Architecture is not just slow. It’s a hurry-up-and-wait profession at its core, chancy and contingent, as vulnerable to the cold feet of clients as the whims of capital markets. During the Great Recession, as financing dried up and confidence cracked, the construction of important new buildings in Los Angeles ground nearly to a halt.
And so this fall, which brings with it a number of significant architectural debuts, is both welcome and a little alien: For the first time in nearly a decade, thanks to a stronger domestic economy and an influx of investment from China, South Korea and elsewhere, a steady supply of ambitious, market-tested architecture is emerging from the city’s cultural pipeline.
The crop includes ground-up projects by some of L.A.'s most talented architects. The city is also learning to reuse its underappreciated older buildings in inventive ways.
All in all, it’s a season of marked if still cautious revival for Los Angeles architecture: a fall that feels more like a spring.
An improving economy tends to produce what might be called a reverse domino effect. A big project coming out of the ground pulls up others by sheer force of momentum. Witness the buildings, good and mostly bad, sprouting like mushrooms in the shadow of L.A. Live’s Marriott hotel tower downtown.
Even stalled projects can have this effect. Opening next month on Bunker Hill, across a new plaza from Eli Broad’s delayed contemporary art museum, is the Emerson, an expedient-looking residential tower by the firm Arquitectonica with 271 apartments on 19 floors.
More impressive models for new residential architecture have popped up in Santa Monica, where the second phase of the Expo Line is expected to begin running to the beach by early 2016 and where a mid-rise collection of condos and apartments has just opened across the street from popular Tongva Park. Divided into a section of affordable rental units by Koning Eizenberg and condos by the Santa Monica firm Moore Ruble Yudell, the complex offers a compelling combination of spare neo-modern design and generous open space.
An expanding transportation network is also producing new architecture in Orange County, where the $190-million Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center, or ARTIC, will open in late fall.
As designed by architecture firm HOK and engineers Parsons Brinckerhoff, the station may seem an overly grand arrival hall for the scant number of passengers it is likely to attract in its first years of operation. Enclosed under a wide roof covered with pillowy ETFE (ethylene tetrafluoroethylene) panels, it was designed in part to hold high-speed trains that won’t begin running for about two decades, if ever; perhaps over time the train-riding population in the O.C. will grow to match its magisterial scale.
The colleges and universities in town, many of which kept building at least modestly during the recession, with endowments or fundraising efforts robust enough to withstand the downturn, are now accelerating those efforts.
USC continues to put up an expensive and ambitious, if deeply nostalgic, collection of new buildings. UCLA is conducting a fascinating experiment in adding largely progressive architecture — designed by firms including Daly Genik and Kieran Timberlake and overseen by campus architect Jeffrey Averill — while subtracting cars from the densest campus in the University of California system.
The California Institute of Technology, for its part, has retreated a bit from the ambitious architecture commissioned by President David Baltimore, who hired both Rem Koolhaas (for a project that didn’t pan out) and Thom Mayne (for one that did).
Still, more pragmatic projects, including the appealing Keck Institute for Space Studies by Michael Lehrer Architects, continue to be completed even as Caltech weighs whether to save or raze its deeply unpopular 1967 Robert A. Millikan Memorial Library, a late-modern tower by L.A. firm Flewelling & Moody.
The revival of interest in the Los Angeles River, particularly as it runs through northeast L.A. and along the eastern edge of downtown, is also sending new architectural ripples back into the city. Michael Maltzan’s design for the low-lying but massive One Santa Fe apartments, holding 438 units in all and as long as a skyscraper is tall, turns its gaze as much to the river and the tangle of railroad tracks on its eastern flank as it does to the Southern California Institute of Architecture building directly to its west.
Perhaps most alien — and most welcome — of all are the new residential buildings that avoid the banal mid-rise, wood-frame structural system that has become nearly ubiquitous in Los Angeles. In L.A. you can use wood only if you keep your building shorter than 75 feet; anything taller triggers a rule requiring concrete or steel.
New buildings that go higher have a built-in advantage here. They seem more prominent here than they would in Chicago, New York or even Seattle. Even a 10-story tower can seem muscular and dramatic, as Mayne and the firm Morphosis proved with a new L.A. campus for Emerson College on Sunset Boulevard on the ragged eastern fringe of Hollywood.
The Jerde Partnership’s gleaming new Vermont apartment complex on Wilshire Boulevard, in the heart of ever-expanding Koreatown, is another example. Though it’s disappointing to see so much of its lower facade given over to parking, especially in a section of town already so well served by public transit, the $200-million, 22-story Vermont’s sleek steel-and-glass profile is a reminder that new apartment buildings in Los Angeles can be something other than bland, stucco-covered, stick-built neo-dingbats.
Perhaps most emblematic of contemporary L.A. architecture culture is the revival of older buildings for new uses, a hipsterish twist on what preservationists call adaptive reuse. On Sunset Boulevard in Echo Park, just west of downtown, architect David Lawrence Gray and developer Linear City have remade William Pereira’s Metropolitan Water District building (completed in 1963, with an eight-story tower added a decade later) into a charismatic (and not inexpensive) apartment complex called the Elysian.
In the final analysis, we may realize that this burst of construction hasn’t produced the kind of architecture, freewheeling and unconventional, for which 20th century Los Angeles was famous. The city is far more regulated and expensive for builders than it was even two decades ago. Fire and seismic codes and a shrinking supply of vacant land have conspired to make bold architecture tougher to realize.
As a result, even as we lament the many lessons we failed to learn during the downturn, it may be time to reassess just what design innovation means in Los Angeles. Formal gymnastics are less impressive in this regulated, risk-averse city — or simply less relevant. Political savvy is more and more a necessity, as is the ingenuity to imagine new roles for old buildings.
And architectural victories, when they arrive, are different now than they once were: less breezily unorthodox, perhaps, but also tougher-nosed and harder won.