Better Luck This Time

June 9, 2016
Agence Ter has won a bake-off to redesign Pershing Square in downtown Los Angeles for the fifth or sixth time. Or is it the seventh?

On a warm May weekday morning, Pershing Square in downtown Los Angeles was, as usual, a bit of a hybrid wasteland. Office workers crossed through as homeless people sprawled across concrete benches. Half the park was closed off for a row of plywood vendor booths related to an upcoming event. A father and son played alone in one of the park’s newly built playgrounds. People walking dogs veered toward the small patches of dirt that break up the park’s vast expanse of sun-baked concrete.

In the middle of the park, under a sheet of black fabric, stood the park’s potential future, a product of an eight-month international design competition. The winning design, unveiled for a crowd of about 75 people, reimagines the park as a wide-open public plaza, with large grassy areas, plentiful shade trees, and a large constructed canopy stretching the entire length of the space. It would be “a timeless design able to grow with a changing community and city,” Henri Bava, a founder of the Paris-based lead of the winning team, Agence Ter, told the crowd. “We will make sure that Pershing Square will become, once again, the dynamic heart of Los Angeles.”

History alone would seem to dictate that Pershing Square is due for a demolition. It’s a predictable cycle for the once and perhaps future central park of downtown Los Angeles, which has undergone dramatic redesigns and renovations about once a generation since its original designation as public space in 1866. At least five times the park has been significantly reconfigured, if not completely torn down and rebuilt anew. Each remodel has been a reaction to the changing face of downtown, but also yet another prescription for what downtown can become.

Its latest redesign, completed in 1994 and financed mostly through taxes on surrounding property owners, has been widely criticized for missing the mark of what the downtown of the mid-1990s could become. It is a five-acre space of hardscape highlighted by bold architectural features, designed by the Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta with what was then the landscape architecture firm Hanna/Olin of Philadelphia. A 10-story purple campanile rises above grassy areas segmented by concrete. Thick, perforated walls and angular structures enclose a perimeter of rooms that form a barrier between the park and the city around it. The park is hard to see into or out of, built atop an underground parking lot and bordered on all sides by automobile ramps, and it has become a gathering place for the city’s large homeless population and various social challenges. A park security guard recently told me how her morning shift required interventions with a man who’d dropped his pants to urinate in the middle of the park, and another man who was pleasuring himself underneath a blanket on one of the park’s benches. Among many insults, Pershing Square has been called “awful,” “a perplexing failure,” and “the worst public space in America.”

And so, about a quarter century since it was last torn down and redrawn, Pershing Square has once again become the focus of a high-profile redesign. This effort, like those before it, is an attempt to reform the park to keep pace with the current trajectory of downtown Los Angeles, a neighborhood undergoing a remarkable economic revitalization, a residential population boom, and a re-emergence as the dominant core of a city with many centers. ...