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?


This is the plaza above the Wilshire/Vermont Red Line station.

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And here’s a wider view of the plaza.

Ktwn 10 Plaza Guy

The intersection at Vermont and Wilshire is a busy place. People live here, work here, eat here, shop here.

Ktwn 12 Bldg Bullocks

This is Koreatown. It’s the most densley populated neighborhood in LA County. While the exact boundaries are hard to nail down, roughly speaking the area is bordered by Beverly, Vermont, Olympic and Crenshaw.

It’s important to remember that even though it’s called Koreatown, the majority of the people who live there are Latino. About half the population is of Latin American descent, compared to about a third who are of Korean descent. The area came to be associated with Koreans because the vast majority of businesses are Korean-owned.

Ktwn 13 Vendor

On the sides of the residential complex that rises above the Wilshire/Vermont plaza, you can see April Greiman’s mural “Hand Holding a Bowl of Rice”.

Ktwn 15 Bowl

You can visit the artist’s web site by clicking on the link below.

April Greiman.

Ktwn 16 Bldg New 3Directly across the street is The Vermont, a recently completed residential development comprised of two high-rise towers. This is the kind of high-end project that developers are pushing for all over LA, since they can be extremely profitable. But, not all Koreatown residents are happy about this trend. One concern is that projects like this will push rents up, making it harder for long-time residents to afford housing. Just to give you an idea, a one-bedroom apartment at The Vermont starts at $2,300 a month. In the near future, this trend will almost certainly continue, since The Vermont was recently sold for $283 million. With that kind of money being thrown around, you can be sure that developers will be knocking each other down in their rush to stake a claim in Koreatown.

Ktwn 17 Wiltern 2There are some beautiful older buildings in Koreatown, such as the Wiltern Theatre, designed by Stiles O. Clements of Morgan, Walls and Clements. This firm was a major player in LA back in the thirties and forties, designing local landmarks like Chapman Plaza, La Fonda Restaurant, and the El Capitan Theatre. The auditorium was designed by G. Albert Lansburgh, who also created interiors for the Palace and the Orpheum in downtown. I saw Tom Waits there years ago, and I can tell you that the inside is just as impressive as the outside. The Wiltern is actually part of a larger structure called the Pelissier Building, which was completed in 1931. It’s an amazing example of art deco architecture, with its blue-green tile cladding worked into elaborate zig-zag moderne designs. They don’t make ’em like this any more.

And on this stretch of Wilshire you can also find a number of bland office towers occupied by banks and financial services.

Ktwn 18 Bldgs Tall 2

Among the oldest buildings in Koreatown are the churches.

Ktwn 19 Ch Imm Wide

Immanuel Presbyterian Church was constructed in 1928, and for decades was a center for the Anglo community that populated the area up through the middle of the twentieth century. In recent years, many of these older churches have become home to multi-cultural congregations, and have services conducted in multiple languages.

Ktwn 19b Ch Imm Sign

The media has given a lot of attention to Koreatown in recent years, but mostly the stories tend to focus on the night life. Sure, there are plenty of good restaurants, and tons of bars and clubs. But Koreatown is more than just a place where you can scarf kalbi and guzzle soju til you pass out. Like any community, it has many different sides. It’s a place where art, business, technology and politics mingle and collide on a daily basis. Aside from the Korean American population, there are Central Americans, African Americans, Latinos and Anglos. Really it’s impossible to define in terms of a single ethnicity or culture.

Koreatown is relatively young, even by LA standards. The number of Koreans in the city was pretty small until the sixties. It wasn’t until 1965, when the US rewrote its immigration policies, that Koreans started arriving in large numbers. The area we now call Koreatown didn’t really come together until the seventies. Since then it has continued to grow, in terms of both population and area.

The Korean Consulate is located on Wilshire not too far from Vermont. As I was walking by one day, I saw that community members had created a memorial to the victims of the Sewol ferry disaster.

Ktwn 20 Ferry

Here in the US, the coverage of the Sewol incident was pretty limited and faded from the scene quickly. In Korea, it sparked a huge scandal, as a growing body of evidence suggested it could have been prevented. A series of protests were held in Seoul, with many people accusing the government of a cover-up and demanding that President Park Geun Hye resign. Here’s an article from the Washington Post that gives further details.

