that fought in the Spanish-American War of 1898. From the 1920s to the ’60s, the square served as the center of what was known as “the run,” a gay cruising corridor along 5th Street, stocked with nearby drinking establishments.

Social disapproval of the run, along with  the general perception that downtown was “blighted,”  might have been a factor in the decision to prescribe the open-heart surgery of Urban Renewal for much of downtown, including Pershing Square and Bunker Hill.

In 1951, the park was ripped out to make way for a three-level, subterranean parking garage. Access ramps and stairwells replaced the greenery, but for a thin layer of turf atop the concrete.  Some of the palms that were dug up were moved to brand-new Disneyland’s Jungle Cruise —a fittingly ironic fate, as, like Disneyland, the new square was part of the machine of suburbanization remaking Southern California, built around the private automobile.

Widened, one-way streets — like racetracks around the park — connected to the new regional freeway system, speeding white-collar workers from office towers that replaced bulldozed apartment buildings to their homes in suburbia. Once bustling at all hours, downtown became a ghost town after 5  and Pershing Square became the resort of drug dealers and the homeless.

Before the 1984 Olympics, an embarrassed city spent $1 million trying to clean it up, but the mostly cosmetic changes didn’t help much.

Nearly a decade later, in 1993, cash from the developer of Gas Company Tower, which rises kittycorner from the square on 5th Street, paid for a remake by the Mexican modernist architect Ricardo Legorretta, aided by landscape architect Laurie Olin and artist Barbara McCarren. They decided on the symbolism of the region’s old citrus empire: big oversized orange spheres and a little bosque of actual orange trees, a stylized earthquake fault, and the oversized tower, meant to symbolize the San Gabriel mountains from whence water flows to the city. Few visitors to the square have any idea what it means.

Now, another downtown developer, AEG, has put up $700,000 to study the problem of Pershing Square. According to the area’s City Council member, José Huizar, “Everything is on the table.” That’s good, because even without spending a dime on a study, it should be clear that no amount of landscape-architectural creativity can turn the roof of a parking structure into an integrated part of downtown’s urban fabric.

Parks work because they welcome people, not cars. The city’s Original Sin at Pershing Square was sacrificing public space on the altar of the automobile, cutting it off from the pedestrian life of the street grid in favor of parking lot access and confusing and off-putting walls and changes in grade. It is useful to remember that New York’s Central Park succeeds because its designers blocked most streets from the park, and placed the few major crossing streets below grade, out of sight.  Walkers, cyclists, and even equestrians there experience a place scaled to people, mostly undisturbed by car traffic.

Any real attempt to return LA’s “lower plaza” to its former liveliness and relevance must first reverse  the historic mistake of the parking garage. It would inconvenience a some drivers, yes, but it would also begin to redeem Los Angeles from its century-long car-and-asphalt binge.

A solution short of that would require putting the square’s car circulation on a radical diet, slowing streets and slimming ramps. Most important, it would mean removing the maze of walls that block the space from passerby’s eyes as well as their feet, signaling that the park is open and welcoming, its first priority to support the rich pedestrian civic life of downtown—not commuters.

Give Pershing Square back to the people.