After the Blaze, Ire Over the Da Vinci Apartments Still Smolders

Ruins of Da Vinci Apartments. | Photo: ATOMIC Hot Links/Flickr/Creative Commons License.

OP-Art: Opinions and editorials about art, institutions, and the relationship between them.


In December, as 75,000 square feet of obliterated, burnt debris smoldered at the Da Vinci apartments complex at 900 Temple Street downtown, the public roiled. A crescendo of sarcasm and judgment flooded forth from social media outlets during and after the blaze -- marked by powerful pro-fire sentiments in the spirit of "burn baby burn;" an endorsement, almost gleefully so, of the inferno that damaged part of the 110 freeway, and two office towers that buffered the development on its other side (those two buildings house Los Angeles' planning and building departments).

Once shoe-horned into a dislocated shard of Bunker Hill and now a blackened ruin -- the remnants of the Da Vinci symbolize a heightened awareness and vested interest in Los Angeles regarding real estate development housing, density and bad taste.

The fire generated loads of commentary and analysis on the event itself, the investigation, and the famously despised and equally lauded developer of the project, Geoff Palmer along with his other properties downtown -- the Orsini, the Visconti, the Pieros.

Over social media, the comments just kept coming. From Curbed LA blog: "These fauxtalian piles of rubbish are just awful. But someone must like them or they wouldn't keep making financial sense. Do they?" Also from Curbed: "Am I the only one who thinks the smoldering pile of debris is better looking than his completed projects?"

Blogger Josh Stephens offered: "The Da Vinci was a disaster long before it burned down," and on Twitter, @slippy wrote: "Huge fire in #dtla. From the same developer that brought you Orsini and the Medici. Arson? People hate this dev."

Other blogs and publications comments sections offered variations on the theme:

From Citylab.com: "Man, that's some ugly stuff. Of course, L.A. holds the reins. If they don't want inward-facing development, they can require it to be otherwise." From LATimes.com: "Ugh, another butt ugly Palmer McPartment building. Bad enough that they're ugly, but making every building the same kind of ugly faux-Italianate is just nauseating. Whoever torched the place should be hired onto the review committee." And: "A well constructed argument against ugly."

Now, as the investigation continues -- it was determined in late December to be an arson fire, and recently, members of the Los Angeles Fire Department and City Council announced a $170,000 reward for information leading to the arrests of those responsible -- the seething public reaction isn't as hot, but continues to smoke.

Ruins of Da Vinci Apartments. | Photo: ATOMIC Hot Links/Flickr/Creative Commons License.

"I think the fire touched a nerve and that's understandable because people are very nervous about a bigger, denser, city," says architecture critic and curator Greg Goldin. "If someone builds 20 or 200 units where a single family home used to be, that is a big physical problem. Los Angeles is not a city that can adapt to rapid densification because our infrastructure can't accommodate it."

More than at any recent time in L.A., Angelenos have a renewed interest in a building's defensiveness, its street level condition, its context or visibility. As we've transformed from a sprawling suburban city to a quickly infilled metropolis, we're more urban-design-minded: We want to know how a new development project will interface with future alternative modes of transportation, or how it will serve the surrounding population, maybe by mitigating traffic congestion or serving as a public meeting place.

"There are a lot of voices out there and a lot of awareness, especially downtown," says architect and biking advocate Daveed Kapoor, "but we haven't gotten through to city government yet." Kapoor spoke against the Da Vinci project last year before the L.A. City Council's Planning Committee, specifically for its proposed pedestrian bridge which Kapoor says goes against neighborhood planning guidelines, and he was active on twitter in the aftermath of the fire. "Concrete and steel frame construction are value construction, and that defined the character of downtown" he says, "These unrelenting blocks made out of foam and stucco and wood sticks," referring to the Da Vinci type of development, "speak to a lack of respect for the community." Kapoor and others point to certain city agencies as problematic -- those who have given developers like Palmer numerous approvals to build out the limits of property lines, and pack in as many units as is physically possible, all while easing the permitting process through which other, less-wealthy and less-connected property owners have to suffer.

Story continues below

Ruins of Da Vinci Apartments. | Photo: ATOMIC Hot Links/Flickr/Creative Commons License.

Arbound contributor Mimi Zeiger sees the aftermath of the fire in a slightly different light. A critic who lives and works in Los Angeles, Zeiger says something similar is occurring in other cities. "Issues of housing in L.A. are happening in parallel with conversations happening in D.C., San Francisco, and many other cities where there is also a pervasive lack of affordable market-rate housing," she explains. "So these big, large-lot developments do reflect demand -- we need housing desperately." In reaction to the public outpouring over the destruction of the Da Vinci, she adds, "We need to build on this interest, and build that into a transparency of the building process."

Interest seems most magnified when aesthetics come into play. Design criticism has bent recently towards an assessment of certain urban design performance criteria, creating a recipe of urban-design do's and don'ts that can mark a building as successful or unsuccessful in terms of its relationship to us and the city. Visual aspects, however, get written about less perhaps because aesthetics operate in the realm of the subjective, the exclusive and the personal. The response after fire, though, set in motion a barrage of mini-vendettas by a public empowered with the freedom to mock. Similarly, the recent unveiling of the façade of the new Broad Collection museum downtown generated interest and commentary on the perceived unexpected heaviness of that design. Chalk it up to online trolls reveling in negative blather, but critics like Goldin see meaning amidst the conflagration.

"In a mature city that's coming to terms with its cosmopolitan character, the feeling is, 'Can't we do better?'" says Goldin. "The aesthetics issue is a huge issue for Los Angeles. The cost of good architecture tends to be more than slapping up of the Da Vinci type of building. They're junk buildings and they're intended to be junk," he says. "So when we see a mega complex going up, people have a gut reaction that a place's identity is being yanked out from under them. People applauded the Da Vinci fire because they feel this kind of project represents all that."

Ruins of Da Vinci Apartments. | Photo: ATOMIC Hot Links/Flickr/Creative Commons License.


Dig this story? Sign up for our newsletter to get unique arts & culture stories and videos from across Southern California in your inbox. Also, follow Artbound on Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube.

We are dedicated to providing you with articles like this one. Show your support with a tax-deductible contribution to KCET. After all, public media is meant for the public. It belongs to all of us.

Keep Reading

Full Episodes