The Red Line: Architecture as Afterthought

Nicolai Ouroussoff is The Times' architecture critic

Few events can make you long for the days of William Mulholland, the famed city engineer who brought water to the Los Angeles desert, and the ruthless oligarchs who, during the first half of the century, turned the city’s sprawling landscape into the Land of Sunshine and Oranges. But the completion of three more Metro Rail subway stations this weekend is one of them.

Stretching from Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue to North Hollywood, the 6-mile-long Red Line extension marks the final phase of a project best known for its $6.1-billion price tag, scandalous mismanagement and ineffectiveness as a transportation network.

But the new stations also reveal a profound misunderstanding of Los Angeles’ civic identity. Built at a cost of $63 million to $82 million each, the stations are essentially decorated sheds, massive concrete boxes where architecture and art are used to create a thin veneer of fantasy.


As architecture, they owe more to the evanescent myths of Hollywood than to the city’s more substantive civic landmarks--projects like the Los Angeles River and the sprawling freeway system that form the frame on which the lightness of the city hangs. The result is a series of designs built on worn-out cliches, designs that underline the city’s current ambivalence toward the public infrastructure systems that once, as Mulholland understood, were the glue that held the city together.

Such a failure was almost guaranteed by the remarkable muddle-headedness of the operation. Of the money spent on each station, about $15 million was allotted for architecture and $340,000 for art. The city hired Engineering Management Consultants to oversee the design and construction of the Red Line. For the most recent extension, EMC selected a different architect for each station, while panels of local art consultants and community members selected by the MTA chose the artists. The architects and artists then pooled their resources to come up with individual themes.

It was the engineers, therefore--not the architects--who controlled the actual design of the station’s major elements, its structure, form and interior features, like the stairways and mezzanine platforms. Stripped of their tools, the architects were reduced to the status of decorators, lost somewhere between the realm of the engineer and the realm of the artist. The result is not so much that the stations are mediocre architecture, but that they hardly contain any architecture at all.

At the Hollywood and Highland Station, for instance, the architectural firm Dworsky & Associates and artist Sheila Klein used Hollywood’s aura of seductive glamour as their starting point. On the upper level, Klein designed a video projection that flickers above the main stair, a collection of colorful, blinking eyes beckoning you down into the space, with pupils made of tomato slices or cuckoo clocks. It is a light moment of fantasy. But once your eye is drawn back down to the surrounding space, there is little to keep your attention. The space is oppressively dull--a series of conventional concrete passageways whose baby-blue tiles fail to relieve the monotony.

The design is slightly more potent once you reach the train platforms. A series of curved ribs line the tunnel, evoking the belly of a big whale or a panorama of female sexuality. Rows of wall sconces cling to the central columns, their forms branching upward in a gesture that the artist likens to splayed legs. If you don’t get the joke, watching the trains pull in and out of the station should give away the metaphor--an apt one for Hollywood’s aura as a place for sin and pleasure.

But playfulness aside, the design has a superficial, pasted-on quality. This is installation art, not architecture, and the joke, like most, will wear thin over time. What is lost, meanwhile, is the muscularity of the concrete shell itself, the feeling that you are standing amid a giant piece of urban infrastructure. A stop away, at the Universal City Station, things get even more confused. Inexplicably, neither Siegel Diamond Architects nor the artist, Margaret Garcia, was allowed to design the canopy and plaza that mark the entry to the station. Instead, the task was handed over to the engineers, who erected a series of turn-of-the-century-style lampposts, presumably to give the plaza some class. They look lost in the sea of cars and roadways that surround the site. Siegel Diamond’s design for the two elevator towers is more elegant; their flat overhanging roofs and thick, asymmetrical supports, which the architect likens to tree branches, are a blunt reference to Frank Gehry’s early works. But the contrast of styles--between the mock traditional lampposts and the pop towers--is simply silly.


Underground, the design suffers from the architecture’s desire to compete with the power of the simple concrete form of the station itself. The white, branch-like beams that span the platforms overhead look flimsy amid all the concrete. The cast-iron rails that decorate the stairwells may evoke early folk themes, as do the tiles that cover the concrete structural columns with stories from local history, but their handmade look is strangely out of place in a work of large-scale infrastructure. The rails, in fact, include symbols that represent the last initials of the artist and architect, a clever act of vanity whose Old World aesthetic underlines the provincial aura of the entire system. Genuine graffiti would at least have been a more aggressive challenge to the status quo.

In North Hollywood, architecture firm Tanzmann Associates and artists James Doolin and Anne Marie Karlsen were able to accomplish more with the limited tools at their disposal. Aboveground, the Quonset-hut-like entry canopy’s thin, corrugated metal shell--painted in bands of green, yellow and orange--lacks structural importance. But underground, the large rotunda, capped by an oval stucco dome, is more effective as a collaborative effort. Natural light spills down from the center of the dome, which is painted a soft, squishy orange. Large arcs of color--mostly orange--decorate the walls, along with Karlsen’s kaleidoscopic tile murals of various local scenes. In one mural, a collage of grapefruits and peaches gives the space a burst of color. The idea is to recall the fruit groves that once dominated the Valley, and standing inside the rotunda is like crawling around inside the skin of a giant orange.

That image is picked up again as you approach the train platforms, where the massive columns that support the structure are sheathed inside oval orange panels, a simple gesture that gives the room a cheery glow. There is no sense of the structural subtlety that gives important architecture its power. Yet the design has little pretense to high architecture. Its lighthearted touch, instead, is somehow fitting given the limits of the task. And if the decor gets boring after a decade or so, it would be a simple feat to tear it out and redecorate.

But the question lingers: Is this all we should expect in a major, $6.1-billion public works project? Metro systems are more than transportation networks. They are symbols of egalitarian values, places where the varied faces of the city confront one another on equal terms, if only for the duration of a three-mile ride.

One of the key battles architects fought during the 20th century was to break down the wall between architects and engineers. Structure, form and material were all envisioned as interconnected elements that gave architecture new honesty and openness in an industrialized culture. In Europe, architects like Spaniard Santiago Calatrava and British-born Norman Foster, to name two, continue to use their knowledge of structural systems to embed their architecture with real muscle. In America, that trend seems to have died with the late Buckminster Fuller, whose geodesic domes are now emblems of a naive 1950s optimism.

In Los Angeles, however, the split between architecture and engineering is tightly wound up in the mythology of the city. To the engineer, the desire to keep the desert at bay would inevitably lead to the construction of some of the world’s most monumental systems of urban infrastructure. To the architect, the city’s tenuous hold over nature suggested an ephemeral world of light forms, gently placed on the landscape.

In that context, a subway system could be conceived as another layer in the vast network of urban elements that--despite their intended grandeur--so tenuously bind us together, from the Owens River Aqueduct to the 10 Freeway. The role of the architect may have been to give that layer a new meaning, to express a more complex understanding of that shared history. Instead, the subway now stands as a symbol of the city’s loss of memory, a denial of the common ground that gives Los Angeles its unique urban identity.