In its own way, Grand Avenue in downtown Los Angeles is as strange and fantastical as the imaginary towns in Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities. One of the Italian novelist's inventions is Armilla, a city that consists of nothing but a forest of water pipes, where beautiful women shower. Another is Morlana, which has a gorgeous faï¿½ade of alabaster gates and coral columns, which hides a pile of trash. Yet another city is a sphere made up of twisted roads designed to prevent a woman from escaping.
Unlike Calvino's cities, Grand Avenue is real, not imaginary. Even so, the description of this strange street could easily fit into the Calvino catalogue of fantasy cities without being noticed. Consider the following: Bunker Hill had been the affluent part of downtown in the late 19th Century, and later became a ramshackle collection of charming, if dilapidated, houses. The city bulldozed all the houses on the hill, which then stood bare for more than 10 years while city fathers argued about what to do build next. Eventually, they decided to build office towers, and the hill became choked in a superstructure of steel. In the course of building this city-in-the-sky, it became necessary to haul away all the dirt. Nothing was left of the hill, except the street, which by now had become an absurd bridge in the air. Beneath the bridge was another street, with the same name, where unglamorous necessities like loading docks and parking entrances were hidden.
Absurd or not, Grand Avenue is one of the most important streets downtown, and is quickly growing more important. The street is the home of the most important Los Angeles County buildings, the Los Angeles Music Center (the city's Yorty-era answer to Lincoln Center), the Museum of Contemporary Art and the new Colburn School of Music. Those buildings are soon to be joined by the new Cathedral of Los Angeles and the long-deferred Disney Concert Hall, the future home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and a likely successor to City Hall as the postcard image of Los Angeles. What is odd is that Grand Avenue ï¿½ where some of the city's largest and most expensive buildings currently are rising ï¿½functions poorly as a street. Like Fifth Avenue in New York, Grand Avenue is a street of very large buildings that do not seem to form a continuity among each other. Further adding to the sense of discontinuity, a portion of the street is a bridge, which creates an unwelcome gap in the procession of buildings. Yet another issue is this street-in-the-air's poor connection to the rest of downtown.
These problems are not minor ones on a street that both Mayor Richard Riordan and the city's Community Redevelopment Agency want to make into the city's official "arts corridor."
One part of the solution is a design by local architect and urban planner Doug Suisman, who was commissioned by the Community Redevelopment Agency. Borrowing an idea from Barcelona, Suisman proposes a wide, green median that runs down much of Grand Avenue. This median acts as more than mere landscaping: Instead, this "ramblas" is a social space, inhabited by series of small cafes, cart vendors and news stands. Although the design concept is foreign to Los Angeles, it is a simple, affordable and convincing solution to several vexing problems on Grand Avenue. The ramblas would provide badly needed social space that can serve as a kind of receptacle for people who are milling around before a concert, or who have just heard Mass at the cathedral and who want to get a cup of coffee before taking a gander at the latest head-scratching exhibit at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. Almost as important, the ramblas could also provide Grand Avenue with the continuity currently lacking on the street by providing the unifying, horizontal condition that would otherwise be impossible to provide.
Adequate space exists in the city's right of way to create the ramblas without impacting traffic lanes, although wide sidewalks would be precluded. In short, the ramblas promises to make Grand Avenue into a wonderful, socially active street, rather than a parade of mutually unacknowledging large buildings that line the boulevard like a sullen set of giant chess pieces. With such an inspired design choice, what could go wrong? Politics, of course. Grand Avenue may be officially under the purview of the redevelopment agency, but the CRA does not have as much clout as it formerly did. (A former councilman successfully sued the agency to prevent the lifting of the agency's debt cap; the suit effectively hobbled the agency's ability to underwrite large projects, and, in turn, to offer incentives to developers who would otherwise be deaf to the agency's urban-design agendas. See CP&DR Economic Development, March 1999.)
Both the mayor and the cardinal are reportedly enthusiastic about the ramblas, but the Music Center and Disney Hall have been silent. If they actively oppose the landscape project, the redevelopment agency may or may not be able to push the project through over their objections. Worse, both the Music Center and Disney Hall are projects that are under the jurisdiction of Los Angeles County, which often quarrels with the City of Los Angeles about the county's projects in the downtown area.
Frank Gehry, the architect of Disney Hall, has said that he wants wider sidewalks in front of the concert venue, which could narrow the street, taking away some of the width needed to accommodate the ramblas. In the absence of a master plan for the arts corridor, individual institutions seem to be vying for primacy and control of the street.
Can it be true that Grand Avenue's institutions are unaware that a vibrant street would benefit them? Los Angeles has shown that it is willing to campaign and raise tens of millions of dollars for the Disney Hall, whose price tag has reached $274 million. But is the city willing to campaign with comparable ardor for a project has far fewer capital needs ï¿½ about $5 million to $6 million ï¿½ yet would contribute nearly as much to downtown?
Of all the absurdities that make up Grand Avenue, the greatest would be that the street's powerful cultural institutions would decide against making the street into a sensible place. Arts institutions that ostensibly seek to enhance our lives should walk their talk on Grand Avenue.