Midnight at Wilshire and Fairfax

W&F 1 Scaf

Last week I went to one of the screenings in UCLA’s preservation festival. I think I left around eleven, and then caught the bus on Wilshire. I got off at Fairfax, where I have to transfer. It took a while for the next bus to show up, so I took some photos while I was waiting. It seemed like there was a lot of stuff going on….

Night time is when the MTA crews show up to work on the Purple Line extension. You don’t see them during the day. Just metal plates lying all over the street. But at night these guys set up their barriers and their lights and go to work.

MTA crews work on the Purple Line at night.

MTA crews work on the Purple Line at night.

Just across the street, the old May Co. building is surrounded by scaffolding. It seems that the Academy is finally starting the process of transforming this dinosaur of a department store into a new museum devoted to film. I have no idea when it’ll be completed, but I’m glad to see that work has begun.

Scaffolding set up on the west side of the May Co. building.

Scaffolding set up on the west side of the May Co. building.

I was standing there on Fairfax snapping photos, when a few runners went speeding past. At first I thought it was just some people who lived in the neighborhood out for some exercise. But then another group ran by, and then another, and then it was a steady stream of people racing down Fairfax. My guess is that a couple hundred people went by, but it could have been more.

Runners stampeding down Fairfax toward Wilshire.

Runners stampeding down Fairfax toward Wilshire.

More runners heading down Fairfax.

More runners heading down Fairfax.

As usual, there was a homeless guy camped out in one of the recessed areas along the side of the May Co. building.

A homeless man taking shelter for the night.

A homeless man taking shelter for the night.

And of course there’s Johnie’s, blazing away in the darkness. The banks of lights that surround the building are slowly going out, but those that are left let you know that this classic coffee shop has not gone away. The place has been closed for years, but the flashing lights seem to be insisting that it’s still open for business. That it’s still alive.

Johnie's refuses to die.

Johnie’s refuses to die.

Time to Move On

LAC 0B Tunnel

You may already know that LACMA is planning a major overhaul. I think it’s a good idea. The original design has been pretty badly compromised, and the campus is kind of a mess. The biggest mistake was the addition of the Anderson Building, but there are other changes that contributed to the general feeling of chaos. So, yeah, it’s time to hit reset. Peter Zumthor’s design for the new campus is pretty interesting. You never know how these things will work out in the long run, but I’m ready to climb on board. (I do have serious reservations about the plan for funding it, but that’s another story.)

I have to admit, though, I’ve got a fondness for this funky collection of buildings that don’t really fit together. There’s a lot about the current set-up that I’ll miss. So even though we’re probably still a long way away from starting construction, I thought I’d take a trip down to the old place and snap some photos.

The museum was originally designed by William Pereira, and in its first state there was a real sense of space and light. Now the plaza seems claustrophobic. Just to give a sense of Pereira’s orginal concept, take a look at the photo below.

LAC 05 Plz Wom

On the left side you can see the Ahmanson Building, which has been there since the beginning. Back in the 60s you walked up a broad set of stairs onto a wide plaza that was surrounded on three sides by structures like this. It was a fantastic space, and a quintessential example of LA architecture. Now I move the camera to the right….

LAC 10 And Rt

…and you can see the Anderson Building, which was built in the 80s. It was great to have more gallery space, but the building always seemed like a massive intrusion. And if you look at the central plaza…

LAC 25 Plaza Brg

…you can see that the columns and the bridge and the canopy intrude even further. Nowadays this space just seems really odd and awkward. It doesn’t work at all.

But there are still things to enjoy about the plaza. Like Jesús Rafael Soto’s Penetrable.

Penetrable by Jesús Rafael Soto

Penetrable by Jesús Rafael Soto

I love this installation, and kids love wandering through it. I know museums aren’t always a big favorite with children, so I think it’s great that Soto’s work is right out on the plaza, almost like it’s saying, “Come on in and play.”

Another one of the original Pereira buildings houses the Bing Theatre, which I’ll really miss.

