In ver­ti­cal L.A., a lik­able land­mark


Here’s the long and short of it: Los An­ge­les still hasn’t pro­duced a sky­scraper that qual­i­fies as a great work of ar­chi­tec­ture.

The Wil­shire Grand Cen­ter opened Fri­day as the tallest build­ing in the city and the high­est west of the Mis­sis­sippi River, if only thanks to its spire. Hold­ing meet­ing rooms and 365,000 square feet of Class A of­fice space on its lower floors, a 900-room In­ter­Con­ti­nen­tal Ho­tel on its up­per ones and a col­lec­tion of bars and restau­rants at the top, it reaches 73 sto­ries and 1,100 feet, edg­ing out the U.S. Bank Tower, built in 1990, a few blocks away.

Chris Martin, chief ex­ec­u­tive of the cen­tury-old L.A. firm AC Martin Part­ners, which de­signed the tower, told me that what sets it apart, along with its height, is that it’s not re­stricted to a white-col­lar crowd. Be­cause ear­lier L.A. sky­scrapers (in­clud­ing the U.S. Bank Tower) were built to hold only of­fices, the gen­eral public never got to en­joy the views from the top, he said.

“And you can do all kinds of lit­tle cute things, like put a slide on it” — this was a ref­er­ence to the U.S. Bank Tower’s re­cent re­design of its top

floors to bring in that wider public, a re­model that in­cluded adding a trans­par­ent slide to the out­side of the build­ing — “but that doesn’t change the fact that it wasn’t orig­i­nally de­signed for the public. We built a tower for the public.”

This was an in­trigu­ing ar­gu­ment: the Wil­shire Grand, a $1.35-bil­lion sky­scraper de­signed for Yang Ho Cho, chair­man of Korean Air, which owns the build­ing, as pop­ulist land­mark for an in­creas­ingly ver­ti­cal Los An­ge­les.

The fact that there could be an ac­tive ri­valry be­tween two sky­scrapers alone says a good deal about how much the city and its sense of it­self is in flux; one his­tor­i­cal drag on our tower ar­chi­tec­ture has been the poly­cen­tric na­ture of Los An­ge­les, the fact that we have many ten­ta­tive sky­lines (in Cen­tury City, along Wil­shire Boule­vard and down­town) in­stead of a sin­gle ma­ture one. This has pre­vented the com­pe­ti­tion among neigh­bor­ing tow­ers for at­ten­tion and ac­claim that has sharp­ened the high-rise ar­chi­tec­ture of New York, Chicago and other cities. Mean­while, many of our most ar­chi­tec­turally sig­nif­i­cant tow­ers, 450-foot-high City Hall chief among them, are too short to re­ally count as sky­scrapers.

If noth­ing else, Martin’s pitch sug­gested that he has a keen un­der­stand­ing of the strengths and weak­nesses of the build­ing, which oc­cu­pies a trape­zoid-shaped piece of land bor­dered by Wil­shire Boule­vard and 7th, Figueroa and Fran­cisco streets and over­look­ing the 110 Free­way.

De­signed pri­mar­ily by his cousin David Martin, along with their col­league Tammy Jow, a se­nior de­signer at AC Martin, the Wil­shire Grand is not go­ing to win any awards for ar­chi­tec­tural re­fine­ment. As an ob­ject in the sky­line it’s a dog’s break­fast, a tower that com­pro­mises the in­ter­est in sleek­ness sug­gested by its mir­rored-glass skin with over-ar­tic­u­lated el­e­va­tions on all four sides and an oddly in­con­sis­tent fetish for ex­pressed struc­ture.

Be­cause AC Martin con­vinced the city to waive a long­stand­ing rule that ev­ery tall build­ing in Los An­ge­les must have a large he­li­pad on its roof to ac­com­mo­date fire­fight­ing crews, a rule that has now been re­tired for good, the Wil­shire Grand does man­age to avoid the generic, buzz-cut plain­ness that marks so many L.A. sky­scrapers. In­stead, a curv­ing glass sail crowns the build­ing like a 21st cen­tury ped­i­ment, hid­ing the el­e­va­tor and win­dow-wash­ing equip­ment.

A small con­crete pad is in fact hid­den away atop the tower, I was sur­prised to dis­cover on a re­cent tour. Of­fi­cially it’s a “tac­ti­cal land­ing plat­form” where a he­li­copter could touch down. It’s mod­est enough, though, to nearly dis­ap­pear from a dis­tance.

Back on terra firma the Wil­shire Grand meets the ground awk­wardly. The gap be­tween the base of the tower and a squat, semi-at­tached podium hold­ing stacked ball­rooms and meet­ing rooms is bridged by a sweep­ing lat­tice of steel and glass that sug­gests not up­lift but fallen mass, a fly­ing car­pet that failed to fly and is now wedged heav­ily above the lobby. A high­light of the ground-level spa­ces — a high­light of the whole com­plex, to be hon­est — is a rain­bow-col­ored, wall-mounted in­stal­la­tion by the Korean artist Do Ho Suh.

A plaza with a foun­tain and palm trees opens in the di­rec­tion of the Metro sub­way sta­tion across Figueroa, but on its other three sides the Wil­shire Grand seems de­ter­mined to keep the ur­ban realm (and pedes­tri­ans in par­tic­u­lar) at bay.

