Gary Fong, Los Angeles, See — April 4, 2012 at 4:17 pm




Thom Mayne’s Caltrans District 7 Headquarters



South Broadway

LOS ANGELES – Downtown is one of the few parts of LA where you can find classical architecture – from beaux-arts and art deco to revival – mixed in with a range of starchitectual wows.  As far as LA goes, Downtown truly represents a treasure trove of architectural gems, reflecting not only the area’s rich history but also the city’s efforts to revive the area.

The best place to start is Broadway (below 3rd Street). This is where you’ll find the bulk of Downtown’s early architectural monuments, many of them built at the turn of the 20th Century.  Back then, Broadway was known as LA’s commercial and theater district and, today, you can still see many remnants of its former glory.

The Bradbury

One of them – and probably the jewel in the crown– is the gorgeous Bradbury Building (at 3rd Street).  Completely nondescript from the outside, it’s the interior that’s exceptional (and recognizable from the movie Bladerunner).  Designed around a central courtyard, the inside is made up of a strange combination of materials – mostly black cast iron with brick, marble and wood also in the mix.  Topping it off are wall-to-wall skylights, which flood the interiors with wonderful natural light, helping to accentuate the amazing beauty of the Bradbury.

Orpheum Theatre on Broadway

Other former glory structures along Broadway include a large number of old-style theatres (at least ten by my count), which were first built as vaudeville houses and later converted into movie theatres once cinema became popular.  One of the most famous is the Million Dollar Theater, which apparently was the first movie palace built in LA by Sid Grauman (of the Chinese Theatre fame).

Other Broadway notables include the KRKD radio tower, one of the first of its kind on the west coast, and the United Artists building (at 9th Street), which now seems to be more famous for what it will become – the LA home of the hipster magnet, boutique Ace Hotel – than for what once was, a theatre and office complex built by the legendary United Artists film production company.

Frank Gehry’s Disney Concert Hall

But there’s more than Broadway and its former glory.  Moving on for the more starchitect minded, Downtown certainly has its share of big-name, must-see modern structures as well. You’ll find most of the main attractions clustered around Grand Avenue and Pershing Square:  Thom Mayne’s Caltrans District 7 Headquarters, Henry Cobb’s iconic Library Tower (now the US Bank building and LA’s tallest skyscraper), Frank Gehry’s amazing Disney Symphony Hall (he also did the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA renovation), and José Rafael Mone’s very lovely (and expensive, with a reported price tag of $190 million) Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.


California Plaza One & Two

Less well known but also worth a look is the California Plaza buildings (one and two by Arthur Erickson) and the Museum of Contemporary Art (by Japanese architect Arata Isozaki).  Both of these projects are probably less renowned for their designs than for being part of the city’s plan to revitalize Downtown in the mid-1980’s (which, as any Los Angeleno knows, didn’t work).

LA’s tallest building

Lastly, there is the Aon Center building located at Wilshire and 7th.  Back in 1988, when the 62-story tower was known as the First Interstate Bank building, it caught fire –  becoming a real-live towering inferno.  Five floors burned before it was contained and, to this day, you can still see the scars on the building (count up to the 12th floor where the fire started). If you’re nearby, this bit of skyscraper lore is definitely worth a peek.

The little things that make Downtown architecture worthwhile:  Getting a small glimpse of what LA looked like in the 1920’s; the lovely and haunting interiors of the Bradbury building; Frank Gehry’s amazing, lyrical Disney Symphony Hall; the rare opportunity to do an actual architecture walking tour  in LA.

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Photos:  Gary Fong

Author:  Gary Fong

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