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Review> Street Sweeping
Pamphlet book edited by Frances Anderton documents a reimagination of LA's Grand Avenue and Bunker Hill.
Student rendering of a reimagined MOCA.
Courtesy Frances Anderton

Grand Illusion: A Story of Ambition, and Its Limits, on LA's Bunker Hill
Edited by Frances Anderton
USC Pamphlet Series

Frances Anderton may be a reincarnation of Reyner Banham: an irreverent and curious Brit, who gravitated to LA with a mix of infatuation and horrified fascination. As a fellow countryman, I understand the ambivalence and cherish her monthly interviews for Design and Architecture (DnA), Santa Monica radio station KCRW’s lively syndicated program. There, she brings architecture and design to life in words; in contrast, this slim paperback is primarily visual. It chronicles and comments upon a studio that Anderton and Frank Gehry (along with his colleagues Craig Webb, Edwin Chan, and Aaron Neubert) taught at USC. Gehry challenged his students to propose ways of animating Grand Avenue and integrating Bunker Hill into the fabric of downtown, a task that has defeated a long succession of urban planners. As on DnA, Anderton introduces many voices—of residents, visitors, students, and professionals—weaving a dense tapestry of history, opinions, and visions.

Nike basketball game on Lower Grand.
Jared Shier

Nobody is better qualified to guide this enterprise than Gehry, who got his start as a planner with Victor Gruen and has long had a deep involvement with downtown, culminating in the Walt Disney Concert Hall and the unrealized promise of his mixed-use complex across the street, now on indefinite hold. A Grand Avenue, the Maguire Partners proposal of 1980 that drew on the talents of Gehry and a dozen other architects, would have been far livelier than the sterile towers and corporate plazas of California Plaza, the (now-defunct) Community Redevelopment Agency’s misguided selection. Private greed and bureaucratic fumbling have corrupted every master plan, from the ruthless leveling of Bunker Hill in the 1960s to the present lifeless grid. More attention was paid to the automobile than to the human experience. Grand Avenue has yet to take off, despite its accumulation of landmark arts buildings, which include Disney Hall, the Cortines School of Visual and Performing Arts, the Colburn School, the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), and the upcoming Broad Museum. Fifty years after the opening of the Music Center, there is almost no pedestrian activity, even as blocks to the east have surged to life.

Having recapped this depressing history, Anderton contrasts the vibrant, unstructured Downtown Art Walk that draws crowds on the second Thursday of each month with the unwelcoming facade of Arata Isozaki’s MOCA. She asks if we really need another art museum on Grand Avenue and cites Jane Jacob’s critique of “a decontaminated cultural district of paternalistic institutions disconnected from the urban fabric.” A pity the CRA didn’t ask those questions in 1980. It’s easy to make incremental improvements on Spring and Main, turning abandoned shops into bars and restaurants, and converting the upper floors to residential lofts. That creates a residential neighborhood and an organic growth of activity.

MOCA today (left) and a montage of MOCA reimagined by student Jared Shier (right).
Louise Munson and Courtesy Jared Shier

The schematic efforts of students to remedy the shortcomings of California Plaza and MOCA, while full of energy, are nonetheless unconvincing. Building over MOCA or across upper Grand is implausible, as is an extension that would serve as a bridge over the two and a half blocks to Broadway. The notion of rebuilding MOCA as a vertical stack of galleries “to compete visually with the adjacent corporate towers” is nonsense, as is the idea of adding shop windows “to solve the ‘loneliness’ of Grand Avenue.” And, of course, there is the familiar cliché of turning a major artery into a pedestrian precinct with food trucks, a knee-jerk strategy that has destroyed the distinctive character of once noble streets in major European cities. On the evidence of these proposals, the students seem as disconnected from the real world as the planners they are challenging. It’s a disappointing conclusion to an otherwise informative and provocative urban study. To obtain a copy contact

Michael Webb

Michael Webb is a frequent contributor to AN.