A tale of two downtowns

As Eli Broad prepares to make official the long-rumored news that he will build a museum to hold his collection of postwar and contemporary art on Bunker Hill, perhaps naming an architect as soon as Monday, some persistent questions about the urban character of Los Angeles are poised to reemerge. What role do we expect downtown to play in the cultural life of the city and region? How central, geographically and psychologically, do we want downtown to be? More to the point, maybe: How central is it capable of being?

Broad’s likely choice of downtown over contending sites in Beverly Hills and Santa Monica, where building might have been politically and logistically simpler, reflects his longstanding commitment to downtown, and in particular to Grand Avenue. By putting his museum in the shadow of Walt Disney Concert Hall and across Grand from the Colburn School and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Broad is endorsing the idea that it makes sense for cultural institutions to cluster together, even in notoriously spread-out Southern California.

His decision also comes at a moment when parts of downtown other than Bunker Hill are experiencing a renaissance that in certain ways is gaining strength even in the current recession. Yet there is a contradiction, or at least a noticeable gap, between the role Broad envisions his museum playing — as yet another temple to culture along the Grand Avenue corridor — and the lessons offered by that renaissance.

The sections of downtown that are thriving — along Spring Street near 5th Street, in the Arts District, on the edges of Little Tokyo — are precisely the ones that have happily sidestepped the burden of trying to be the cultural, financial or architectural epicenter of Los Angeles. They are finding vitality as pockets of adventurous and experimental culture, and they are gaining traction because of their peripheral nature, not in spite of it.


The effort by Broad and other power brokers to revitalize Grand Avenue, on the other hand, has always relied on a certain dogged insistence that Bunker Hill can be — will be! — the center of culture in Los Angeles. And a major reason that effort has produced so many underwhelming new buildings over the years is an awkward fit between that lofty vision and the difficulty of designing for a hilltop detached from much of downtown and lined with largely empty sidewalks.

With the exception of Frank Gehry’s Disney Hall, whose interior spaces chip away at every opportunity at the idea of the rigidly highbrow, every major cultural building along Grand Avenue built in the last five decades can be counted, to one degree or another, as an architectural disappointment. In most cases that’s because their architects acted as if downtown L.A. were like downtowns elsewhere in the country, where there is a tight-knit urban fabric and the distance between buildings can be measured in dozens rather than hundreds of feet. Rafael Moneo’s 2002 Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, in particular, is flummoxed by all that space.

Broad’s choice of architect for the Broad Collection, as the museum and attached archive and office space will be known, may help mitigate the risk of a stolid, aloof museum at the site, at least to a degree. If he finalizes a deal to hire the New York firm Diller, Scofidio + Renfro, his preferred choice after a private competition this spring, he’ll be getting a design from architects who are known for sending up or undercutting traditional ideas about high-culture architecture. The same is true for the other finalist in the competition, Rem Koolhaas and his Dutch firm Office for Metropolitan Architecture.

At the same time, negotiations between Broad and city and county officials have not produced encouraging results, particularly where the future of Grand Avenue’s public spaces are concerned. Instead of pushing Broad to invest in streetscape improvements and bolster the museum’s connections to a nearby Metro stop and the forthcoming Civic Park — investments Broad told me he wants to pursue — those officials secured from Broad a $7.7-million payment for the museum site that has been earmarked, in full, to subsidize affordable housing.

Downtown Los Angeles has long existed as a contradiction in terms — the nominal center of a famously centerless collection of cities and suburbs. Fixing its cultural and symbolic place in that region has always been about as easy as finding the exact center of an amoeba or pinning a drop of water to a board.

In the years since a massive urban-renewal effort cleared Bunker Hill of its Victorian apartment houses and replaced them with vast super-blocks, downtown has largely seemed destined for a lonely second-class existence. Reyner Banham, the British architectural historian, almost completely ignored downtown in his classic 1971 book “Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies,” offering no more than “A Note on Downtown,” quickly adding, “because that is all it deserves.”

In trying to reverse that slide into irrelevance — as commercial and residential development flourished elsewhere in the region — Broad and other downtown patrons have seen the stretch of Grand Avenue atop Bunker Hill as pivotal. Their decades-long effort to fill it with cultural institutions, while it has produced an uneven architectural track record, was tough to oppose in earnest because there were so few other alternative models of revitalization downtown.

But in the last decade, right under the noses of the Grand Avenue power brokers, a different, edgier and more interesting downtown has been emerging, the product of patient investment and organic cultural growth rather than the top-down, consolidated method practiced on Bunker Hill. The question now is to what extent Broad, his architect and his advisors, as they finalize plans for the building, will tap into or promote a conversation with that other downtown — and in the process learn something that can be applied to the museum’s design, its programming or both.