A Brief History of Los Angeles' Tallest Buildings

In Partnership with Machine Project as part of the Getty initiative Pacific Standard Time Presents: Modern Architecture in L.A. Machine Project asked artists to take on the whole environment of Los Angeles and create performances shot on video and edited into short experimental films in response to notable architectural sites throughout the city.

As part of The Machine Project Field Guide to L.A. Architecture, artist Kamau Patton engaged with a series of buildings in Los Angeles via a chartered helicopter, while performing a sound work composed for the flight. Accompanied by a cameraman and sound engineer, the entire flight was streamed live to Machine Project's storefront space and the web. We asked designer Matthew Au to compile a history of the tallest buildings throughout the history of Los Angeles.


At first glance, from afar, Los Angeles appears in a haze like any other city. The small cluster of vertically oriented buildings that rise and peek quickly identify its downtown. However, set against the nearly infinite horizontal expanse of development around it, this skyline of towers begins to seem a little strange; it's oddly small for a city of its size, a little too blunt at its top and bottom, and absent the density that is expected for a city of 3.8 million. Diverse in its building styles and types, tall structures in Los Angeles are consistently atypical. The shape of the city, its towers and plazas, more than showcase style of their era, they are the cumulative product of abject laws and regulations, shady political maneuvering, ungrounded utopianism, competitive one-upmanship, apologetic urbanism, and, like it or not, parking.

Kamau Patton in helicopter | "The Sky Above" by Kamau Patton. Video by Machine Project.
Kamau Patton in helicopter | "The Sky Above" by Kamau Patton. Video by Machine Project.

The relative scarcity of tall buildings in Los Angeles can be attributed to a half-century City Council ordinance set in 1905 (later amended in 1911) which prohibited the construction of buildings in Los Angeles taller than 150 feet.1 The few exceptions to this strict ordinance included a loop hole allowing uninhabited "decorative" towers, such as the Art Deco Eastern Columbia Building, and the single permitted variance in over 50 years: Los Angeles City Hall.2

View of the opening of City Hall in Los Angeles, decorated and lighted at night. The building was completed in 1928. It was the tallest building in Los Angeles, by law, until the 1950s. Designed by associated architects Austin, Parkinson, Parkinson and Martin. | Photo Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

1928-1968: Los Angeles City Hall

For 40 years following completion in 1928, the Los Angeles City Hall loomed with authoritative dominance over the city, which by strict ordinance could grow no taller than 1/3 the height of it's 452' tower. Designed by the architecture super team Allied Architects,3 the City Hall set the tone of downtown's building style over the next two decades and anticipated a defining type of L.A. architecture: the emblematic object building. Stylistically, the building is a strange cacophony of historic types: Romanesque arches with Corinthian columns at its base, a Byzantine rotunda, an Art Deco set back and tower, Spanish style roofs, and a crown atop its tower modeled on the Classical Mausoleum at Halicarnassus. Like other pastiche icons in this era, the turreted tire-manufacturer-turn-discount-shopping-center Citadel for example, the familiar but strange iconicity of City Hall is dressed for the starring role as civic authority over the next century in film and television.4 However, aside from its numerous historical quotations the terracotta clad steel structure is a modern building, and as such its form, mass, and height would set an example for the urban city that is Los Angeles today. Inset deep within its city-block sized base, City Hall's low shouldered tower is removed from any direct relationship to the street below and isolated from any competing tower that would diminish its stature. The figure of the tower with this arrangement can best be described as strong form, like an exclamation mark it extends symmetrically proud and unyielding against its urban surroundings.

By the time the building height limit was removed by voter referendum in 1957, Los Angeles had already established itself as a new type of city: polynuclear and horizontally expansive. While the removal of the ordinance opened the door for a late blossoming vertical city it was also coupled with a new, perhaps equally crippling requirement for parking. In the years that growth in downtown lay stagnant, the automobile established itself as a vital character in the economic landscape of the city. From this point, any hope for a recentralized downtown and a vertical city would inevitably be limited and shaped by the ability of its buildings to account for large areas of real estate devoted to parking.

In the foreground is 4th Street being cut through Bunker Hill in its redevelopment program. In the background is Union Bank, a 42-story office building. It was designed by Albert C. Martin and built in 1967. It is notable for being the first highrise in central Los Angeles since the 1920s. | Photo Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library
Union Bank Tower | "The Sky Above" by Kamau Patton. Video by Machine Project.
Union Bank Tower | "The Sky Above" by Kamau Patton. Video by Machine Project.