Grieving Families Want Independent Probe

Not too far off Wilshire is the Pío Pico Koreatown branch of the LA Public Library. Pico was the last Mexican governor of California before it was annexed by the United States. For many years he was one of the wealthiest and most influential people in the state, but by the time he died he was living in poverty.

Ktwn 25 Lib Ext

I love libraries. Maybe it’s the quiet. Maybe it’s being surrounded by people reading.

Ktwn 25 Lib Int

Something about this billboard caught my eye. K-Pop isn’t just huge in Asia. It’s got a significant following in the US, too. EXO is built around an unusual concept. The band actually consists of two groups. EXO-K performs their songs in Korean, and EXO-M performs the same songs in Mandarin.

Ktwn 60 Boy Grp Bldg Wilt

With groups like this, obviously the music is not the focus. Some promoter has gathered a bunch of cute guys that will look good in music videos. People have been doing this for decades, but to me it’s interesting that the Korean media have managed to turn K-Pop into such a cultural phenomenon.

Also on Sixth Street, I dropped in on Red Engine Studios. Actually, that was because of a misunderstanding. I thought the place was a gallery. Turns out it’s a school. The guy at the door seemed uncertain about letting me in, but I guess he finally decided I looked harmless enough. They do have some cool art on the walls, and you can view it by visiting their site.

Red Engine Studios

Ktwn 60 RE Guys 2

There are lots of skateboarders in Koreatown. I saw guys riding up and down the sidewalks everywhere, and there was this vacant lot on Sixth where a bunch of kids were practicing their moves.

Ktwn 60 Skate Comp

When I think of Koreatown, I think of malls. As I said earlier, Koreatown got its name because Korean entrepreneurs have been spectacularly successful in creating a vibrant community for businesses to thrive.

There are newer malls, that were built to house dozens of small shops.

Ktwn 30 Mall S&S

And there are older malls, where a bunch of businesses are crowded around a tiny parking lot.

Ktwn 32 Mall Kids

This one looks like it dates back to the sixties. I’m kind of fascinated by how spaces like this change over time, evolving as the neighborhood changes around them.

Ktwn 32 Mall Rock

Of course there are also massive indoor malls. Like Koreatown Plaza.

Ktwn 33 K Plaza

I went into Music Plaza looking for traditional Korean Music. They didn’t have much of a selection. But if you’re looking for the latest K-Pop releases, this is the place to be. It may not look too busy in this photo, but I had to stand in line to make my purchase. And I feel pretty certain that they make way more on the merchandise than they do on the music.

Ktwn 35 Music Plaza

I’m not sure why this bookstore seems quintessentially Korean to me, but it has something to do with the colors.

Ktwn 37 KBC

Like every other mall, Koreatown Plaza has a sizeable food court.

Ktwn 38 K P Court

Walking around the area you see that health and beauty are definitely marketable commodities. There are lots of spas and beauty parlors.

Ktwn 50 Bty All Rev

It was the stacks of firewood that made me want to take a picture of Pollo a la Brasa.

Ktwn 68 Pollo

As large swaths of LA get gentrified and prettified, it’s cool to see an old school restaurant that isn’t too worried about its appearance. And in addition to keeping the grills going…

Ktwn 69 Pollo Waiting

…the logs also serve as benches while people wait for the bus.

Yeah, LA’s sidewalks are a mess, but I have to say I have an affection for the huge, overgrown trees that are breaking up the concrete. The thick branches spreading over this stretch of Eighth Street made it seem like a small forest.

Ktwn 70 Eighth Shade

Ktwn 70 KIWAAnd right here on Eighth Street is the Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance. KIWA has worked for years to defend the rights of workers, and is currently engaged in a campaign to fight wage theft, which is rampant in LA. One of their notable victories was helping Heriberto Zamora recover wages that had been denied him by Urasawa, a posh restaurant in Beverly Hills. Even after being cited by the California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement for multiple violations related to wage theft, Urasawa resisted paying Zamora what he was owed until just before their final hearing before the DLSE. To find out more about KIWA’s work, click on the link below.


