This post has been updated.
L.A. might get some spires. So what? The fact that the Wilshire Grand Center—a me-too curve of a glass tower that could would look as much at home (or not) in Shenzhen or Dubai as it does in Southern California’s supposed urban epicenter—will get a spindly spire and a domed sky lobby for its wealthy hotel patrons will not make either it or the city’s future skyscrapers any better or worse. It will also not help downtown L.A. in the way that the renovation of existing buildings and the erection of a few more culture palaces already has.
Downtown Los Angeles already has two pretty decent skyscrapers, though they are not of very recent vintage: the U.S. Bank Tower, designed by Henry Cobb, FAIA, of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, and the Gas Company Tower, designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM). The first is a good exemplar of the classic type, rising up in bundles that culminate in a crenelated top not particularly bereft of a spire. The second is one of the more elegant versions of the slab, that basic building block of office-based modernist urbanism.
Now the city has changed its antiquated regulations, which had mandated flat tops for fire evacuations—and had helped the staging of countless movie scenes of daring escapes and gunfights between helicopters and people on top of downtown towers—to allow for spires. This will allow the Wilshire Grand Center, designed by AC Martin, to extend its 73 floors of office space and hotel rooms to a height of 1250 feet, to make it the second tallest building in L.A. Like most of the buildings that have spires in New York and everywhere else these days, it will do so for no apparent reason and with little grace or elegance.
Meanwhile, at ground level, downtown is expanding its role as Southern California’s command, control, and culture center. Having expanded its jails and bureaucracies, built a new downtown cathedrals, of both the Catholic and musical (read: Disney Concert Hall) variety, it is about to get a jewel of a private collection in the Broad Museum, and, if rumors I have heard are true, a renovation of the original Temporary Contemporary Art Museum. Further to the East, the hipsters have run rampant over what used to be the ramparts of poverty, homelessness, and manufacturing, while the old buildings up and down Broadway are being renovated so quickly it is hard to keep track of where the coolest new hotel, bar, or loft might be. Downtown might even get an NFL stadium, though I am not so sure this would be a great addition.
Skyscrapers are pretty irrelevant to all of that. They might help to mark downtown on the skyline, and help the Grand’s major investor, Korean Airlines, mark both its own and its nation’s ascendancy, but neither it, nor its spire, will make Los Angeles any better. It will actually make L.A. more like any other city, in the same way that all that renovation downtown will as well.
If L.A. and every other downtown wanted to really improve themselves, they should ask themselves this question: What set of conditions, both human-made and natural, make this place different, beautiful, and meaningful? In L.A., the layering of different borrowings of Spanish architectural styles, modernist grids, and a predilection for stage sets, mixed with the presence of the L.A. River and its human-made equivalent in terms of linear motion, the freeways that intersect there; the placement on a plane between the Angeles Crest and the Pacific Ocean; and a more careful reading of everything—from both local to imported vegetation and climate—might provide clues. A look at the Loyola Law School compound created by Frank Gehry, FAIA, during the 1980s might be an interesting model, as might Union Station, though that delicate jewel is about to be encased in could-be-anywhere mega-development as well.
It might turn out, in fact, that flat tops are part of what makes downtown L.A. different. I wish the City would keep them, if for no other reason than to thwart the hubris-filled and alien ugliness of the Wilshire Grand Center.
This post has been updated. The Gas Co. Tower was designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM). ARCHITECT regrets the error.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.