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Architect Explores Downtown Los Angeles’s Diverse Architecture & History

Today AD welcomes back architect Valery Augustin for a walking tour of Downtown Los Angeles, exploring its diverse architectural design. From Spanish Colonial and 1930s art deco to postmodern deconstructivism, Downtown Los Angeles has become a playground for design, boasting a wide variety of architectural styles spanning centuries–discover the history of this diverse district through Valéry Augustin’s expert eye.

Released on 07/05/2023


I'm Valéry Augustin and I'm an architect,

and today we're going to go on an architectural walking tour

of downtown Los Angeles.

[soft jazz music]

Downtown Los Angeles has given world-renowned architects

an opportunity to design buildings

that really contribute to a fabulous urban environment.

L.A. allows buildings that are inventive, creative,

and many types of things

that we wouldn't see in other places.

The mix of styles that we see in this city

is one of the most enduring examples

of what makes downtown Los Angeles a mecca for architects

around the world.

Over my shoulder you can see Los Angeles City Hall,

designed by architect, John Parkinson in 1928.

This 454 foot tall building features 28 stories.

Now, what's interesting about that

is when the building was designed the entire city government

would've only filled four floors,

but the architects were able to convince the city government

that it was cheaper and more cost-effective

to build all 28 floors then,

than to try do it later through an expansion.

In hindsight, it was a pretty smart idea

because it never gets cheaper to build.

The top of the tower

is modeled after the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus,

one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

John Parkinson liked to use a hybrid of designs

in his architecture.

The tower behind us

is something that was described as modern American,

but features styles such as Art Deco and Greek Revival.

The exterior of the building is clad in California granite

and gray terracotta tile.

The design of City Hall also features

some other notable aspects.

As an important symbolic gesture,

sand from all 58 counties of California,

and water from the 21 original Spanish missions

were used to develop the concrete in the building behind us.

Now, the design of City Hall is part of a much larger

urban gesture in downtown Los Angeles.

City Hall sits at the end of an axis

that follows from east to west along Grand Park

through the Music Center

and ends up at the Department of Water and Power Building.

Designed by William Pereira,

City Hall underwent a seismic renovation

between 1998 and 2001.

$135 million seismic renovation now makes it

the tallest base-isolated structure in the entire world,

so now City Hall can withstand earthquakes

up to 8.1 on the Richter Scale.

[soft jazz music]

Behind me you'll see the Broad Museum.

The Broad Museum was completed in 2015,

and it was designed by New York based architects,

Diller Scofidio and Renfro.

One of the concepts of this building

that the architects used when designing the space

was this idea of the vault and the veil.

The veil is the exterior that you see behind me,

made up of a series

of glass fiber reinforced concrete panels,

or better known as GFRC.

The designers tested a wide variety of panel shapes

before arriving on the diagonal pattern

that we see behind us,

and that pattern was developed after studying the best way

to control light into the gallery space,

as well as the ground floor lobby.

Now, the concept of the veil

works across the roof of the building along with the sides.

Along the roof what it does

is it controls all of the natural light,

which means that no direct light is affecting the art.

The veil also shields the vault from the street

and then also frames the ground floor lobby.

The second floor is known as the vault

in which all the art is stored.

You can see a corner of the vault peeking out above us,

just above the lobby.

One of the most exciting experiences in this building

is to take the ground floor escalator up through the vault

up to the third floor gallery space.

Now, as you go up through the vault,

you'll get glimpses of the art that is stored inside

as you go up to this beautiful sunlit gallery space

on the third floor.

One moment of the facade

is where the veil and the vault come together,

and that's the oculus that we see on the second floor

where the veil actually pierces the vault

into our second story conference room.

Now while many people might consider

The Broad an object building,

there's a public plaza on the west side of the building,

which is open for events,

and for the public to use on a regular basis.

[soft jazz music]

We're in front of the Eastern Columbia Building.

This 13-story building was completed in 1930

by architect Claud Beelman.

Now one of the most noticeable aspects of this building

is that it's built in the Art Deco style.

Now some of the specific features

that we can recognize in this building as being Art Deco

include the emphasis on verticality,

some of the sleek geometric forms

like the Chevrons and some of the Starbursts.

One of the first things you notice

is the evocative colors that were used.

The beautiful blue and aqua terracotta tiles

are one of the things that make Eastern Columbia Building

really stand out in the Broadway Theater District.

Another thing that makes it stand out is its height.

Now when this building was designed and built,

Los Angeles had a 150 foot height building limit,

but the architects were able to convince the city

that the clock tower needed to be higher

and were granted an exemption,

which now gives us the 264 feet

that the building now stands at.

The building was originally built as a department store,

the Eastern Company and the Columbia Company,

hence its name as The Eastern Columbia.

The building was converted into residential use.

One of the most notable residents being Johnny Depp

who purchased five units,

and combined them into a single luxurious penthouse.

