Nokia Theatre and plaza send out mixed messages

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

WHEN the much-hyped first phase of L.A. Live made its official debut Thursday night, it did so as a package deal. Opening in tandem were the Nokia Theatre, a 7,100-seat venue by the Berkeley firm ELS Architecture, and the plaza at its feet, which covers nearly an acre and was designed by L.A.'s Rios Clementi Hale Studios.

It’s not difficult to understand the inclination of Anschutz Entertainment Group, the Denver-based developer of the $2.5-billion L.A. Live project, to promote the plaza and the theater as a single entity -- or at least as close, chummy neighbors on a continuum that also includes Staples Center, another AEG property, across the street. As the company sees it, once you’ve picked up your ticket to see Björk (Dec. 12! One night only!) or the Lakers, you’ll then effortlessly be able to find a table at one of the restaurants soon to spill out from the plaza’s perimeter. Or, after Björk has put her Martin Margiela giraffe gown back on the green-room hanger, and Kobe has torched the Charlotte Bobcats for an inefficient 53 points in another Laker loss, you can meet a friend under one of its trees and head for a nearby drink.

In that scenario, the plaza’s primary role will be as a Disney-like town square for L.A. Live, the highly ambitious, publicly subsidized development that will eventually include a hotel-and-condo tower, the West Coast headquarters for ESPN, a multiplex and a bowling alley.

In truth, the theater and the plaza are very different animals. It’s only by considering them separately -- and trying to pick apart the knot of mixed messages that each one sends -- that we can begin to gauge L.A. Live’s potential as an urban, as well as a commercial, enterprise.

Although the 250,000-square-foot, $120-million theater is highly impressive technically, it’s altogether compliant, even meek architecturally. Wrapped in a sleek skin of metal panels and video screens, the theater shares Staples Center’s largely placeless character. It is so eager to match the arena, and to slip neatly into the master plan for L.A. Live, that as an urban object it practically fades from view.

Inside, the theater is split into two distinct zones: a series of stacked lobbies, overlooking the plaza, which resemble those in unusually well-appointed movie theaters, and the auditorium, which has a 180-foot-wide stage and huge trusses spanning the ceiling, possessing the drama of scale.

Although every wall facing that stage is covered in acoustical, perforated panels, nearly every other visible surface, particularly in the lobbies, has been smothered in a rich combination of carpeting and wood panels. The color scheme throughout the theater is blue and green for one reason: Blue and green are Nokia’s colors. That design synergy is common for sports arenas but strikes an odd chord in a live-music venue partially underwritten by a Finnish cellphone company. Go, Nokia!

ELS tends to do better with more firmly utilitarian designs, notably the 6-year-old, 600-seat Roda Theatre for Berkeley Repertory Theatre. At the Nokia, you get a sense that there is a muscular, impressively industrial-looking theater trapped inside a more conventionally handsome one and it’s struggling to get out.

Far more intriguing as a piece of urban design -- and as an emblem of a changing, increasingly residential downtown -- is the plaza, which does a pretty good impression of a public square though it sits almost entirely on private land.

Dominated by twisting metal towers that hold sophisticated lighting and video screens -- and by rows of plane trees -- the plaza plays as many urban roles as any open space in the city. It will operate, first, as a backdrop for ESPN, which means many more people will see it each day on TV than will visit it in person.

It is a commercial space second, with restaurants soon to line its edges, and an event space third, for outdoor concerts as well as corporate gatherings and awards shows. (AEG’s promotional materials praise the plaza’s “excellent logistics for red carpet arrivals.”)

Finally it is -- or has the potential to be -- a square in the old-fashioned sense, an intelligently landscaped urban amenity for nearby residents. In the last three or four years, South Park, the heart of which lies just east of L.A. Live across Figueroa Street, has emerged as one of the fastest-growing residential sections of downtown, with newly restored historic buildings nestled among new condo towers. Roughly 3,000 residential units have been built since L.A. Live was announced, with an additional 5,000 planned for completion in the next three years.

Will more than a handful of South Park dwellers use the space as a neighborhood plaza -- as a spot to walk their dogs, meet a friend for coffee or hang out and read a magazine or send a text message? It’s tough to say. To do that, they would have to walk from South Park toward the freeway, cross Figueroa and enter AEG Land, a place whose overriding sense of canned urbanism the new plaza only partly mitigates. This section of downtown is so short on shady, landscaped open space, though, that such trips are certainly plausible -- particularly if AEG makes good on its promises to bring in neighborhood-friendly events. A farmer’s market is one possibility.

Thanks in part to efforts by the city’s planning department to make the plaza more welcoming to the surrounding neighborhood, its design at least nods in the direction of the civic. But the street it opens to is not Figueroa, developing quickly as a spine connecting the USC campus and Exposition Park with downtown, but rather Chick Hearn Court, which was characterized already by a faux-urban, stage-set feel. And AEG’s determination to keep the plaza busy most of the time with programmed or private events casts doubt on its public potential.

Indeed, what animates the plaza is the intersection -- the clash, really -- of two separate definitions of urbanism. AEG believes in “event urbanism,” the idea that people come together around planned activities: celebrations, victory parades, concerts, corporate cocktail parties and the like. This is decidedly a top-down notion, a way to program and market the spaces of the city.

On the less lucrative end of the spectrum lies unplanned urbanism, which can accommodate large, spontaneous gatherings -- even an angry protest -- but is more often about experiencing the city in modest ways, in small groups or alone. Unplanned urbanism is driving a few blocks to look at a new building, or wandering with a cup of coffee in hand to see a friend or buy a carton of milk.

South Park is already shaping up as one of the places downtown where this kind of urbanism may take root. It has outdoor cafes, sidewalk storefronts and its own Metro rail stop. It also has some of the city’s better-designed new condo towers, including a couple built by developers from Portland, Ore., where pedestrian-friendly projects are the norm.

Still, we might as well be honest and clear-eyed about the way L.A. has historically been planned and therefore how its urban identity has developed and matured. In our civic landscape, the L.A. Live “event urbanism” approach is the equivalent of a native plant. It is how we have done things -- how we have organized the city -- for much of L.A.'s existence: as a collection of discrete attractions reached mostly by car.

That makes South Park and other emerging pockets of pedestrian-friendly development examples of a new approach. For all the old-fashioned common sense that guides them, they represent in this city the exotic or invasive plant, brought from elsewhere and planted rather hopefully in our soil.

Whether and how these two strains grow together and intertwine across Figueroa will be fascinating to watch.