Ki Suh Park dies at 80; architect helped rebuild L.A. after riots

From rubble and wreckage, Ki Suh Park often saw possibility. It was so as he stood amid the destruction of the Korean War, when he resolved to study architecture and help rebuild his homeland. And it was so as he drove down Western Avenue after the 1992 Los Angeles riots, when he vowed to help rebuild a community after the violence that wracked his adopted home.

Park, an architect who rose to become a leader in the city’s Korean American community, died Jan. 16 at Stanford University Medical Center after a four-year battle with pancreatic cancer, his family said. He was 80.

Antonia Hernandez, an immigrant rights activist who served with him on Rebuild L.A., a campaign to help rebuild and revitalize riot-stricken areas, credits Park with representing the Korean community while encouraging consensus during a time when tensions were still raw.

“Ki Suh gave voice to these people and their concerns, their anger, their frustration, but he did it in a way that didn’t add to the tension and the confrontation,” Hernandez said this week in an interview with The Times.

Park loved the vibrancy and diversity of Los Angeles, and often said that the city gave him energy. He delighted in the concept of Korean tacos. “Only in America, only in L.A.,” he would tell friends.


His journey to both places began with a letter.

Ki Suh Park was born March 15, 1932, in Seoul, Korea, the second of nine children of Seung Man Park, an agricultural geneticist, and Haechung Im Park, a schoolteacher. Park lived with relatives to continue his studies in Seoul after his parents left to find work.

As the Korean War began, Park was 18 and feared he’d be forced to join invading communist forces. He went into hiding.

“Guests are coming,” his grandparents would warn as soldiers approached, and he and his sister would scramble to take cover behind furniture. Eventually, he made his way to Pusan, where he worked as a translator for the U.S. Joint Advisory Command.

When he told U.S. soldiers about his dreams of studying abroad, they encouraged him to write to American newspapers seeking sponsorship. He did, and the Los Angeles Times printed his letter on May 5, 1952.

“I am anxious to continue an education in the United States in order to be of value to the rebuilding of Korea,” he wrote.

His words caught the interest of a number of luminaries, including illustrator Norman Rockwell and author James Michener. In the end, a friend of Rockwell’s, a Montebello family, and an Indiana congressman helped Park immigrate. He even shook hands with future presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and John F. Kennedy.

“Today, Korea’s buildings are broken and destroyed,” a 21-year-old Park told The Times upon his arrival in March 1953. “But one day the war in Korea will be over. Then Korea will rebuild. I want to take part in rebuilding it.”

But Park never would return to live in Korea, becoming an American citizen instead. He studied at East L.A. College and then UC Berkeley, where met and married his wife, Ildong. He graduated in 1957, a Phi Beta Kappa with a bachelor’s degree in architecture, and went on to earn graduate degrees in architecture and city planning at MIT. He became a father, an architect, and soon, an Angeleno.

In 1961, Gruen Associates, a prominent architecture firm in Los Angeles, hired Park at a time when few firms had Asian Americans in their ranks. Early on, he and his family lived a simple life in an apartment on Westmoreland Avenue, near downtown. Often, he would come home, have dinner, and go back to the office to keep working.

“I had such faith in the future,” Park told The Times in 1994. “Faith that if I work really hard and do my best, opportunity will open up for me and that’s what attracted me to come to this country. I still believe that.”

By the time he became a partner at Gruen in 1972, Park had earned a reputation for exacting standards and perfectionism. Anyone who worked with Park remembers toiling for hours on a drawing or memo, only to have it returned with typos and errors highlighted.

Thom Mayne, who worked under Park before becoming a premier architect, remembers the demands Park put on others, and on himself. “He just moved at the speed of light. He moved the way his brain moved. If you didn’t move there with him, that was your problem,” said Mayne, adding that Park influenced the way he runs his Morphosis practice today.

Park, who rose to managing partner of Gruen in 1981, oversaw a number of landmark Los Angeles projects, including the expansion of the Los Angeles Convention Center (along with Pei Cobb Freed and Partners), the planning and design of the 105 Freeway, the Koreatown Plaza, the Segerstrom Concert Hall in Orange County, and planning for the Metro Gold and Orange lines. The convention center and the 105 Freeway, in particular, were “urban environment game-changers,” said Michael Enomoto, Gruen’s current managing partner, who worked with Park for 40 years.

Park became known for the way he handled complex, multifaceted projects. During the contentious talks over the path of the 105 Freeway through a swath of urban neighborhoods, Park was credited with listening to residents’ concerns about displacement and the effects on surrounding communities. He received plaudits for his work, becoming the first Korean American to be named to the College of Fellows of the American Institute of Architects in 1986.

Park also served on the boards of the county’s Natural History Museum, the Korean American Museum in Koreatown and the California Community Foundation, among other civic organizations, insisting on the same high standards.

He approached his Rebuild L.A. efforts with the same seriousness, working to find common ground among Korean store owners and African American community members. “Our survival and the future of the city depend on it,” he said. “The whole world lives in this city, and if we can make it happen, this can be the model for the future of the entire world.”

Twenty years later, the measure of Rebuild L.A.'s successes is mixed.

“Sometimes, I feel like a tiny grain of sand,” he told The Times in 1994. “But you can’t remake the world overnight or remake the city overnight.”

But always, he maintained faith in progress. “How do you know where you are in the ocean unless you have a benchmark?” he once told The Times.

For him, Park often said, his life’s benchmarks were his children. His three sons attended UCLA, Harvard and Princeton. Two became lawyers, one a doctor. He is survived by his wife of 56 years, Ildong Park; sons David, Kevin and Edwin; four grandchildren and six siblings.

A memorial service will be held Thursday at 11 a.m. at the Westwood United Methodist Church, 10497 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles.