Diller Scofidio + Renfro recently revealed plans for a plaza on Grand Avenue in Downtown Los Angeles, adjacent to Eli Broad’s new museum, The Broad. The public space is located on a small sliver of land south of the building, but in many ways it is a revolutionary step for this long-struggling thoroughfare. AN West Editor Sam Lubell sat down with DS+R Senior Associate Kevin Rice to get a more detailed description of the deceptively complex project, to learn about the process for making it a reality, and to discuss the challenges of enhancing this vital part of the city.
Sam Lubell: What was the process for developing this scheme?
Kevin Rice: We have this funny condition of a plaza that’s built above the street. We wanted to make this a place that was different from the other corporate plazas in the neighborhood, which have a tendency to be hardscape and trees and planter boxes and very commercial. We wanted to make a space that was more of a landscaped public space that was open enough for events to take place.
The hope is that MOCA and the Colburn School will be involved so it will be an active public space. The idea was to create as much variety as we could. Locating the restaurant at the back was to be a draw in from Grand Avenue. And we’re planning a lawn space that either people picnic on or sunbathe on or have events on. Then there’s the darker, more protected, shaded areas with trees that are like outdoor rooms for conversations, meeting, for people to hang out in smaller groups. The second, smaller set of trees is for people from the restaurant spilling out into the plaza. The first trees act as a buffer for the traffic on Grand Avenue.
The front trees, lawn, and back trees are all consistent and work together. They have very different characters. The idea is to bring different kinds of people at different times of day or night, and to try to keep it in use as often as possible.
Apparently you decided to build a very different platform to allow for trees and heavy growth?
The structure is upside down. The concrete deck is at the bottom and the beams stick up. And then that gets filled with soil. Then the paving gets built on top of that. It’s a big sandwich. It’s a big box full of dirt. It’s treated as one giant planter. We vary the types and amounts of soil depending on what’s being planted. Normally you build a structural deck and build planters into it or on top of that. Which is how you end up with a lot of hardscape and what landscaping there is in structures on raised planters. We’re trying to make it this seemingly natural space on what’s not natural at all.
From the beginning we wanted to green it as much as we could. It’s an aesthetic decision, but it’s also a use decision. The way people interact under a set of trees is very different from how you interact when the trees are in planters. That’s important to the things we’re doing; the things we did at Lincoln Center and on the High Line. Having as natural a condition in these unnatural structures is actually important. Both in terms of aesthetics and in terms of how people use the space over time.
Did your experience on the High Line and at Lincoln Center help inform this project?
Yeah I think so. No one’s going to think they’re in the forest. It’s not about making this a faux natural space. It’s about having spaces where people’s interaction with the landscape is more what they would be in a natural environment. It’s more of a natural environment than what you’d get with planters. It’s what we did at Lincoln Center and at the High Line. This is not a new train of thought for us. Fundamentally it’s all about use. The last thing we wanted was another dead corporate plaza that gets filled at lunchtime and has tumbleweeds flying around the rest of the time. We wanted something that people would want to come back to throughout the day. It’s not just about the restaurant. Ideally it’s a confluence of cultural programming, food, and recreation, and the landscape supports and encourages all those things.
Some have said it’s impossible to plant real trees and create a real landscape on Grand Avenue.
As part of this project we’re doing a light streetscape upgrade with the city. We’re planting street trees all along Upper Grand, supplementing the existing trees. The median and crosswalk will be planted. New planters in front of the museum’s curb will feature flowering sedum. The idea is that you have a mound of planting, not a planting in a box. It’s a planter, but it’s rendered more like a mound going up out of the sidewalk.
Why did the city build a giant road underneath a cultural street?
It was the 60s. It’s the same kind of thought process that we were dealing with at Lincoln Center; this whole idea of hyper-efficient transportation systems that turn out to be not efficient at all; separating service vehicles from public vehicles around the efficiencies of the parking garage. Still we’ve benefited from Lower Grand because the loading dock and services are in the basement down below. It doesn’t make for good cities but if it’s there you might as well use them.
