In October Frank Gehry’s Disney Hall turns 10, and it’s an exciting anniversary. The dazzling building has become an international icon for the city, and for its revitalized downtown. It also remains a wonderful place to attend a concert, as most who have gone can attest. But in many ways it represents what’s still wrong with LA’s approach to building and planning.
While it pushes up against the sidewalk, the hall still stands relatively aloof from its surroundings on Grand Avenue, adding little besides its fantastic form to the streetscape, which ten years later still feels empty and alien. Its raised rear park is a hidden gem, but there’s no such luck in front of the building, where visitors are greeted with hot sun, glare, and a rather unfriendly grand stair. And the hall stands on a street that to this day does not welcome pedestrians. It lacks appropriate green space, shade, and small-scale activity needed to make this a true destination outside of concert time. Disney’s one street-side restaurant, Patina, is only for the very richest, via reservation, and there are few places (outside of the new Grand Park down the street) to entice lingering or street life nearby. Hopefully the addition of the Broad next door will add to the interest, but unless the area around it is addressed it will just become another empty monument.
In celebrating this anniversary we need to embrace the kind of architectural innovation that Disney Hall represents, but demand equal urban innovation around it. A building—no matter how stunning—is not just an object, and that’s something that always needs to be considered. And a street—even one lined with world-class museums—is not an object either.
There are many other buildings in Los Angeles with similar dichotomies between architectural splendor and urban misfortune. Morphosis’ Caltrans building down the street is a marvel, but its courtyard is often empty and the zone around it does not promote civic life. While a new master plan may change this, for now, though Union Station is one of the finest buildings in the country, it remains locked off by roads on all sides, like a moat. The Department of Water and Power, while one of my favorite buildings in the city, certainly doesn’t promote walking along its perimeter. It’s all about drive in and drive out.
In so many other cities modernist monuments stand aloof from their surroundings, standing tall amid windswept plazas and busy thoroughfares. New buildings can’t repeat these mistakes.
In contrast to Disney, Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao is more successful urbanistically because the plazas around it encourage thousands to linger, and the city has developed an urban experience around it through bridges, walkways, and cafes, that ask you to come for more than just the building. Renzo Piano’s buildings at LACMA are not his best work, but the urban spaces around them have been intelligently activated with a restaurant, a bar, a plaza, and large-scale art installations.
In the next decade we need to ensure that world-class buildings continue to go up. But also that world-class urban life goes up around them.