Koreatown is changing rapidly, but pieces of the past still remain. I hadn’t been to Dong Il Jang for decades, and I’d been thinking about stopping by for a while.

Ktwn 91 Dong Int

The waitresses were friendly. The food was good. Even though I hadn’t been there for years, it felt familiar. And it was just reassuring to know that it was still there.

Ktwn 92 Dong Food

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

Transit Tempest

MTA advertisement on Wilshire Blvd.

MTA advertisement on Wilshire Blvd.

On Saturday the LA Times ran an article on the Purple Line extension that was real eye-opener for me. Let me say up front that I absolutely support the extension, and I’m glad the MTA is expanding our transit network. But I hadn’t realized how disruptive the construction would be, and I have to say I sympathize with the residents who are up in arms. They’re looking at years of noise, dust, traffic and general chaos. Even some of those who want to see the Purple Line go farther west are freaking out now that they’re realizing what it means for residents and businesses in the Wilshire Corridor.

If all goes well, the first phase of the project will be completed in nine years. That will only take the Purple Line to La Cienega. It will be over ten more years before it reaches its ultimate destination, the VA campus in West LA. I want to repeat the phrase “if all goes well”. Those of you who were around in the nineties will recall the mixture of disbelief and disgust that Angelenos felt during the construction of the Red Line, when stories about delays, cost overruns, incompetence and corruption appeared regularly in the news. The actual timeline for the Purple Line could easily end up stretching beyond current estimates, and I have no doubt it’ll cost way more than the MTA is telling us.

I am really glad the MTA is moving aggressively to expand our transit system, not just along this corridor but all over the county. I hope, though, that they’re letting residents know what they’re in for, and taking the time to listen to citizens’ complaints. The people who live along the Wilshire Corridor are going to be dealing with some real problems over the next two decades. The City of LA and the MTA need to do everything they can to minimize the disruptions.

Here’s the story from the Times.

Purple Line Construction

MTA construction site at Wilshire and Fairfax

MTA construction site at Wilshire and Fairfax

Change Is the Only Constant at LACMA

A view of LACMA as it was in the sixties

A view of LACMA as it was in the sixties

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art is undergoing some major changes. Swiss architect Peter Zumthor has been commissioned to design a completely new campus for the museum. All of the original structures, plus the Anderson Building (now the Art of the Americas Building) will be demolished to make way for a brand new campus.

It makes sense. Over the years LACMA has become kind of a cluttered mess. I loved the original Pereira design, three unobtrusive modern structures surrounding a spacious plaza. To my mind the addition of the Anderson Building in the mid-eighties was a huge mistake. Sure, it was great to have the extra square footage for exhibitions, but the building itself was awful. The central plaza was taken away, and a blandly oppressive façade now towered over the sidewalk at the Wilshire entrance. Two years later they added the Japanese Pavilion, which I have mixed feeling about. Inside, it’s a great space for displaying art and artifacts. Outside, it’s just kind of weird and tacky, and adds to the general visual confusion.

So I totally understand why the LACMA Board wants to start over, more or less from scratch. Zumthor’s design is pretty interesting. Below is a link to a slide show on LACMA’s web site.

Peter Zumthor Reconsiders LACMA

There are a lot of good ideas here. I love the fact that the design allows for more interaction with the surrounding park. And I’m really intrigued by the concept of storing art in areas that would allow for public viewing day or night, all year round. This could turn out to be pretty cool….

But I couldn’t find any information on LACMA’s web site about when all this is going to happen. Making Zumthor’s design a reality will be a huge undertaking. The first step will be to demolish the four buildings that make up the core of the campus. And my guess is that it would take at least a couple years to complete the new structure. Which means LACMA’s exhibitions would be confined to the BCAM and the Resnick Pavilion for quite a while, although they might also look for a temporary space.

Big ambitious projects like this often sound really exciting in the planning stages. Then, when you start trying to figure out how to actually make it happen, the excitement fades as people realize what a huge challenge it will be. But I hope they can pull it off. This could take LACMA to a new level.