HIGH EX­PEC­TA­TIONS

L.A. now has a new tallest build­ing. How will it fit into the fab­ric of the city?

Los Angeles Times - - WILSHIRE GRAND - By Thomas Cur­wen thomas.cur­wen@la­times.com

Stand­ing at the base of the Wil­shire Grand, ar­chi­tect David Martin shielded his eyes to take in the scope of Los An­ge­les’ new­est and tallest sky­scraper.

Eight years ago, this shim­mer­ing glass tower be­gan its life in his sketch­book as an ink draw­ing and a splash of blue wash. Now, af­ter four years of con­struc­tion and $1.35 bil­lion, it is de­but­ing on the city’s stage. Guests have be­gun to ar­rive; ten­ants come later in the year.

The prospect leaves Martin a lit­tle ner­vous. The ex­pec­ta­tions for this build­ing are high.

For all its 21st cen­tury de­tail­ing, the Wil­shire Grand is a throw­back to a time when Los An­ge­les dared to dream tall and for three decades — the early ’60s to the early ’90s — saw a f ledgling sky­line emerge above Bunker Hill, Cen­tury City and West­wood.

But such as­pi­ra­tions can be fickle. That boom, fi­nanced in part by Ja­panese cap­i­tal, stalled amid an eco­nomic re­ces­sion. Now 30 years later, this new tower rides a new wave of devel­op­ment rip­pling through down­town and out­ly­ing com­mu­ni­ties such as Hol­ly­wood and mid-Wil­shire.

Driven by Chi­nese and Korean in­vestors, this pros­per­ity re­flects not only a shift in the world eco­nomic order but also a re­newed faith in Los An­ge­les’ po­ten­tial on the edge of the Pa­cific Rim. (In 2015, South Korea was Los An­ge­les’ No. 3 trad­ing part­ner, with two-way trade to­tal­ing $23.7 bil­lion.)

When Korean Air, owner of the Wil­shire Grand, lighted the build­ing’s crown with the red, blue and white swirl of its logo, it cap­tured that his­tor­i­cal sweep. The air­line’s chair­man, Yang Ho Cho, first vis­ited down­town Los An­ge­les on his hon­ey­moon in 1974 and was told to be care­ful if he went out af­ter dark.

Today he ex­presses the hope that this build­ing will be an icon for the city as well as a sym­bol of pride for its Korean com­mu­nity.

But on a late May af­ter­noon, Martin wasn’t tak­ing a global per­spec­tive. Wan­der­ing out onto the pool deck over­look­ing 7th Street, his con­cerns were more im­me­di­ate. The am­pli­fied strains of a vi­o­lin­ist drifted from a dis­tant side­walk.

The Wil­shire Grand has rep­re­sented for him a life­time op­por­tu­nity to build a down­town land­mark, much as his grand­fa­ther did with City Hall and his fa­ther with such high-rises as the De­part­ment of Wa­ter and Power and the Arco Tow­ers.

He spoke of the build­ing’s para­met­ric slop­ing, its re­flec­tiv­ity, the align­ments be­tween the in­door and out­door spa­ces and the over­head “bones,” the seis­mic sup­ports — and he an­tic­i­pated the crit­ics.

What does the Wil­shire Grand of­fer the city, they will ask. Is it for the wealthy and priv­i­leged? Does it ad­vance the science of en­gi­neer­ing or a the­ory of ar­chi­tec­ture?

“I hope they all like the build­ing,” he said.

Ev­ery tall build­ing is a unique per­for­mance, a blend of grand ef­fects and minute de­tail. Some strike a sin­gle note. Oth­ers try for a deeper, al­most sym­phonic com­plex­ity.

The ges­ture might be old-fash­ioned, rem­i­nis­cent of the early decades of the 20th cen­tury, a state­ment that speaks more to the egos of a few than the needs of the many.

But this is what cities do, no mat­ter the ex­pense or im­prac­ti­cal­ity. From a dis­tance, these struc­tures de­clare their prow­ess and moder­nity by lift­ing them­selves above the hori­zon like Oz, prox­ies in glass for am­bi­tion and power. From the side­walk, they in­spire passers-by to peer sky­ward, a re­mark­able feat when daily oc­cu­pa­tions com­pel many to look only ahead.

And in Los An­ge­les — not New York, not Chicago — the rais­ing of these build­ings is all the more re­mark­able in a re­gion where down­town is a mere is­land in a vast sub­ur­ban sea.

Con­ceived dur­ing the height of the re­ces­sion as two tow­ers — one a ho­tel and one an of­fice — the Wil­shire Grand even­tu­ally was con­sol­i­dated into one, driv­ing the height to 73 sto­ries.

Given its com­plex­ity, ar­chi­tect Michael Maltzan, whose projects in­clude the apart­ment com­plex One Santa Fe and the new 6th Street Bridge, wants to wait be­fore pass­ing judg­ment.

“The abil­ity to mea­sure its im­pact is complicated by time,” he said. “A tower, a build­ing of that scale, func­tions at so many dif­fer­ent scales, each of which is mea­sured in dif­fer­ent time frames, so it is hard to say from Day One if it is a suc­cess or not.”