LAC 32 Bing Lobby 2

LACMA used to have incredible film programming. They did amazing retrospectives on Marlon Brando, William Wyler, Erich von Stroheim, FW Murnau and others. My friend Brian and I used to joke that there were times we were going there so often it seemed like we were living at LACMA.

LAC 40 Cafe Red

I’ll miss the cafe, too. I’ve spent lots of time there, either taking a break from the galleries or waiting for a movie to begin. Occasionally I’d take a cup of coffee outside…

LAC 27 Red Tbl

…and find a quiet place somewhere. In spite of all the people milling around the campus, it’s not too hard to get away from the crowds.

Inside the Ahmanson Building, Tony Smith’s Smoke rises up through the atrium. It’s a cool piece, but it probably needs more room to breathe. Maybe when the new museum is built they’ll create a better space for it.

Smoke by Tony Smith

Smoke by Tony Smith

Same as above.

Same as above.

Same as above.

Same as above.

I’m glad that LACMA draws as many people as it does, but sometimes I miss the good old days, before the blockbuster exhibitions, when it was just you and the janitorial staff. Still, some of the galleries are less crowded than others. The spaces where they display contemporary American art are often pretty busy, but if you just head upstairs…

LAC 80 Gallery

…you’ll find the older European art. I used to mainly look at painting from the last couple of centuries, but lately I’m getting into the older stuff. Like these Dutch landscapes.

Beach with a Weyschuit Pulled up on Shore by Willem van de Velde, the Younger

Beach with a Weyschuit Pulled up on Shore by Willem van de Velde, the Younger

Landscape with Dunes by Jacob van Ruisdael

Landscape with Dunes by Jacob van Ruisdael

One of the great things about LACMA is that when you’ve maxed out on the art, you can leave the galleries and head for the park just behind the museum.

A view of the park from the museum plaza.

A view of the park from the museum plaza.

Another view of the park looking toward the west.

Another view of the park looking toward the west.

And since I’m talking about change, I might as well mention the May Co. building right next door.

LAC 95 May

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences is planning to build a museum devoted to film on this site. The plan is to restore the May Co., and to construct a new wing behind it, which will be designed by Renzo Piano. Not sure when work will start, but you can click on the link below for more info.

Academy Museum

This last shot is a view of Fairfax looking down towards Wilshire.

LAC 97 May Side

It’s interesting that with all the activity happening at LACMA and the May Co., just across the street you have Johnie’s, a classic coffee shop from the fifties designed by Armét & Davis, that’s been neglected for years. Closed since 2000, the City of LA recently declared it a historic landmark, but nobody seems to know what’s going to happen to it. The MTA is currently working on the Purple Line extension, and supposedly there will be a subway stop at Wilshire and Fairfax by 2023. Is it too much to hope that Johnie’s will be open again by then?

Boom Town

Dntn Fed 3 Skln

Downtown is exploding. There’s so much construction going on I can’t even keep track of it. Massive new office and residential buildings are springing up all over the place. There are also efforts underway to revitalize a number of older buildings. Some of this stuff is cool, some of it is dumb, but I’m less concerned about the quality of the individual projects than I am with the cumulative impact of all this construction. More on that later.

Let’s start by sampling a few of the projects currently under construction….

Dntn 00 ChTown

This is the Blossom Plaza, which combines retail and residential, including a fair number of affordable units. It took years for this to get off the ground, and there was a recent hitch when workers uncovered remnants of the original Zanja Madre, but things are moving forward. Curbed LA has been following the story for a while, and you can read more about it by clicking here.

Dntn 05 LT Site 2

I had a harder time finding current info about this project. The most recent report I read said this was a 240 unit complex being developed by the Irvine-based Sares-Regis Group. Whatever it is, it looks like it’s going to be huge. The site is located at Second and San Pedro, right next to….

Dntn 10 Ava Trees

….the recently completed AVA Little Tokyo, another massive mixed-use structure. Apparently young people are flocking to Downtown LA these days, and developers are doing everything they can to capture that crowd. Check out this ad, seen in one of the windows on the ground floor.