1968-1969: Union Bank Plaza

The first building to surpass City Hall in height was the 516' AC Martin designed Union Bank Plaza tower. Built in 1968, it was the first tower erected in the still active Bunker Hill Redevelopment Project. In line with the mid-century national trend to rehabilitate urban regions in decay, the newly formed Community Redevelopment Agency began a massive tabula rasa style development atop the poor and densely populated Bunker Hill neighborhood at the edge of downtown. Initially envisioned as a "Radiant City" style plan, the project proposed raising all of the Victorian housing stock, flattening the top of the hill and building a network of large buildings, each an isolated object atop a parking lot plinth connected by a two tiered road system. The expansive area the project covered and its failure to incorporate a public transportation system underscored the impact of a car centered city and revealed the shape of a vertical Los Angeles as fundamentally different than cities that began their vertical assent several generations earlier.

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The Union Bank Plaza became the first model for a car-centered tower that would define much of Los Angeles' urban core. Set center atop its parking structure and adjacent plaza, the tower design features a steel structured graphic grid of vertical and horizontal beams, continuous from top to bottom, that frame a deeply recessed secondary glazing system. Without immediate neighbors the tower's De Chirico grid is equally distributed around the tower's four vertical sides and thus perceived the same from car on the adjacent freeway as it is from a pedestrian at its foot. Also, with primary access oriented from the parking garage, minimal attention is placed on an urban pedestrian entrance. This accounts for the tower's object-like surface grid continuity. While this object-tower atop a parking-plinth model does prevent the feared "dark walled-in streets" scenario used to justify the height limit ordinance at the beginning of the century, it also prevents the city from ever creating the density required to vitalize an active vertical city.

1969-1972: 611 Place

An urban arms-race immediately followed the Bunker Hill project. In rapid succession towers rose to take the "tallest building" title and beacon in the revitalization efforts around their dormant economic districts. The first tower to take the title was the William Pereira designed 611 Place in the former 6th Street banking district. The vertically extruded cruciform shaped tower atop a four story parking podium was to house the now-defunct Crocker Citizens Bank and attempt to usher in a new era of banking back to downtown. The tower broke ground in the wake of Pereira's designed Los Angeles County Museum of Art and followed his signature brand of ornate modernism with thin cast concrete fins fluted around the tower.

5th and Olive Streets, looking west on 5th in May 1973. At is a portion of the Biltmore Hotel, then a parking lot, followed by the Los Angeles Central Library and ARCO Towers on Flower Street | Photo Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library
5th and Olive Streets, looking west on 5th in May 1973. At is a portion of the Biltmore Hotel, then a parking lot, followed by the Los Angeles Central Library and ARCO Towers on Flower Street | Photo Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

1972-1974: ARCO Towers (City National Plaza and Paul Hastings Tower)

The starchitect brand and marketing campaign heralding Pereira's design for the "automobile-oriented Californian"5 held sway for only three years until in 1972 the monolithic twin ARCO Towers arose like a pair of strange obelisks a few blocks away at the base of Bunker Hill. The sleek glass and polished marble twin towers were a novel form of corporate high modernism in the city that until then had been dominated by a regional style of concrete, terracotta, and stucco. It is fitting then that the twin towers replaced the out-dated heavy black and gold trimmed Art Deco Richfield Tower, a relic of the oil economy, with an international design reflective of the burgeoning finance economy that would take its place.

Panoramic view of Downtown Los Angeles, with the AON on the left | Photo Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library
Panoramic view of Downtown Los Angeles, with the AON on the left | Photo Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

1974-1989 Aon Center (First Interstate Tower)

In only two years, the ARCO Towers lost their title by over 150' to the 858' Aon Center. Designed by former Pereira partner Charles Luckman, the Aon Center is particular in its hybrid corporate-yet-regional form. While the glass and thin bronze mullions suggest a motive similar to the ARCO towers, the inverted cast concrete corners simultaneously reject any possible reading as monolithic. Like an unfinished tilt-slab concrete building, common around L.A., the architectural detail suggests the building is assembled of 8 tall slabs -- two on each side -- tilted vertically to form the tower. In this highly strategic move, the tower not only over takes the ARCO towers in height, it formally counters the architectural style they import into Los Angeles. Less than a decade in to becoming a vertical city, the skyscrapers of Los Angeles had become self-aware of both the effect their design projected onto the city and the affects the city's culture and regulations have on them. Perhaps significant to this point is the small, ten story "mini-me" version of Aon Center across from the tower that houses the city required parking and connects back to the tower via underground passage.

Library Tower (US Bank Tower) | "The Sky Above" by Kamau Patton. Video by Machine Project.
Library Tower (US Bank Tower) | "The Sky Above" by Kamau Patton. Video by Machine Project.

