AN speaks with the architect behind L.A.'s beleaguered Parker Center
The Parker Center complex in the Downtown Los Angeles Civic Center is quickly moving toward demolition in recent months as the City of Los Angeles begins to make headway on a new master plan for the district. The complex originally opened in 1955 and was designed by legendary L.A. architecture firm Welton Becket & Associates as a headquarters for the Los Angeles Police Department. The building has been featured prominently in films depicting the city and is largely intact, architecturally speaking. The complex, however, was controversial from its inception. The police headquarters takes up a full city block in an area that was once part of the commercial heart of the Little Tokyo neighborhood, a factor that weighed heavily on and ultimately derailed recent efforts to grant historic status to Parker Center. On top of that, the complex carries a great deal of psychological baggage due to its use as a base of operations by the LAPD during the 1992 Los Angeles Riots, an event associated with widespread police abuse and dysfunction. Perhaps understandably, instead of saving the structure, city agencies are instead working full-speed toward organizing its demolition. Urbanize.la reports that the city recently sent out RFPs to interested parties to solicit demolition bids; estimates put the cost of demolition at $12 million. The complex will be replaced in coming years by a yet-to-be-designed office tower containing 712,500 square feet of office space and 37,500 square feet of ground floor retail, according to a draft master plan for the area. The existing eight-story International Style structure is defined by a primary, tile-clad facade that bears the name of the building in midcentury-era script. The abstract, rectilinear office mass sits on a series of one-story piloti and was considered state-of-the-art for its time. On a Los Angeles Conservancy page dedicated to the complex, a quote from a July 1956 issue of Popular Mechanics describes the building as follows: “Ultramodern in all respects, the new eight-floor Los Angeles Police Building makes available to the city's police department the most scientific building ever used by a law-enforcement group." Behind the main facade, the building’s expenses are clad in alternating bands of ribbon windows and blue tile mosaics. Along ground floor areas, the complex features a large lobby space defined by glass enclosures that provide visual indoor-outdoor connections. Like many of contemporary works of architecture built in Los Angeles during the time, the complex featured integrated public art that complemented the architecture. The lobby space contains a series of public artworks, including a bronze sculpture along the exterior titled “The Family Group” by artist Bernard J. Rosenthal. The lobby’s interior spaces are highlighted by a large mural by Joseph Young titled “Theme Mural of Los Angeles” depicting various city landmarks amid abstract color fields. The Architect’s Newspaper spoke with Louis Naidorf, one of the designers of the complex, to learn more about the project. Naidorf worked for Becket for over a decade starting in 1950, a stint that included design work on the iconic Capitol Records tower in Hollywood when the architect was just 24 years old. Naidorf explained that the conceptual idea of placing an office tower over thin piloti was Becket’s idea, and that Naidorf himself had designed “the entire first floor, [including] the auditorium and the lobby, the concession stand, and the parking structure.” Naidorf explained that fellow legendary midcentury designer Richard Dorman was the author of the police and jail wings of the complex, with Naidorf designing exterior treatments for those areas as well as an accompanying security gate. He said, “My job was to design a welcoming setting—something light airy, friendly, and courteous.” In describing the design of the interior lobby, Naidorf had proposed a “battery of telephones to call bail bondsmen from, with a floated panel spanning across the structural columns. The mounted telephones—with a mural at the front that had some liveliness—gave people a degree of privacy and tucked that less-than-happy aspect of the lobby out of view.” Naidorf described the era surrounding the early post-war boom during which Parker Center was built as a “strange period that, in effect, wiped out the lives of a generation of architects” who had been educated before the Great Depression, but who, because of the economic collapse, the deprivation caused by the ensuing global conflict, and their age, were never drafted for the war and had been left bereft of professional opportunity as a result. In this period, Naidorf explained, any architects of the time found work on Hollywood film sets as set designers, working in light timber framing and plaster. He told AN, “People old enough to be our parents were just getting licensed” during the tumultuous era, adding, that “architecture had been in the tank” for the preceding decade. Younger architects like Naidorf —who was “three days out from UC Berkeley” when he was hired by Becket’s office—found themselves enjoying a great deal of responsibility and creative agency consequently. Naidorf lamented the loaded and problematic history of the building. He said, “[I] always assumed architects were supposed to positively affect the lives of the people who used their buildings and that the ‘real client’ for projects like Parker Center were the people who work in the building, the people who walk by the building, the people who were affected somehow by the presence of the building.” Naidorf added, “Your work was a setting for their lives. At a more basic level, [you] can create spaces that are depressing or spaces that are happy.” Regarding the proposed demolition of the Parker Center, Naidorf said:
Buildings need to be seen as mute elements in this society. The police from that time are probably mostly dead. The most productive thing is not to destroy it; it’s to find some good and productive use for [the building] that serves a good civic purpose. Perhaps that purpose should be related to the needs of people who have not been listened to very much. I don’t know if spending the money to tear it down and then rebuilding it is in our best interest. There are areas of the site that are less significant; the parking structure could go away, for example. It won’t be seriously missed. If you wanted to—remove the jail wing. But the building [overall] is really a pleasant, adaptable office building with a useful auditorium and a welcoming lobby that can go to many new uses. To throw away a piece of the city’s history—as well as throw into the recycling bin the narrative of that building—seems to me very foolish.