Search This Blog

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Landscapes for Living: Bunker Hill Steps

Image from LA Times.  All Rights Reserved.
Even more follow-up to the Cultural Landscape Foundation's recent symposium this week from the LA Times' Christopher Hawthorne.  He takes a quick look at Bunker Hill Steps, one of Lawrence Halprin's downtown projects, as a kick-off to a new series called Ground Level bringing attention to street-level design in Los Angeles.  
One theme of last week’s Landscapes for Living conference at SCI-Arc, which I write about in a Critic’s Notebook in Wednesday’s  paper, was the continuing, puzzling obscurity of landscape architects and their work in Southern California. As it happens, a main goal of our new Ground Level feature is to bring attention to overlooked street-level design around the region. Serendipity!

So today we’ll devote this space to one of many pedigreed-but-under appreciated examples of postwar landscape design in downtown Los Angeles: Lawrence Halprin’s Bunker Hill Steps, completed in 1990 directly across 5th  Street from the Central Library and in the shadow of Pei Cobb Freed’s U.S. Bank Tower, the tallest building in the city. In romantic as much as literal terms, Halprin’s design is meant to recall the Spanish Steps in Rome, a debt that makes this project a textbook example of postmodernism in landscape architecture. More practically, the steps provide a pedestrian link between downtown’s historic core and the newer architecture of Bunker Hill.

Bisected by a stream-like water feature, the 103 steps flow around and past artworks by Robert Graham and others. The project is one of a number downtown from the period by Halprin, a giant of postwar landscape architecture who lived in Marin County and died two years ago at age 93.

Halprin’s nearby designs include the Maguire Gardens at the foot of the library, Grand Hope Park and the glass-enclosed Wells  Fargo Court (formerly Crocker Court) at 3rd Street and Grand Avenue. According to Charles Birnbaum — founder of the Cultural Landscape Foundation, which organized last week’s conference — this loose network of L.A. projects contains Halprin’s “most diverse vocabulary of indoor and outdoor spaces.”

Landscapes for Living

In response to the Cultural Landscapes Foundation's recent symposium "Landscapes for Living: Post-War Landscape Architecture in Los Angeles," Christoper Hawthorne had a great article pondering why landscape architects and their work remains so anonymous in Los Angeles and beyond.  Definitely worth a great read to ponder some ideas as to exactly why landscapes are valued so different than architecture in a city full of such great designers.  Below is an excerpt:
"In Southern California," the architect Charles Moore wrote in 1984, "the part that is planted is very likely to be more sophisticated than the part that is built."

If that's the case — and I'd say it has been in nearly every phase of the region's design history — how to explain the fact that Los Angeles architects have for so long been much better known, locally and around the world, than their counterparts in landscape architecture? Why have our best gardens tended to be even more susceptible to neglect or demolition than our best houses, which are themselves infamously vulnerable?

Why is it that everybody in L.A. seems to remember that Bertram Goodhue designed the original Central Library downtown, but few know that the acclaimed landscape architect Lawrence Halprin is responsible for the Maguire Gardens at the building's feet, added when the library was restored and extended by architects Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer in 1993?

. . . .
Explanations for that obscurity came in a rush all day long. Landscape architects don't publish or promote their work the way architects do. They don't create objects, easily photographed and quickly understood, the way architects do. And perhaps most obvious of all: Their work is ephemeral by definition, quicker to decay and easier to modify than buildings are, to say nothing of a painting, a symphony or a novel.

All those explanations make sense, but they are mostly universal: They don't say a whole lot about the particular battles fought, and often lost, by landscape architects in Southern California.

. . . .

To get at the peculiar anonymity of the Southern California landscape architect, it seems to me, requires exploring a notion that barely got a hearing at "Landscapes for Living," at least during the panels I attended: the L.A. garden as a vehicle for — and expression of — a certain democratic impulse.

Because Los Angeles was built from its earliest days around the primacy of the single-family house, garden space here has always been widely available to families with a range of incomes and backgrounds. Instead of a
Central Park by the famous Frederick Law Olmsted at the very heart of our metropolis, we developed tens of thousands of private amateur parks in our backyards, to go with a relative handful of parks and plazas by prominent designers.

Another question I didn't hear any of the panelists address directly, though they seemed to circle around it all day, was this: In a world quickly turning every artistic discipline into digital form — even architecture, with fancy computer renderings of unbuilt projects now routinely splashed across the front pages of newspapers and the covers of books and magazines — how can landscape architecture possibly compete? If gardens are nearly impossible to appreciate in two dimensions, they are also best understood over time.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Happy Earth Day!

