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Angels in the Architecture

Notes from Robert Ivy, FAIA, Editor in chief


The lobby of the Standard Hotel, Los Angeles.


A guestroom at the Standard.

Photos courtesy of the Standard Hotel, Los Angeles.

The Standard, LA’s newest downtown hotel, is just too hip for words. Suffice it to say that the evening I checked in, no one appeared over the age of 27 1/2, the men all sported Van Dyke beards or stocking caps, and the women were thinner than pencil lead. (They were women, I think). The rooftop, a dizzying combo of pool and martinis and projected movies under the shadow of towering monoliths, draws the downtown crowd that stretches around the block on weekends. Yikes! What was I, a grandfather, doing in such a place? I would have felt odd pulling out pictures of the baby (though he’s a killer). I tried to maintain my own brand of New York cool.

While the hallway, on the seventh floor, maintained the retro-nouveau feel, awash in red, red, red, the room seemed totally new. The bed hovered just above floor level, set on a carpeted platform, ideal for radio, watch, and stuff; the mega-screen video monitor hid behind a sheer drape. Surprise, the drapes opened at the other end, revealing a huge soaking tub and tiled bathroom in a single flowing space, mood-lit, ample, perfect for the human body. But I was alone.

Thank God for architecture. The following day, I could plunge into buildings , shaking off the cool. Ron Altoon, a local architect, introduced me to Lana Turner, or her memory, leading a tour through the renovated Bullock’s Wilshire department store, now superbly reconstituted into the library for the Southwestern School of Law. Ironically, the names of former departments still hold sway, prompting directions toward certain books and periodicals that include “Turn left at Ladies’ Lingerie.” You could envision the stars pulling up to the couture showings and staying for lunch in the restaurant.

Then I abandoned the car. Downtown is coming back, and downtowns demand foot traffic. Prompted by major institutions and courageous developers like Tom Gilmore, Los Angeles is rediscovering urbanity at its core. Two projects attracted me with particular force.

To see photos of the Disney Concert Hall, or to view a live webcam of the construction process, go to the LA Philharmonic’s website at: www.laphil.org/press/imagelibrary.cfm

After lumbering uphill in the November sunlight, I had hardly broken a sweat when Frank Gehry’s American masterpiece, the Disney Concert Hall loomed ahead. While I had visited his office and familiarized myself with the early models, this was to be my first encounter with the real thing. Oddly, from a distance, particularly from a high point, the massive concert hall shrinks in relation to its peers. A model, removed from any surrounding context, overstates the scale, which, in Los Angeles, includes huge, hunky buildings nearby.

From the street, in a car or on foot, however, the project takes its rightful place, filling space with its own symphony of wave-like undulations, a musical essay that translates the chromatic spectrum into waves. Some curves even look anthropomorphic. Blocked off by construction, partially finished and exposing its irregular structure, nevertheless we already can gauge the peaks and eddies, glinting beautifully in the California light. We all await the first chords.

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Down Grand, I joined step with a businessman who, like me, intended to visit the cathedral. “Where’s the front door?” he asked, as if I knew. We both conducted a puzzled search, though every available portal seemed to be tightly closed. Finally I hazarded a guess and walked downhill, where I found the entryway, fully populated with visitors and guides and blue-haired seniors in town for a visit. But my companion almost had given up trying.

Suzanne Stephens, writing in our magazine, had got it right: the exterior of Our Lady of the Angels seems offputting and fortresslike. But take one step inside and your concerns melt away. You enter in a classic manner, processing in a long, high, austere passage past chapels that establish a rhythm, the full sanctuary glimpsed in slices to your right. On the end wall, a 16th century baroque gilded altar establishes a datum.

One turn, a few steps, and the space explodes before you. Moneo has created an interior masterwork—a holy void in which light dematerializes thick concrete walls. Light pours in, from cruciform shaped windows, tempered through alabaster; from skylights abutting high walls that spill over and warm the hard surfaces; from the juncture of roof and wall. One floats within the solid vessel, removed from the whirring world, focused on the distances.

My entry to the cathedral was enriched by the human voice. As I made my way inside, a lilting contralto soared beside me, its source unknown. I found myself as an unwitting participant in a funeral, unfamiliar with the departed, whose adieus were accompanied by the full spectacle: incense, organ, the human voice, the comfortable words, the ministrations, the processions, and the tears. This age-old ceremony animated the new building and grounded a once-future building in the present moment, bringing it to life for me, a neutral observer.

Outside, while the family gathered out on the plaza or in the shadows that puddled around the edges, my only wonder was, where were the plants? The huge, open plaza, paved in masonry, glistened in noonday sun. November gave us all this cool day, but in July? Exiting, I found the same businessman, who had taken a different route. Smiling this time, he seemed relieved we had persevered, sorting door from wall. Signs could have eased our way.

The following day, I toured Eric Moss’s elaborate urban complex, a type of urban collage, in Culver City, and toured the quarter-mile-long building for SCI-Arc, but that is another story.

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