He cited a few ob­ject lessons: The Eif­fel Tower and San Fran­cisco’s Transamer­ica Pyra­mid were mocked at their de­buts and today are beloved icons. The U.S. Bank Tower, com­pleted in 1989 a few blocks away from the Wil­shire Grand, also re­ceived mixed re­views. One critic over­looked the de­sign of what was then the city’s tallest struc­ture, fo­cus­ing in­stead on its “dizzy­ing, seven-year ex­er­cise in deal-mak­ing.”

Some ques­tion whether the Wil­shire Grand deserves iconic sta­tus. Its claim over the U.S. Bank Tower, they say, is a cheat, based on a spire that gives it an 82-foot ad­van­tage.

And if spires count, they add, then what about a 1,215-foot smelter smoke­stack in Magna, Utah?

Yet part-build­ing, part-spire, the Wil­shire Grand al­ready has shifted Los An­ge­les’ con­cep­tion of what its sky­line can be — no longer the flat­topped relics of an era that priv­i­leged he­li­pads over or­na­men­ta­tion.

For ar­chi­tect Eric Owen Moss, how­ever, any dis­cus­sion of merit based on height is an­ti­quated. Moss, former di­rec­tor of the South­ern Cal­i­for­nia In­sti­tute of Ar­chi­tec­ture, re­cently de­signed a 17story tower near the La Cienega-Jef­fer­son light rail sta­tion.

“I’m sure it mat­ters to the de­vel­oper, but I’m not sure if it mat­ters to the city or to the com­mu­nity down­town at all,” he said.

More in­ter­est­ing to Moss is whether or not the Wil­shire Grand of­fers a new un­der­stand­ing of what a tower can be. He won­dered how the build­ing will in­ter­act with the street or if it will ad­vance a new con­cep­tion of the city.

“You get to be the big­gest build­ing if you demon­strate you have the big­gest or most sub­stan­tial con­tent,” he said.

A 60-sec­ond ride in a ser­vice el­e­va­tor took Martin to the top floors.

Oth­ers may peer at the city, which from this per­spec­tive seems oddly minia­tur­ized.

But as he stepped onto the ter­race on the 73rd floor, Martin turned to study the steel-and-glass sail — a tech­ni­cal achieve­ment ris­ing an ad­di­tional 300 feet above him.

A sky­scraper, Martin said, is of­ten bor­ing: a big box de­signed for util­i­tar­ian, com­mer­cial pur­poses with de­sign sub­servient to the cost and speed of con­struc­tion.

Push­ing against those pres­sures is part of the ar­chi­tect’s job.

And Martin counts the sail and the ad­join­ing spire as one of his suc­cesses, an elab­o­rate and costly ar­ti­fice, a hood or­na­ment by any other name.

As he climbed the stairs into the sail — which will be closed to the pub­lic — he was sur­rounded by wide-flange beams, up to 44-feet in length, criss­cross­ing around him like a cat’s cradle.

“It’s like a ship,” he said, proud that this el­e­ment with­stood the months of de­bates and dis­agree­ment.

But he knows that even mon­u­men­tal de­sign is never fixed in time.

Just blocks away is the City Na­tional Plaza, with its twin tow­ers.

De­signed in the 1960s by Martin’s fa­ther, Al­bert C. Martin, these 52-story build­ings — the Arco Tow­ers — have long been hon­ored as a model of Cor­po­rate-In­ter­na­tional style, aus­tere in their smoked glass, dig­ni­fied in their iden­ti­cal pair­ing.

Yet last year the own­ers mod­i­fied the top story of the north tower, chang­ing the color of the glass, adding a rib­bon of sil­ver-white around it.

Spoil­ing the sym­me­try.

As the af­ter­noon waned, traf­fic on the 10 Free­way was a rib­bon of cars, creep­ing in and out of down­town, bumper to bumper.

For all the best in­ten­tions and de­sign, the fu­ture of the Wil­shire Grand is linked to the city.

Sprawl — awe­some by day and sparkling at night — is one thing, but grid­lock, no mat­ter the hour, is an­other.

For Thom Mayne, one of the city’s pre­em­i­nent ar­chi­tects, the suc­cess of the Wil­shire Grand de­pends on how the city rises up to meet it.

Look­ing at the fu­ture, Mayne, the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the UCLA Now In­sti­tute, be­lieves that Los An­ge­les’ great­est chal­lenge is an an­tic­i­pated pop­u­la­tion in­crease of 1.5 mil­lion by 2050.

He ar­gues for the in­creased den­si­fi­ca­tion of the Wil­shire Corridor, 15 miles from down­town to Santa Mon­ica, soon ac­ces­si­ble by sub­way.

To this end the Wil­shire Grand, he said, is “use­ful,” but he added, “it is one sin­gle build­ing.

“What’s im­por­tant is for it to be fol­lowed by hous­ing.”

With­out that step, the sky­scraper “is just an­other ran­dom build­ing with no broader con­nec­tiv­ity, no syn­ergy, no re­la­tion­ship to some broader strat­egy of how the city is go­ing to grow and what that means to its cit­i­zens — again on hu­man terms, on so­cial terms, on cul­tural terms.”

The city of Los An­ge­les, he said, must take the next step.

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