Ground Level: The Superior Court Building near Lafayette Park in Los Angeles


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This is the first in a series of occasional articles by architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne on highlights (and lowlights) of the Southern California streetscape.

The 1972 Superior Court tower at 6th Street and Commonwealth Avenue, on the edge of Lafayette Park, is among the most under-appreciated landmarks of postwar architecture in Los Angeles.


Built as the headquarters for CNA Insurance by the architects Langdon and Wilson, who would go on to produce the very different J. Paul Getty Museum (now Getty Villa) in Pacific Palisades just two years later, the tower’ has a fading mirrored-glass skin that gives it a shifting, even painterly personality in the skyline.

At ground level its impact is no less surprising. Working with the landscape architecture firm Emmet L. Wemple and Associates, Langdon and Wilson began with a simple grid of granite panels flanked on two sides by trees and flowers. But then those panels rise from the plaza in a series of waves that slip directly under and appear to hold up the tower above. The fluid forms of the space at street level are in sharp contrast to the well-behaved geometry of the rest of the building.

The result is a small but potent exception to the familiar rule that Los Angeles is a terrible city for pedestrian plazas. And yet the design succeeds nearly as well as seen from a car heading east on 6th, toward downtown, as it does on foot.

--Christopher Hawthorne

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