Architecture review: the tower at L.A Live

Times Architecture Critic

Given the number of proposals for bold, expressive towers in downtown Los Angeles that have been splashed across newspaper and magazine pages in recent years, it’s easy to forget that the area has not actually seen any skyscrapers completed since 1992, when the second of Arthur Erickson’s California Plaza high-rises opened on Bunker Hill.

That drought ends Tuesday, when a 54-story hotel and condominium tower, wrapped in a geometric pattern of glittering, blue-tinted glass, is formally unveiled at L.A. Live.

The tower, by the large corporate architecture firm Gensler, adds a significant bookend to the southern end of the downtown skyline. It signals that AEG’s massive L.A. Live complex, among the biggest private developments in Los Angeles history, is finally finished. And it ranks as the tallest residential high-rise in all of Los Angeles.

As far as architectural ambition goes, though, the building makes a faint, even passive impression, despite the diverting patterns on its facade. It is more focused on operating as a glossy vertical marker for L.A. Live -- and the tower is hard to miss from any of downtown’s freeways -- than on exploring a fresh or idiosyncratic path for high-rise design in L.A.

That makes it a rather deflating sign that the innovation and experimentation that have always animated residential architecture in Los Angeles -- beginning with the modest bungalow and the courtyard apartment, and extending through the Case Study houses and the tough, disjointed masterpieces of the L.A. School -- may have trouble making the leap to the high-rise, even as more condos and apartments are built in the air.

Admittedly, AEG’s failure to produce a truly innovative -- or even genuinely curious -- piece of architecture comes as little surprise. It has never claimed to be the sort of client for which adventurous design is a priority.

Yet the essential conservatism of the tower, which holds a JW Marriott on its lower floors with a Ritz-Carlton hotel and Ritz-branded condos above, is no minor issue for Los Angeles. It goes to the heart of the city’s cultural identity. Inventive, forward-looking residential design has always been the foundation of L.A.’s reputation as a center for cutting-edge architecture -- and, arguably, of its broader history as a place that embraces creative personalities and artistic movements of all kinds.

But so far, as the city has moved haltingly away from the stand-alone house and garden and toward new kinds of multifamily living, that spirit of design innovation has not kept pace. We’re still waiting for the piece of residential architecture that produces the old sense of risk-taking while nodding toward the city’s denser, apartment-heavy future.

Apartment buildings and condo towers, of course, are far more complex , as real-estate and planning ventures, than single-family houses, which continue to serve as a crucible for architectural invention not just in this country but around the world. Risk-taking clients for private houses still outnumber those for residential towers by a substantial margin, and that is unlikely to change any time soon.

Still, it’s dispiriting that the boom years of the last decade wound up producing just one major addition to the downtown skyline -- and a less than thrilling one at that. It is surely significant, along these lines, that one of the most architecturally promising condo towers now under construction in an American city, a project called HL23, is designed by a talented L.A. architect, Neil Denari -- but is being built in Manhattan, on a site overlooking the High Line elevated park.

If an architect like Denari is finding New York City a more hospitable place to build such a tower than Los Angeles, then maybe Los Angeles needs to rethink its planning priorities -- and to push developers like AEG, which at L.A. Live has received a series of concessions and sweeteners from city agencies, to pursue more meaningful architecture.

To be sure, the Gensler tower meets the ground more successfully than the California Plaza buildings. On its lower 24 floors, the tower is shaped like a book propped open, with wings pointing to the south and east. Those wings shelter a sizable open plaza leading on one side to the Marriott’s eye-catching three-level lobby and then to Olympic Boulevard, and on the other to the larger L.A. Live square, which opened in 2008. The new ground-level space, enlivened by landscape design by Rios Clementi Hale Studios, and for the most part free of car traffic, is significantly more open and public-minded than the existing plaza, which faces Staples Center and is ringed by a series of video screens.

The Gensler architects also deserve credit for overcoming the building’s single biggest design challenge: how to squeeze two different hotels, plus 224 condominiums on two dozen floors, into the tower without sacrificing its identity as a single piece of architecture. This challenge was sharpened by the fact that each of the different components -- Marriott hotel rooms, Ritz hotel rooms, condos and penthouse units -- requires a different layout, with the condos, for example, needing a wider floor plate than the hotel rooms below.

The architects finessed that issue by wrapping the entire volume in a contiguous skin that bulges near the top, a bit like a Q-tip, to accommodate the wider condo floors. They then devised a glazing strategy that allows a range of window sizes -- single panes in the Marriott rooms, double ones in the Ritz and floor-to-ceiling glass in the condos -- without compromising the unity of the exterior design. . The building’s stepped design makes it look from certain angles like a high-backed chair, an impression that’s particularly strong when you look at the tower from the east.

From the start, AEG’s main objective at L.A. Live has been to create a sleekly homogenous, even hermetic ensemble where architecture operates primarily as a backdrop to billboards, video screens and other signage and branding. It seems clear -- now that the complex is complete -- that it has managed to meet that goal nearly perfectly.