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Finalists Announced in Pershing Square "Vision" Competition

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Remaking downtown Los Angeles has taken another long step. As LA history shows, it's one that might end badly.

In October, Pershing Square Renew - a city-chartered consortium of nonprofits, political heavyweights, and developers - posted the pitches of ten teams contending for PSR's commission to replace the much ridiculed 1993 version of Pershing Square (once called the city's Central Park, although no one does today).

On Monday, PSR named the four finalists from whom a design for making Pershing Square into something better will be chosen.

We're all invited to consider the vision - none anything like a plan yet - of each of the finalists. Meanwhile, they have three months to turn vision into a design. We'll see the results in an exhibition in March 2016, when additional public comment will be solicited. Our preferences, PSR has said, will be a factor in selecting the winning plan in April.

The interests that have a stake in downtown's renewal will celebrate the selection of a winner. But as Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne warned in a recent tweet, the ballyhoo has end in actual construction. "Who is going to pay for the new Pershing Square?" he pointedly asked.

Until that's decided, the visions are less design schemes and more like poetry - the poetry of place.

Changing Pershing Square
Changing Pershing Square  | Photo courtesy USC Digital Library

Los Angeles, more than any other American city, has a troubled history with that kind of poetry. So much of Los Angeles came into being solely because it was so beautifully sold, in every medium of advertising, beginning at the turn of the 20th century. The triumph of marketing made Los Angeles what it is today. Perhaps we should have become more hardened ... or at least asked harder questions of the boosters.

And some of us are still suckers for the urgent promise that someone else's idea of tomorrow's city will resolve our anxieties about the city we have today.

The Finalists

To help distinguish the finalists for one another, PSR has given them team names. From the PSR announcement, they are:

The "Local Force": SWA with Morphosis. "Both of these firms are based in Downtown LA and well represented throughout Southern California, as well as nationally and internationally."
The "Globetrotters": Agence TER with SALT Landscape Architects. "Paris-based Agence TER's landscapes dot Europe and have reached the Middle East and French Guyana."
The "Wild Card": wHY with Civitas. "Located in Culver City, relative newcomers wHY, partnered with Denver's well-known Civitas Landscape Architecture group ..."
The "Landscape Starchitect": James Corner Field Operations with Frederick Fisher & Partners. "New York's James Corner is responsible for Manhattan's High Line, arguably the greatest new public park of the millennium, as well as Santa Monica's Tongva Park."

At this early stage, their sketchy concepts necessarily have a common look. In line with the competition's guidelines, they all aim to make Pershing Square accessible, fully connected to the surrounding urban fabric, and green, along with providing space for community programs and celebratory events. Trees, grass, shade structures, and walkways are in every proposal in different combinations and emphases.

Agence TER with Landscape Architects imagine Pershing Square as a green space.
Agence TER with Landscape Architects imagine Pershing Square as a green space.

The concepts also use a common vocabulary to describe a better Los Angeles. It should have a "heart" (even, as more than one proposal put it, "a beating heart") re-centered at Pershing Square. As the symbolic center of Los Angeles, Pershing Square should reflect the "very essence" of the city. The city's essence in the proposals is (predictably) diverse, and because it is, the language about Pershing Square is (predictably) diffuse. It's also disturbingly ahistorical For most of its history, Pershing Square was the anti-heart of mestizo Los Angeles that refused to beat with a Latin rhythm.

SWA with Morphosis
SWA with Morphosis

A new Pershing Square, according to the four finalists, should be timeless and dynamic, a stage for big ideas and intimate, an urban oasis of nature and the site of income-producing commercial development, visionary and grassroots, comfortable and visceral, cohesive and democratic - as well as exciting, honest, seamless, transparent, and eventful.

That's a lot to ask of the city block bounded by Olive, Hill, 5th, and 6th streets.

Recognizing the limits of Pershing Square, some of the proposals call for converting one or more of the bordering streets into a pedestrian concourse. Other proposals, with less detail, imagine park events and programs extending onto the sidewalks and into the ground floors of the buildings that face Pershing Square. Given the politics of development in Los Angeles, either concept would make it harder to realize the final plan.

Perhaps all these expectations are too much for Pershing Square to carry; perhaps all of Los Angeles - heart, essence, or center - can't be fitted into this modest space without another round of disappointment, regret, and rejection.

From 1870 until 1954 - even until 1993 - Pershing Square was mostly a place for strolling and sitting, a place that expressed the essence of Los Angeles as a place in the sun, a place of refreshment and ease. The experience of the park then was theatrical and direct in fundamental ways - as a place to see and be seen in public, to display who we are as Angeleños (even with our rough edges and less-than-perfect desires).

The poetry that the finalists composed to pitch their vision for Pershing Square reads a bit like the description of an urban theme park, relentlessly cheerful. Encouragingly, PSR has reminded the finalists to frame their final designs with less architecture and more park, where enjoyment would come with a different rhythm and moods more various.

PSR's own vision for Pershing Square is deliberately undefined, but it does contain a tragic assumption about the nature of place in Los Angeles. We bought the idea that it was possible to render the bewildering complexity of the region - its divided heart as much as its mixed character - in a single, material symbol. The symbol was, for more than a century, a "villa in its garden" - a house and a yard and a lawn where all of nature and all of civilization combined in (segregated) harmony.

Pershing Square Views, 1939
Pershing Square Views, 1939  | Photos courtesy USC Digital Library

In acquiring a house here, the extravagant sales pitch went, you gained all of what we thought Los Angeles means.

The crowd of adjectives in the proposals for Pershing Square has the same singular ambition, even though the meaning of Los Angeles - in its history and its character - continues to elude us, as the repeated remakings of Pershing Square, in response to the demands of our unfulfilled desire, continue to show.

More than actual designs, the four finalists have attempted to project a vision and attitude for the renewed Pershing Square. Image: wHY with Civitas.
More than actual designs, the four finalists have attempted to project a vision and attitude for the renewed Pershing Square. Image: wHY with Civitas.

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