The new headquarters for the Los Angeles Police Department, which opened one week to the day before the city’s reform-minded chief left his post on Halloween, is one of those civic structures so deeply committed to satisfying the best of everyone else’s intentions that the building feels like a bland afterthought. Ten stories tall and clad in limestone and glass, the Police Administration Building, as it is known, was designed by AECOM Los Angeles.
The city spent $437 million, and what it got for this enormous sum is less the product of the architects’ imaginations than of the need to cloak an air of openness over a hardened pile of post-911 trepidations. The 75-foot setbacks—a security requirement—alone withdraw the building behind a very real moat, and no amount of softening landscaping can hide that this turf is off-limits.
Which might be okay if PAB, as LAPD officers are now calling it, weren’t sitting at the pivotal intersection of First and Main in downtown Los Angeles, directly across from City Hall. The tower in large part is designed to demonstrate deference to the seat of civilian power, and in doing so, misses an opportunity to make a statement of its own. “We face City Hall, and it is reflected in that glass as you walk in front of the building,” said outgoing chief Bill Bratton at the ribbon-cutting. “That reflects the supremacy of City Hall over the Los Angeles Police Department.”
Alas, such sentiments hijacked whatever architectural identity the new headquarters might have had. You cannot help but feel that the design flows from an institution struggling to live down its reputation for corruption, political intrigue, brutality, and racism, and not from the pens of designers anxious to give the city an entirely different idea about a much-reviled and distrusted department.
Such ambitions are nowhere present. Strictly speaking, the building is an ordinary L-shape, with a knife’s edge extending from its front facade. This wedge gives the illusion of slenderness, and creates an axis that frames a vista and a physical pathway diagonally through the site. The slice affords a view of the city’s early cathedrals, St. Vibiana’s to the southeast and Raphael Moneo’s Our Lady of the Angels to the northwest, while allowing pedestrians to filter through.
Fronting the building is a large plaza; on its flanks are a sculpture garden by Peter Shelton, a pocket park, a restaurant, and a freestanding auditorium meant for public occasions. At the rear of the auditorium is an elevated garden that looks out onto the backside of the skyscrapers that line the city’s modern core. In the other direction, City Hall glistens in all of its cardinal symmetry.
Meanwhile, exterior limestone and precast concrete vary in color and texture, references meant to evoke the natural irregularities in the ashlar base of City Hall. On the plaza side, corridors clad in glass connect staff inside to passersby outside. A street-side newsstand (scheduled to open in early 2010) completes the series of gestures to the surrounding city. “Good urbanism,” AECOM’s Jose Palacios said, “is the ability to lace into the city. In this case, we’ve made a building that has no back.”
True enough—PAB has no back. To the residents of the Higgins building, it offers an inviting greensward. To the denizens of The Los Angeles Times, it gives an unobstructed eyeful of Thom Mayne’s bittersweet Caltrans. To the mayor and members of the City Council, it throws up a slightly fractured, gauze-like mirror image of their putative throne.
And so it goes. The trouble is these gestures, however earnest and intended to signal a break from the LAPD’s past, plough no new ground. What’s missing is a building that expresses—or at the very least, tries to express—the renewed place in civil society for a department many still regard as an army of occupation. If the New Centurions are now more or less figments of the past, and today’s LAPD is the polyglot city in microcosm, where is the building that speaks in these terms? The answer cannot be a structure that might easily be mistaken for any routine, bureaucratic administration building.
From the moment the LAPD headquarters was proposed for the city’s most important intersection, there was the question of appropriateness. Originally, the land was slated to become a public plaza, installed with one of Robert Smithson’s last earthwork designs, “Palm Spiral,” a 150-foot-diameter grove of 72 native California fan palms that would have been a living meditation on the iffy place of nature in Los Angeles. When that plan was scuttled, Thom Mayne cried, “Of all things, you want a police headquarters as the symbol of your city!”
What the city has acquired is a caution, not a symbol. If Los Angeles were ever the center of innovative public design, those days are over.