1989 - : Library Tower (US Bank Tower)

Fifteen years passed before the Library Tower at 1,018' took reign as the tallest building in Los Angeles and tallest west of the Mississippi River. Named for its close proximity to the highly cherished low 'n' slow Bertram Goodhue Central Library and inherent kinship acquired from purchasing its historic neighbor's air rights; the Henry Cobb tower as urban giant is strikingly self-conscious of its own bigness and oddly considerate of its surroundings. The tower is articulated by a series of concentric floor plans generated through various geometric iterations between a circle and parallelogram that step inward the building's mass at four intervals between the 48th and 73rd floors. The effect is a geometrically complex and novel figure that in the round compliments rather than confronts the skylines hard edged rigidity. This figure is perhaps the closest attempt possible of producing a varied skyline in a city bluntly capped by a 1974 Municipal Code6 requiring all buildings above a certain height to have an emergency helicopter landing facility, 50' x 50' plus a 25' buffer. By this prerequisite, the Library Tower has the highest and perhaps most frightening helipad in the world. Additionally, the soft edge impression the tower makes in the city skyline is also reflected at it's base. Gentle pleats of granite and glass curving around the building's geometry and ending in a high inset entry compliment the adjacent Central Library, thereby leaving little sense that the two buildings viewed face to face are disproportioned at a scale of nearly 10:1. Further, by rerouting the entrance to the city required parking along a side street to the rear of the building, the Library Tower does what 611 Place failed to do in its parking podium and what the Aon Center attempts to do with its incognito parking facility: it creates a pedestrian non-object urban building that still works within the strict regulations that have since shaped Los Angeles.

Downtown L.A. | "The Sky Above" by Kamau Patton. Video by Machine Project.
Downtown L.A. | "The Sky Above" by Kamau Patton. Video by Machine Project.

2014 -

Half of a century into the city's foray in verticality, Los Angeles may still be unwilling to give up its horizontal tendencies. In the cultural imagination, each one the tallest buildings have been destroyed by tornadoes, earthquakes, missile attacks, and even alien invaders, at least twice.7 In reality, office vacancy rates in downtown are more than double the comparable districts in other cities, and it is worse in the tallest buildings.8 In 2013, the city approved plans for the spire topped Wilshire Grand Tower that when built will be the new tallest building in L.A. However, while this may signal that the city is still dabbling in tall, the quarter-mile horizontal "skyscraper" One Santa Fe currently under construction at the eastern edge of downtown affirms that it never stopped thinking long.



1 In "The Architecture of Los Angeles," author Paul Gleye that the decision to limit building height LA was a product of the aesthetic ideology of a few individuals insistent in developing the city "along broad and harmonious lines" rather than fear of structural instability in an earthquake. Both the fact that the 1906 San Francisco earthquake occurred a year after the ordinance was put in place and lack of structural anxiety surrounding the construction of City Hall belie any argument attributing fear of the natural disaster toward the city's horizontal development. Similar to many cities at the turn of the century, the influence of the City Beautiful Movement (Daniel Burnham's Plan of Chicago for example) and the desire to market Los Angeles in opposition to the "dark walled-in streets" of its east coast rivals likely provided the impetuous for the heavy handed ordinance.

2 It is worth noting that two of the City Hall architects, John Parkinson and John C. Austin served on the very commission that wrote the ordinance limiting building height in the city. Perhaps of little coincidence, three Parkinson designed buildings were at the time the ordinance passed the tallest buildings in Los Angeles. The 151' Braly Block, the 165' Security Building, and the 190' AG Bartlett Building all were assured the symbolic status of tallest buildings in Los Angeles by the ordinance until the crown jewel of civil architecture would reign supreme. Additionally, the inevitable horizontal expansion of a capped city core ensured clear economic boon to John C. Austin, who at the time had many projects and investments outside the boundaries of downtown. In the end the third City Hall architect, Albert C. Martin, may have benefitted the most; by leveraging the iconic his firm AC Martin and Partners, subsequently passed through multiple Martin generations, has been responsible for several of the most well regarded buildings in Los Angeles and nearly 1/3 of all tall buildings in Los Angeles.

3 Allied Architects combined the efforts of John Parkinson, John C Austin, and Albert C. Martin, three of the city' most active architects in their day.

4 After the 1994 Northridge earthquake, debate over whether to tear down or repair the badly damaged building focused on its value as backdrop in films and television shows.

5 A press release in the Valley News paper (Sept. 12, 1968) identifies the building as "planned for autos" and further describes the project as "Representing a dramatic departure from conventional commercial architecture, the structure has been planned especially for the automobile-oriented Californian, with nine levels of enclosed parking, five below grade, and a unique "motor lobby," with walls of colored crushed marble, that invites tenants and visitors to drive directly to the elevators."

6 Los Angeles Municipal Code: Sec. 57.118.12

7 Partial List of Skyscaper destruction porn -- LA City Hall: War of the Worlds (1953); 611 Place: Epicenter (2000), Day After Tomorrow (2004); Twin Towers: Blue Thunder (1983); Library Tower: Independence Day (1996), The Day After Tomorrow (2004), 2012 (2009)

8 In 2013, the Downtown Financial District had an average vacancy rate of 22.4%, 3.2% higher than the city wide average of 19.2%, and 14.4% higher than the 8% vacancy rate in New York's financial district. This rate was even greater in the tallest buildings; the US Bank Tower for example had a 41% vacancy rate. (Outlook: Los Angeles Office 2013 Q4, Transwestern Market-Research)


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