Despite the recent discovery of human remains on the site, workers at Los Angeles’ Plaza Cultura Y Artes continue development of the almost-complete Mexican cultural center and its public garden. “It doesn’t change anything. It only enhances our point that this is where Los Angeles started,” said Miguel Angel Corzo, President and CEO of LA Plaza.
The remains were found on the site of an early 19th century cemetery, which is now part of the adjacent LA Placita Church. Records show the cemetery and remains should have been relocated once it had ceased operations in 1844. While LA Plaza spokeswoman Katie Dunham demurred on what exactly was uncovered, Corzo said the remains come from diverse origins, including various Native American tribes, as well as Europeans.
“The discovery at Campo Santo (Spanish for cemetery) was big for all of us, so we’re working carefully to honor it but to still keep on schedule. So far, I think we’re doing it,” said Mark Rios, principal at Rios Clementi Hale Studios, whose firm is responsible for the L-shaped green space that hugs the site’s northern perimeter
The 2.2-acre cultural center’s design will change only slightly, said Corzo. LA Plaza is still on track to meet its target opening date April 9. A walkway that originally ran straight from Main Street to Spring Street will now curve to avoid the site of the finding. The change is now up for board approval and would likely be the simplest solution for a project so close to completion.
Situated near the site of Los Angeles’s founding in El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument, LA Plaza will be a 2.2-acre museum and cultural center charting the history of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans in Los Angeles and Southern California. “It seemed very appropriate to be here because this is where Los Angeles started,” said Corzo.
LA Plaza occupies two of the city’s oldest buildings from the Victorian era—the 1888 Vickrey-Brunswig Building and the 1883 Plaza House—and includes a 30,000 square-foot public garden. Vickrey-Brunswig is a five-story brick structure supported by large wooden columns, while the Plaza House is the two-story building beside it. Vacant after the 1971 San Fernando earthquake, both buildings were rehabilitated by Harley Ellis Devereaux. The firm seismically retrofitted the campus by introducing brace framing and connected the two buildings.
The lobby, designed by Chu+Gooding, was created with several nods to Mexican-American culture. Glazed concrete block mosaic tiles with blue-green and reddish hues contain a pattern inspired by an ancient Zapotec site in Mitla, near Oaxaca. In the restrooms, ceramic tiles pick up the colors and abstractions of the Saguaro cactus.
In the historically significant area of the buildings, the original wood frame and the added structural support meant a cobweb of elements that proved to be a challenge to navigate. “One of the big problems was things aren’t straight. Framing’s not straight, columns aren’t straight, floors aren’t level,” said Chu+Gooding principal Rick Gooding.
His firm addressed the issue by focusing on simplicity. Brace frames were encased in walls, forming natural partitions. Drop ceilings were added in places to reduce noise and help disguise larger mechanical systems. But Chu+Gooding retained most of the high ceilings to maintain the expansive atmosphere inside the center. In fact Chu+Gooding exposed as many of the historical elements as possible, subtly paying homage to the building’s long history in the city. For instance the original Douglas fir beams are still evident, but partially wrapped with MDF to prevent visitors from scratching themselves on the splintery old wood.
The outdoor site will include an edible learning garden, classrooms, an outdoor kitchen, patio and performance area that can host as many as 1,500 people and a vertical learning wall, which features flora from six native ecosystems of Southern California. Exterior fences include media screens composed of MicroTiles: rear projection units that together form a large video wall-style display.
To creative a festive ambiance typical of Mexican celebrations, Rios Clementi Hale also designed bright canopies made of tubular steel supports with polymer coated canopy fabric. One canopy will go up by the stage area, which opens up to the main lawn. Another will be placed at the main lobby entrance.
LA Plaza is one of the five cultural institutions supported by the county of Los Angeles. It has also received grants from the California Heritage Commission, Save America’s Treasures and private foundations. So far, $20 million has been spent during the course of the project, said Corzo. An additional $3.5 million is needed to cap off the center’s capital campaign.