A Los Angeles Primer: The Bonaventure Hotel and Macy's Plaza

My day downtown began at the 7th Street Metro Center. Many do, but when I got aboveground, I did something I'd never done before: I crossed 7th and entered Macy's Plaza, the brick-encased shopping fortress at the foot of Charles Luckman's 33-story MCI Center. Despite having passed it countless times, I'd never given it much notice, other than as a relic of the none-too-quickly bygone era in American urban planning, when downtowns across the country gave up on their neglected streets and did the best they could with spaces fully enclosed, precisely climate-controlled, and heavily monitored. Inside, I discovered that Macy's Plaza itself had fared even worse than the ideas behind it, having degraded in the forty years since its opening into a hobbling assembly of wan materials, retail spaces either already empty or signaling imminent emptiness, and the most depressing day-care room I've seen in the developed world.

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Los Angeles still presents its users with occasional moments like these, encounters with places that make you simply stand there and wonder how and why things got this way. "It is odd that the center of one of the world's great cities should be occupied by a South of the Border tourist trap," writes architect Charles Moore of Olvera Street, another downtown destination, and it makes no more immediate sense that, across from the city's busiest subway station, on a piece of real estate developers would kill (or at the very least, lavishly bribe) for in other urban cores, sits a deceptively small shopping mall on the brink of surrender, whose remaining attractions include, in sight of one another, a frozen-yogurt stand and a Radio Shack. Some of its decrepitude could be explained with the very same reason I decided to make my unprecedented trip into it: Macy's Plaza, as Angelenos have long known it, will soon vanish.

Large chunks of it, anyway, will vanish, under the ambitious renovation scheme proposed by its latest owner, one meant to finally integrate it with the outside world. I wonder what the commercial architects of the late sixties and seventies — working hard to create these context-independent, inward-turned spaces, self-contained to an almost autarkic degree — would have thought of 21st century's costly efforts to break them open. In its convertibility, complicated though the project may seem, Macy's Plaza got luckier than many others in its architectural generation. Take, for instance, the equally unfashionable one just up Figueroa Street, to which I then walked: John Portman's Bonaventure Hotel, the city's largest and most distinctive such building. If its quartet of reflective glass cylinders looks unusual from the freeway, its interior, a startlingly symmetrical arrangement of circles upon circles upon circles, sends the mind reeling. As with so many structures in Los Angeles, which made its name on daring residential architecture, even the unignorable statement outside doesn't — can't — prepare you to experience the inside.

Writers of all kinds have cast around for appropriate descriptions: a cruel maze, the set of a campy science-fiction movie (too perfectly, the late-seventies Buck Rogers television series really did shoot there), a "postmodern hyperspace." That last comes from the pen of Fredric Jameson, a literary critic and political theorist well-known in the academy for writing in prose frequently described, much like the Bonaventure itself, as complicated and disorienting yet laden with great and deep meaning. The observational inspiration he draws from the hotel, though, drives him into realms of clarity. "The Bonaventure aspires to being a total space, a complete world, a kind of miniature city," he writes in "Postmodernism: The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism." "In this sense, then, ideally the minicity of Portman's Bonaventure ought not to have entrances at all, since the entryway is always the seam that links the building to the rest of the city that surrounds it: for it does not wish to be a part of the city but rather its equivalent and replacement or substitute."

This concept of a city within a city, commercially "zoned" in the lower six of its 33 floors, hit snags from the beginning. Jameson calls it "the notorious dilemma of the shopkeepers on the various balconies": "it has been obvious since the opening of the hotel in 1977 that nobody could ever find any of these stores, and even if you once located the appropriate boutique, you would be most unlikely to be as fortunate a second time; as a consequence, the commercial tenants are in despair and all the merchandise is marked down to bargain prices." The situation persists, and it worsens the farther you rise from the ground. The Bonaventure bears, aside from a long history of financial trouble, even more empty, non-functional, or dysfunctional retail spaces than does Macy's Plaza, and many of those still occupied contain businesses of the most unpreposessing kind. That said, certain amenities of the envisioned indoor minicity have held out: a health club, a hair salon, a wine shop, even an accountant and a dentist's office.

Some, including the spa which still spells out its luxurious services in gold-plated katakana script, cater specifically to Japanese tourists, constituting the suds left behind by that country's burst economic bubble under which so many of the then-new towers of Los Angeles rose under Japanese ownership. (By Mitsubishi, in the Bonaventure's case.) But that era has gone, and the relative paucity of the hotel's current activity jars against the intended opulence of its built environment: the atrium, the indoor lakes, the scarily suspended ovals of seating, and the sculptural concrete holding it together. Nobody could have believed that the future, for which this building had so aesthetically prepared itself, held little more than a Subway sandwich shop, a Christian Science Reading Room, a years-closed teppanyaki house, grave-silent travel agencies, and storefront after vacant storefront with signs like "London Shop," "Perfume," and "Cravings."

Though its rooms surely bring in their share of conventioneers, and its top-floor revolving lounge, offering one of the few genuinely edifying high-altitude views of the city, continues to draw tourist and local alike, I worry for the Bonaventure. Few seriously discuss knocking it down, but nobody knows quite what to do with it either. Even those who call it ghastly, all with good reason, still find it awesome in the most literal, primitive sense of the word. It has commanded the attention of not just academics and architectural critics, but filmmakers from John Carpenter to James Cameron ("This is one of two elevators used in filming TRUE LIES," a plaque proudly informs guests) and, more recently, thrill-seekers who rappel down its still-gleaming exterior walls for charity. Moments after first walking in myself — after, of course, figuring out how to walk in in the first place — I understood that I had found the most astonishing space in Los Angeles, and also the saddest. The debates about whether to properly class its architecture as modern or postmodern may go on forever, but those who have experienced it know that it creates, and destroys, a category of its own.


Photos by Colin Marshall.

About the Author

Colin Marshall hosts and produces the podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture. These columns present essays adapted from his book-in-progress, "A Los Angeles Primer: Mastering the Stateless City."
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