Critic’s Notebook: AEG’s designs on downtown L.A. stadium
Let’s assume AEG manages to build a massive football stadium and event center in downtown Los Angeles, an outcome looking increasingly likely following a unanimous City Council vote last week in support of the project.
What would the arrival of $1.2-billion, 72,000-seat Farmers Field mean for downtown and its role in the larger region? For the city’s architectural reputation? For the state of the urban mega-project in an age of austerity?
We’ve gotten some tantalizing clues in recent weeks, though not from Anschutz Entertainment Group itself. The company has been aggressively mum about the progress of the Farmers Field design, as has its architect, Gensler, an increasingly busy firm that was known for decades as an interiors specialist. Instead, the details have come buried in the news of two other design firms hired by AEG and the city to work outside the stadium proper.
What those clues add up to is this: The arrival of the stadium would give downtown another push toward true centrality in Los Angeles, or at least help make it first among equals when it comes to the city’s many centers. But the impact on its immediate neighborhood, the South Park section of downtown, promises to be a whole lot less positive.
Or, to be precise, a whole lot more of the same.
In fact, if there’s one thing we can count on — given AEG’s architectural track record — it is that Farmers Field promises to expand, in seamless fashion, the reach and impressive scale of AEG-land, that sleek, glossy commercial oasis between South Park proper and the Harbor Freeway.
The rather sketchy preliminary designs so far released by AEG show a stadium draped in a silvery, translucent exterior that dutifully matches the palette of Staples Center and L.A. Live and is shoehorned into a 15-acre site replacing the West Hall of the Los Angeles Convention Center. By NFL standards that’s a postage stamp-sized piece of real estate.
That shoehorning itself isn’t the problem. Trying to fit an NFL facility into a constricted urban site without room for tailgating could make Farmers Field the football equivalent of the wildly popular new generation of downtown baseball parks: A fascinating experiment in bringing the sport back to the city after decades of suburban and edge-city exile.
The problem is that because this is an AEG project, the stadium’s most obvious architectural fealty is not to the city but to the corporate mini-world around it.
That’s not to say that AEG has been entirely deaf to complaints about the placeless quality of the architecture it has already built downtown. At the urging of the city’s Planning Department and Planning Commission, it has enlisted Gehl Architects, a Danish firm that is known for intelligent streetscape design and has recently completed a sophisticated proposal to remake a stretch of Figueroa Street downtown. The involvement of Gehl’s Oliver Schulze in the stadium planning process is a very good sign. Let’s hope he is able to have a real effect on the streetscape plans around the stadium as the project moves ahead.
Other news from AEG has been less positive. To build a replacement facility along Pico Boulevard for the demolished West Hall, AEG and the city together showed limited imagination in picking the firm Populous — formerly known as HOK Sport — earlier this summer. One of Populous’ recently hired architects, Dan Meis, was a chief designer of Staples Center, which would seem to increase the odds that the new convention center building won’t deviate much from the shiny AEG template. Oddly enough, Meis was also a lead architect on a football stadium proposal in City of Industry that has been pushed by developer Ed Roski as the chief rival to the AEG plan.
Left unanswered so far, as AEG continues to keep the architects at Gensler away from the media, are a number of key questions about how the project will relate to the neighborhood and city around it. One is simply whether Gensler has advanced the design in any substantial way in recent months — or has merely been idling as AEG worked to pin down approval on the political front. Another is how AEG plans to treat the design of the two sizable parking structures that may rise between the stadium and the freeway.
The stadium is one of two mega-projects in the works downtown. The other is a redesigned Union Station, set to be enlarged to make room for the arrival of high-speed rail service. L.A. County’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which bought Union Station earlier this year for $75 million, is planning to release a short list of design teams for that project in October.
Los Angeles is thus poised to create a pair of major downtown gateways: Farmers Field and an updated convention center on its southern edge and a remade Union Station to the northeast. In an ideal world, City Hall would seize on this double opportunity and insist on — or at least do what it can to promote — ambitious architecture at each location.
But that would require that the builders of each facility take a leap of architectural faith. I’m willing at least for now to keep an open mind about Metro’s plans for Union Station, which are in their earliest stages. Farmers Field, on the other hand, shows few indications that it will be anything but a smooth and compliant — if huge — complement to L.A. Live and Staples Center.
After a brief moment of optimism about ambitious civic architecture in Los Angeles following the triumphant opening of Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall in 2003, it appears the city could revert to its status as a place where the most talented local architects struggle to get any sizable hometown commissions, and where the most expensive projects tend to be among the most architecturally conservative.
Given the state of the economy, Farmers Field and the Union Station expansion — along with Eli Broad’s museum on Bunker Hill — may be among a small number of large-scale projects to be completed in the next several years in Southern California. That fact and the sheer scale of the stadium promise to give Farmers Field outsize impact, particularly when it comes to the urban character of downtown Los Angeles.
AEG has said it hopes to break ground on the stadium next June. That means there’s not much time left to turn its design prospects around.
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