Happy Earth Day!  In celebration of making today, and every day, a celebration of our biosphere, here are a few links to making live in Los Angeles more earth-friendly:
Sustainable Living
Green LA 
Be Waterwise

Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition
Bike LA

Urban Greening
Million Trees LA
LA Guerilla Gardening
Los Angeles Community Garden Council


Friends of the LA River
Friends of Ballona Wetland

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Spring Garden Events

Springtime means a lot of things in Southern California: blooms, the return of beach weather, and garden tours.  The LA Times has a comprehensive list of upcoming garden tours and events for the LA area.  Below is a brief list of some of the upcoming tours and plants sales.
April 28-May 1: The 21st annual Southern California Spring Garden Show      .

April 30:
The self-guided Mar Vista Green Garden Showcase

April 30-May 1:
The Mary Lou Heard Memorial Garden Tour

May 1:
The Garden Conservancy's Open Days tour of private gardens in Pasadena.

May 1:
The 52nd annual garden tour of the Santa Monica Bay Auxiliary, Children's Hospital Los Angeles will feature six Westside gardens.

May 1: 
The Westlake Village Garden Club hosts its 38th Annual Garden and Patio Tour  of five gardens in Westlake Village and Thousand Oaks.

May 3: 
The Sherman Library and Gardens Volunteer Assn. presents its 15th annual garden tour from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at private homes in Corona del Mar and Newport Beach.

May 6:
This year’s self-guided Gate and Garden Tour in Laguna Beach.

May 7:
The annual self-guided  Venice Garden and Home Tour

May 13:
Friends of Robinson Gardens will present the 23rd annual “... Into the Garden” benefit tour 

May 15: The Garden Conservancy’s Open Days tour of Los Angeles.

May 15: The Huntington Botanical Gardens 36th annual spring plant sale .

June 4:
The San Clemente Garden Club Tour

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Public Parking in LA - A Room to a View

Free parking and views across the urban matrix out to the ocean.
Parking in LA can definitely be a hassle, but it can also be a great opportunity to survey the landscape, or so I discovered this week in downtown Santa Monica.  As part of some business there this week, I ended up parking on top of one of the many public access parking garages, only to discover spectacular 360 degree views of the surrounding area.   Including pretty amazing views out to that asset of all Southern California assets, the Pacific Ocean.  Parking is free for two hours, or you can also just walk up to the top of the roof and enjoy views out to the ocean, Santa Monica Mountains, and downtown LA. 
On a clear day, you can see different nodes of LA urbanism.

Friday, April 8, 2011

CicLAvia Interview

The Architect's Newspaper had a nice interview with Aaron Paley, the founder of CicLAvia, today.  It provides some interesting perspective on the challenges and opportunities for organizing CicLAvia, while getting the word out about the great event.  Below are some interesting excerpts:
We look at this as molding and shaping public space through this temporary intervention. We’re hoping this is the kind of thing that reshapes the way people perceive their city, which will change the way they use their city and change their expectations for the city. We think this can have as big an impact as building a park. We are adding this whole element of new public space, which can be done efficiently and sustainably and cheaply without actually building something.

. . . 

The thing that people said to us was: "Oh my God, I didn’t realize how small LA is. I didn’t realize I could get from here to Boyle Heights in ten minutes." The feeling was that LA is much more intimate, and who knew how beautiful it is? That is the right to be able to look at your city and own your city when people are not in their cars.

Thursday, April 7, 2011


CicLAvia is back!  After a hugely successful debut last year, the second go-round (and the first of three scheduled events this year) is this Sunday, April 10th from 10am to 3pm.  The free, bike and pedestrian-oriented event should be even bigger and better and will be taking over even more real estate in neighborhoods ranging from Silverlake, Hollywood, and Koreatown down to Downtown. More info is below from CicLAvia's website:
Los Angeles’ second CicLAvia will be Sunday April 10th 2011 from 10am-3pm. It’s FREE, fun, family-friendly! Click for: route map, flier, or volunteering. RSVP/share on Facebook – or just show up! Check FAQ page for answers to CicLAvia questions. See the activtity map page for scheduled events or to add your own. (More 2011 events: July 10, October 9!)

Monday, April 4, 2011


It has been a while between posts, but what better way to start up again than with a SEEDBOMB?  Ran into a SEEDBOMB dispenser while out to dinner in the Miracle Mile area on Saturday night.  For only 50 cents, you can buy a SEEDBOMB, not for consumption but for an act of ecological insurrection.  Not sure how successful the dispenser has been in terms of sales, but I would imagine it has been highly effective at communicating a measure of ecological literacy and spreading the good word.