Why has the Broad Museum been held up?
There were some issues around fabrication and delivery. Some of the things took longer to make than they thought, but there aren’t really problems with it. The final project is going to be great. We’re happy with what’s happened so far. There haven’t been any compromises, we’re just having to push. They’re not catastrophic problems. They’re normal construction problems. The building will be completed sometime next year.
Will this project transform Grand Avenue?
It’s tough, because we’re building on a bridge and it’s hard to make it feel like you’re not working on a bridge. But I think once the plaza and crosswalk and planters are done that’s going to green it up a lot. Also, once the phase one work that Gehry is working on across from Disney Hall is done it’s going to feel less alien, because you’ll lose some of the hardness.
At the end of the day it’s still a bridge; and you’re never going to have 50-foot-tall Majestic Oaks lining the street. You do have trees now. When you walk along MOCA it feels like a street. Having the plaza and Grand Park will add a lot. Grand Park has already helped that end a lot. So all these little things add up. No one project is going to fix it. The kind of aggregation of all these projects together will start to make it feel like the cultural center that it is. It’s shaping up to be the cultural center of Los Angeles.
Los Angeles in general is changing a lot. Three or four blocks away there’s a very vibrant pedestrian culture. But even that didn’t exist ten years ago. If you start to create places that people want to come to I think it will start to happen. I do think it’s possible to make it work. You go to Grand Avenue on a Saturday afternoon and there are a lot of people walking on the street. It’s just that there’s nowhere for them to go now.
Has working with Eli Broad been as hard as people say?
I think the challenge hasn’t been Eli so much. It’s just different. Normally on projects like this you’re dealing with boards of directors and multiple personalities. With this it’s a very singular vision, and Joanne [Heyler, the Director of the Broad Art Foundation] and Eli’s brain trust. It’s a different process than we’re used to. But I wouldn’t say it’s challenging. We all knew his reputation. He’s actually been very fair all the way through. When it comes down to making a decision, the decision always gets made for good design. Which is not the reputation that he has. We’ve been pleasantly surprised by that.
And what about complaints that The Broad’s veil—the concrete lattice facade—is no longer structural, but ornamental?
It’s a subtle distinction. When we originally designed it the competition drawing was steel and GFRC. Then in working through it and talking to the contractors and engineers we started exploring structural precast concrete so it was the structure and aesthetics rolled into one. But the formwork required for precast concrete is much more complicated than the formwork for lightweight GFRC panels. Also, the structural coefficient that goes into the building code—and it was supporting a very small amount of the roof—put the building into a different seismic calculation with the building code.
By going back to the steel and GFRC system and taking that load off the veil it changed the way the calculations were done and it changed the requirements for the facade. It made it easier to build. It’s still very structural. The structure is still self-supported. It’s not tied back. I think early on this idea that it supports the roof—which was a minor part, but made the story—it’s been a very minor change. But that slight change made it much easier to build. Because it doesn’t support the roof we can treat as a curtain wall instead of as a building structure.
How have you addressed the connection to the Plaza from Hope Street?
On either side of the restaurant there will be stairs that go down to Hope Street. Then the Regional Connector is going to reconfigure that intersection. So there will be ample crosswalks across Hope and up these stairs up to Grand Avenue. Then there’s an elevator for ADA access. We tried to make those stairs as gracious as we could. Because of the street right of way we only had so much sidewalk to work with. There’s plenty of room around the stairs. But there are limitations. It’s a ten-foot-wide opening and a nine-foot-wide stair on either side of the building.
What have been the biggest challenges?
Any time you’re doing very public projects they come under a lot of scrutiny, but they’re also projects that are trying to push the envelope and be new and different and unique. It’s always hard and challenging and you run into roadblocks. We stay fairly nimble. We try not to be overly dogmatic, demanding that things have to be exactly this way.