Dntn 15 Ava Ad

The way I read this is, “If your highest priority is mindless self-indulgence, this is the place for you.”

And since we don’t have enough luxury rental units in Downtown LA already, Carmel Partners has generously agreed to build 700 more. As you can see in the photo below, it’ll be a while before the project is complete.

Dntn 20 Bldg Frame

You may want to put a deposit down soon. Given the list of amenities, I don’t doubt that the Eighth & Grand complex will be popular. I was sold when I heard about the rooftop pool surrounded by cabanas. For more details, click here.

Dntn 30 Fed 4 Skln

But let’s talk about a project that might actually benefit the people of Los Angeles. Here’s the new federal courthouse, which is finally going up after being delayed for years. The courthouse is just one component in a larger scheme to revitalize this part of the civic center. Building Los Angeles offers a rundown on some of the related efforts.

Dntn 35 Broad 3

Honestly, of all the projects under construction in Downtown LA, the only one I can really get excited about is The Broad. It’s still a long way from completion, and the web site just says that it will open in 2015. But it’s something to look forward to. And they’re already doing some cool programming. Click here to find out what’s going on.

Dntn 40 TB Backhoe

And let’s wrap it up with the New Wilshire Grand. It’s said that when the project is completed, this will be the tallest building west of the Mississippi. Who cares? I’m so tired of this kind of development. Does this really have anything to do with making the city a better place to live? Or is it just another monument to greed and vanity?

There’s a lot of talk right now about how LA has to embrace higher density development. Fine. There are good reasons to create a more compact city, and certainly sprawl has been a major problem throughout our history. But can anybody demonstrate a need for skyscrapers of this size? And looking at the bigger picture, do we really have the infrastructure to support development on this scale? I’m thinking especially of water, since we are in the middle of a drought. The projects I’ve highlighted here are just a few of the dozens that are either currently under construction or in the permitting process.

When I look at the avalanche of development that’s hitting Downtown LA, I have to ask if anybody at City Hall is thinking about the future, because I don’t see any evidence of rational planning. Instead, I see an onslaught of construction driven by developers who are falling all over themselves to get in on the gold rush. I really question whether the Mayor or the City Council have given any serious thought to how this massive growth spree is going to affect LA down the road. I wish I could believe they were really concerned about the well-being of the people of Los Angeles. It seems more likely that their chief concern is keeping their developer buddies happy.

Vincent Price Art Museum

Vincent Price Art Museum at East Los Angeles College

Vincent Price Art Museum at East Los Angeles College

I don’t know how much you know about Vincent Price. If you’re over forty, you probably think of him as somebody who made a lot of horror flicks. If you’re under forty, there’s a good chance you’ve never heard of him. Actually, Vincent Price was a fine actor who worked in film, theatre, radio and TV. Sure, some of the movies he made were lame, but he did a lot of first rate work in films like Laura, Leave Her to Heaven and The Masque of the Red Death.

The reception area at VPAM

The reception area at VPAM

But he was also an art collector, and that’s why he has a museum named after him at East Los Angeles College. Before becoming an actor, Price studied art history at Yale, and in later years he travelled extensively giving lectures on the subject. In the fifties he decided it was important for art students to have access to paintings and drawings for their studies, and that was when he and his wife began donating works to ELAC. In 1957 they gave 90 pieces to the college. Now the VPAM collection consists of over 9,000 objects.

Death and Mother Struggling Over Child by Käthe Kollwitz

Death and Mother Struggling Over Child by Käthe Kollwitz

On the day I visited, the museum offered three shows from the permanent collection. The survey of Mexican modernism was excellent. I was also impressed by the twentieth century American and European art on display. (Honestly, I just took a quick stroll through the room full of pre-Colombian stuff. Not my cup of tea.) But the museum also develops its own shows and hosts travelling exhibitions. If you’re interested in checking out their upcoming shows, here’s the link.