Nor is its height alone enough to al­low the tower to re­ally stand out. Its high­est oc­cu­pied floor is lower than the same space at the 1,018foot-high U.S. Bank Tower; only be­cause the Coun­cil on Tall Build­ings and Ur­ban Habi­tat, the ar­biter of such things, has de­ter­mined that spires — though not “an­ten­nae, sig­nage, flag poles or other func­tional-tech­ni­cal equip­ment” — count to­ward what it calls the “ar­chi­tec­tural top” of a build­ing does the Wil­shire Grand rank as tallest in the city.

More to the point: In na­tional and es­pe­cially global terms 1,100 feet is a mid­dling num­ber. The tallest build­ing in the world, Dubai’s Burj Khal­ifa, is more than twice as tall at more than 2,700 feet. The Wil­shire Grand’s ti­tle as the West Coast’s high­est tower will not last long. Same goes for its spot in the Amer­i­can top 10. (It is now No. 9.) In Man­hat­tan alone, two build­ings un­der con­struc­tion will sur­pass it. Within a decade it may be pushed out of the top 20.

But a crowd-pleaser? Maybe. A kind of whiz-bang ap­peal, some com­bi­na­tion of flash, mass and scale? A way to take ad­van­tage — to Martin’s point — of how few L.A. sky­scrapers give over their top floors to restau­rants, bars and other spa­ces open to the public?

That’s an idea that might have some legs. For all its aes­thetic wob­bles, its un­re­solved qual­ity as a work of ar­chi­tec­ture, the tower has a cer­tain guile­less charisma; it tries so hard to please that it winds up be­ing tough to dis­like.

The for­mal touch­stones the ar­chi­tects say in­spired them — Half Dome for the curv­ing edge of the sail, air­plane de­sign for the trans­par­ent ver­ti­cal wings that ex­tend past the edge of each side of the tower — are fa­mil­iar ones for any Cal­i­for­nian, as op­posed to the ref­er­ences to Fou­cault or Mies you might hear from an­other sort of firm. Screens for LED and video dis­plays will an­i­mate the top and sides of the tower at night, prompt­ing wor­ries that down­town L.A. is on its way to be­com­ing a gar­ish Times Square west. All in all the tower is not just out­go­ing but a schmoozer. If I were Chris Martin I might work the pop­ulism an­gle too.

The most fas­ci­nat­ing as­pect of his ar­gu­ment is that on its face it seems plainly coun­ter­in­tu­itive. The tower — un­like so many oth­ers go­ing up across the coun­try and the world these days — is not a res­i­den­tial build­ing; the gen­eral public’s ac­cess to it won’t con­tinue 24 hours a day.

On top of that, we’ve tended to think of low-tothe-ground ar­chi­tec­ture as the most gen­uinely Los An­ge­les ar­chi­tec­ture of all, the most con­nected to the pop­u­lar will and every­man as­pi­ra­tion: the small house with con­nected gar­den, the sin­gle-story dough­nut shop with a two-story-tall con­crete dough­nut on its roof, the bun­ga­low court, the strip mall with a world-class sushi bar squeezed in next to the laun­dro­mat.

We have been wary in Los An­ge­les of the tall build­ing and ev­ery­thing it rep­re­sents: a creep­ing Man­hat­taniza­tion, to bor­row an ev­er­green term in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia de­vel­op­ment fights, a fear that we’ll be sealed in­side glass tow­ers, cut off from the be­nign cli­mate so many of us moved here to take ad­van­tage of. L.A. first put a mea­sure on the bal­lot to limit build­ing heights more than a cen­tury ago. It has spent the in­ter­ven­ing decades feel­ing am­biva­lent about whether sky­scrapers re­ally be­long here.

Though it’s hap­pen­ing slowly, that am­biva­lence is fad­ing. The neigh­bor­hoods that younger An­ge­lenos are in­creas­ingly pour­ing into, down­town and Kore­atown in par­tic­u­lar, in­clude some of L.A.’s most ver­ti­cal. A steady sup­ply of for­eign cash look­ing for a safe haven has be­gun to thicken the sky­line.

When slow-growth ad­vo­cates put con­tro­ver­sial Mea­sure S on the bal­lot in March, one of their chief ar­gu­ments was that dense, in­creas­ingly ver­ti­cal de­vel­op­ment was over­whelm­ing neigh­bor­hoods across the city. The mea­sure was routed, barely mus­ter­ing three votes out of 10. The idea that the au­then­tic Los An­ge­les is the hor­i­zon­tal one is look­ing in­creas­ingly out­dated, or maybe just in­com­plete.

At least un­til an­other tower passes it in height, the Wil­shire Grand will stand as the im­per­fect em­blem, the bois­ter­ous marker in the sky­line, for this new city.

Travis Geske For The Times

THE WIL­SHIRE GRAND man­ages to avoid the generic, buzz-cut plain­ness that marks so many L.A. sky­scrapers.

Travis Geske For The Times

THE BUILD­ING’S ar­chi­tects say they were in­spired by Half Dome for the curv­ing edge of the sail.

Mel Mel­con Los An­ge­les Times

“WE BUILT a tower for the public,” says Chris Martin of AC Martin Part­ners, which de­signed the tower.

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