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06.02.2011
Plaza 2.0
AC Martin rethinks one of downtown LA's open spaces
The plaza's curving benches, dark and light pavers, water features, and colorful succulents create an urban escape.
Courtesy AC Martin

 When Downtown LA’s office buildings first started sprouting up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the city had a very different attitude about civic plazas. Most of those spaces were empty, windswept concrete yards meant as tributes to corporate power or to the singularity of modernist architecture, not places of dynamic urban activity or real civic engagement. Often they purposely impeded public gathering. This was, after all, a time when riots and protests were a large fear and homelessness was starting to rear its ugly head.

AC Martin’s recent renovation of the modernist plaza outside of the Citigroup Center at 444 South Flower Street is a good example of how that conception has radically changed in a city that now craves public space and ways to attract tenants to aging buildings. The esteemed LA firm designed the plaza the first time around, back in 1982, and also designed the tower itself.

“I suppose a lot of us architects were naive enough to believe that a beautifully crafted minimal design was enough to activate a space,” said AC Martin principal David Martin, of the firm’s first try at the plaza.

Their strategy this time was simple but not easy: to fill the once-barren space with an intricate network of elements that would make it as walkable, sittable, and people-friendly as possible, while still encouraging lingering and peaceful moments in the midst of the chaotic city.

But whereas the firm wanted to promote a sense of tranquility in the plaza, they didn’t want it to turn its back on the city. The space embraces the urban grid thanks to a diagonal pattern of stone pavers, which lead visitors to and from the main entry on Flower and 5th streets, a dynamic corner bordering John Portman’s Bonaventure Hotel, the classic Art Deco LA Public Library, and AC Martin’s own City National Plaza. Visitors enter the newly designed space, pass its sculpted basalt fringes, and slowly descend along a slight grade change. Colored glass boxes that line the entryways provide clear wayfinding.

   
 

To avoid Downtown’s inescapable heat island effect and the bright reflective glare—always an issue for urban plazas— the firm alternated light and dark pavers and filled the space with mesmerizing bright green Palo Verde trees that create an intricate dappled light. They also supplemented the plaza with new palm trees and installed new landscaping—most of it drought tolerant succulents—into handsome dark brown Cor-ten steel planter boxes. The landscape of yuccas and spiny, bulbous, and colorful plants was designed by Melendrez Design Partners. The area is further cooled and calmed by simple Cor-ten steel water features with their great gurgling noises and by a series of what seem to be countless orange umbrellas.

While old school civic plazas left nowhere to sit, seating is everywhere here, with 40 tables and 160 movable chairs (not even chained to the ground!) and gently curving benches that alternate from wood to travertine to match the striped pavers below.

The terraced storefronts in front of the building, which include the ultra-popular Mendocito Farms sandwich shop, were reimagined to include new steel blade signage with a smooth matte finish that not only unifies the facades but also gives the shops a sophistication they sorely missed before.

The popular new park has not become a home for vagrants, as past city planners might have feared. AC Martin has taken a soulless space and made it into an inspiration for the rest of the city. “Over the years I have become a fan of Jane Jacobs, Christopher Alexander, and Holly White,” said Martin. “We’ve learned a lot in the last few years about sun, shade, a place to sit down, permeable walls, and food service. In other words, how to create more humane places.”

Sam Lubell