Vincent Price Art Museum

No Room in the Inn by Gronk

No Room in the Inn by Gronk

The VPAM is open Tuesday through Saturday, and admission is free. Now that I’ve been there, I’m definitely planning on going back.

Twinka by Arnold Mesches

Twinka by Arnold Mesches

Braking Is Better Than Crashing

design by Renzo Piano for the proposed Academy museum

design by Renzo Piano for the proposed Academy museum

I’ve been reading the news about Zoltan Pali’s departure from the AMPAS museum team. There are a lot of ways to look at this. And it’s important to remember that expensive, high-profile projects like this often take longer and cost more than anyone imagined. I think everyone agrees that the ultimate goal, building a museum dedicated to film history in Los Angeles, is definitely worthwhile. I’m anxious to see it completed, but I also want to them to do it right. I certainly don’t have any credentials that would give me special insight into this process, but I do have a few thoughts to offer….

Renzo Piano is a great architect. With buildings for the Centre Pompidou, the Menil Collection and the Zentrum Paul Klee on his resume, everybody seems to agree that he’s a good choice for the project. But even great architects are human, and therefore fallible. I read this morning that some Academy staff members are concerned about unresolved problems with the design of the new theatre. Movie theatres are technically complex structures that present a very specific set of challenges. No doubt Piano is aware of this, but is he going to bow to the experts who actually have experience in this area?

I used to work at MOCA on Grand Ave.. Isozaki is another great architect, and the building is a beautiful and complex creation. But I was friends with one of the preparators at MOCA, and he was very critical of the design. Sure, he would say, it’s a gorgeous building, but it wasn’t properly planned as an exhibition space. He cited a number of problems with the design that made his job difficult. According to my friend, Isozaki didn’t take enough time to understand the specific challenges of creating an exhibition space. Piano needs to listen to the experts in designing the theatre. Whatever his vision as an architect, it has to function as a place for audiences to see and hear movies.

May Company store on Wilshire, photo by Anne Laskey from LAPL archives

May Company store on Wilshire, photo by Anne Laskey from LAPL archives

Some images of Piano’s design were first made public last year, and then views of an updated version were released just recently. Both versions have been criticized. I don’t have a background in architecture, and honestly, it’s hard for me to evaluate renderings. My impression is that Piano has some great ideas, but I can’t say it totally works for me. I wonder though, if rather than finding fault with Piano’s new building, we shouldn’t look harder at the building that exists on the site already. Many people praise the May Co. building, designed back in the thirties by A. C. Martin. I don’t share their enthusiasm. I love the building because it is an iconic part of the LA landscape. It occupies the corner at Wilshire and Fairfax with a lot of authority, and the gold cylinder rising above the intersection gives it a great presence. But in terms of design, I don’t think it’s very impressive. It’s a big, bland box. Piano is obviously trying for a dramatic contrast with this new addition. Unfortunately, I think starting the project with the May Co. building is like starting the project with an anchor around your neck. I’m glad the Academy wants to use it, because it’s been sitting vacant for years, but Piano faces a real challenge coming up with a design that incorporates it successfully.

The Times ran a piece yesterday by their architecture critic, Christopher Hawthorne. He argues that the Academy needs to slow down and make sure this project is done right. I couldn’t agree more. Their public position is that everything’s going great and there’s no reason to reassess the timeline. Nobody’s buying it. Whatever the reason for Pali’s departure, it obviously signals a change of direction.

Rather than pretending everything’s hunky dory and pushing ahead, they need to pause and take stock of the situation. Why rush to break ground this year if the design isn’t right? I’m so glad the Academy is building this museum, but I also really want it to be something special.

A few links for those of you who want to read further. First is Hawthorne’s piece for the Times. Next a post that ran on Arch Daily back when Piano’s original design was made public in April of last year. And finally an article from the Hollywood Reporter that includes quotes from anonymous sources within the Academy. If these quotes give an accurate picture of what’s going on, there is good reason to be concerned about the viability of the project.

LA Times Commentary

Motion Picture Academy Unveils Designs

Academy Museum Architect Exits Amid Tension