A camel is a horse designed by committee, the saying goes. Los Angeles’ Union Station is a clear exception to that rule.
With drawings never before seen in public, the story of Union Station’s creation is now on display at the Los Angeles Central Library. The tortuous process they describe could not have involved more committees and architects, or been drawn out through more years, lawsuits, and political battles. Stretching from 1910 to the station’s opening in 1939, it featured three competing railroads and their architects, the City of Los Angeles, and consulting architects John and Donald Parkinson.
And yet a more handsome thoroughbred was never designed. Union Station demonstrates how great a public space in Los Angeles can be. That’s a lot to say in a city that is not often given credit for having public space—but that is only one of the myths that the exhibit explodes. From afar its broad white walls proclaim it as a major civic monument. Even in today’s stripped-down days of Amtrak train travel, the warmth, color, and details of the station’s interior marble, ceramic tile, and wood still have the power, momentarily, to transport even harried travelers into a state of bliss.
It’s astonishing that such a great design should emerge from such a chaotic, contentious planning and design process (including the wholesale removal of the city’s existing Chinatown.) But the story illuminates some of the particular strengths of Los Angeles design in general.
For example, Union Station was not just a typical civic landmark; it was to be a three-dimensional advertisement for the region, raised to the level of a civic landmark. While the city fathers and the Parkinsons first imagined a grand Beaux Arts station in the mold of New York’s Grand Central or Washington, D.C.’s Union Station, the railroads, as successful commercial enterprises, wanted it to promote tourism by showcasing the “otherliness” of Southern California: the climate, the rich Hispanic history—and its futuristic outlook. With the rich ceramic tilework by Herman Sachs evoking the missions, and the exotic plants in the open air courtyards landscaped by Tommy Tomson showing the climate to best advantage, the Parkinsons turned a Chamber of Commerce promotion into great architecture.
It was a brilliant starting place for the design. The exhibit’s drawings show the building’s familiar Franciscan mission silhouette: a large entry gable, red tile roofs, plain flat walls, a bell tower, arcades—and courtyards. The original charcoal pencil drawings show how the architects studied proportion, detail, and the blending of decorative features.
Yet Father Serra never saw a mission like this. Chief designer Edward Warren Hoak took every opportunity to make it modern architecture, not a historic recreation. It is concrete and steel in construction, not adobe. It is far larger than any mission, establishing its presence across from the pueblo’s old plaza. Its plan is a fluid stream of overlapping transportation systems: trains, cars, buses, streetcars, and pedestrians. Coming from the architects of Bullocks Wilshire, it’s not surprising that Union Station evokes the modern age with streamline elements at least as much as it evokes old missions.
Curated by Marlyn Musicant of the Getty Research Institute, the exhibit lets us enjoy a period when Los Angeles was becoming the future, but did not believe it had to ignore its past. The exhibit also takes us into our own future; the final section curated by Greg Goldin displays recent proposals to turn Union Station into a transportation hub for today’s city. History repeats itself: planning started back in 1910 to efficiently consolidate the city’s three stations (for the Southern Pacific, Union Pacific, and Santa Fe) into a single location. Until then, locomotives regularly chugged down major streets to their different stations, clogging streets, endangering pedestrians, and complicating travel connections. Today the challenge is to expand the transportation operations for today’s needs and tie the station into the downtown and the newly developing neighborhoods around it. Wisely, all of the proposals retain the old station.
But do they adopt its magic? No. That’s why this exhibit is necessary. It shows us how Union Station, while untangling the snarled knot of urban transportation in 1939, created a place that holds the popular imagination 75 years later. That’s the standard that the latest Metro revisions should meet.