The Eastern Columbia Building

is one of the most enduring examples

of Art Deco architecture in downtown L.A.

Art Deco emphasizes the use of manmade materials

like terracotta, steel, reinforced concrete and copper.

The structure is reinforced concrete

and the building is clad in glazed terracotta panels.

The beautiful turquoise and blue panels

are accented by gold trim,

and also includes copper spandrel areas

that have patinaed to the beautiful green

that we see behind us,

which makes it a fixture of the Broadway Theater District.

[soft jazz music]

Behind me you can see Ramón C. Cortines High School

for the Visual and Performing Arts,

or also known as Central High School Number Nine.

It was completed in 2009

by noted Austrian architects Coop Himmelb[l]au.

Now when the architects designed this building

one of their main ideas was that the building

should really represent the idea of the arts

for the city of Los Angeles,

and that is represented through a number of ways.

One of it is through the lobby space

that you see right behind me.

Designed in the Deconstructivist style,

Deconstructivist architecture

is characterized by a number of things,

one of them being angular forms

and sort of discordant shapes.

We can see that in the tapered shape of the lobby

and also the geometric shape of the fly tower.

The fly tower is used in a performing art space

to change backdrops

and to change the backgrounds of different sets.

This particular lobby leads to

a 1,000 seat performing arts theater,

a public theater open to all Angelinos.

Coop Himmelb[l]au was awarded the project

through an international competition,

which was encouraged by Eli Broad,

who felt that Los Angeles really deserved

a state-of-the-art world-class high school

for the performing arts.

Coop Himmelb[l]au is a Vienna, Austria based firm

known for a number of notable buildings

including the Musée des Confluences in France.

High School Number Nine

was their first commission in the United States.

The 230,000 square foot building cost $232 million to build,

or almost $1,000 a square foot.

One of the really great things

is that it really is a local school.

70% of the students are from the downtown school districts

with the remaining 30% coming from the surrounding areas.

Central High School Number Nine

is really just one part of an assemblage

of really amazing buildings

in and around downtown Los Angeles.

[soft jazz music]

Behind me is beautiful Union Station,

originally completed in 1939 by father-and-son architects

John and Donald Parkinson.

Now one of the interesting things about this building

is that it's a mix of styles,

a mixture of Spanish Colonial, Art Deco and Art Moderne.

It also features some important features

that really tie it to the idea of the Machine Age.

One of the interesting things about Union Station

is that it's the largest passenger train terminal

in the Western U.S.

It was built at a time when train travel

was basically becoming the most important way

to make it around the United States,

and it was designed to accommodate thousands of passengers

on a regular daily basis.

The interior is a beautiful example

of Art Deco architecture including beautiful craftsmanship,

hand-built millwork, beautiful murals,

and 286 mahogany chairs

that have been in use since World War II.

One of the most evident elements of the design

from this facade are the large two-story windows

that illuminate the passenger terminal,

which allow beautiful light in on a sunset.

Other important features that illustrate the mix of styles

that we see in this building

include some of the beautiful tile work

along with the terracotta tiles on the roof.

One of the most evident Art Deco elements

that we can see on the facade is the font over the entrance.

[soft jazz music]

Behind me you can see Our Lady of the Queen of the Angels,

or better known as La Placita.

This church was originally founded in 1781

and then rebuilt in the 1800s,

and is the oldest church in Los Angeles.

In fact, it's one of the oldest buildings in Los Angeles

and is part of this historic district around us.

That includes the Pico House, the Sepulveda House,

and the Plaza Firehouse.

The history of Los Angeles

begins with the arrival of the Spanish in the 1700s

as they built a series of missions

up and down the California Coast.

Their arrival in the L.A. Basin

started with this church behind us,

which a cornerstone was laid down

by a Franciscan monk in 1781.

La Placita has some of the hallmarks

of Mission style architecture,

including a barrel tile roof, thick masonry walls,

and a bell tower.

Even though Los Angeles has grown

to cover hundreds of square miles,

this area remains the heart of downtown Los Angeles proper.

La Placita is located steps away from modern-day City Hall.

It's also important to note that the L.A. Basin

was inhabited by the Gabrielino-Tongva people

prior to the arrival of the Spanish

who inhabited this area for over 4,000 years.

So even though La Placita represents

the start of Los Angeles as a city,

it's also part of a longer history of this area.

[soft jazz music]

Now we're across the street from the Million Dollar Theater.

The Million Dollar Theater

was designed by Albert C. Martin, Senior,

one of the most prominent architects

in Los Angeles at the time.

The Million Dollar Theater is part of a string

of beautiful theaters along Broadway,

which was originally the theater district

in downtown Los Angeles.

It was completed in 1918.

Now one of the things that's apparent about the building

is its distinct style.

It's known as a Churrigueresque style,

which is named after Spanish architect and sculptor,

José de Churriguera.

Some of the stylistic features

that make this style stand out from others

is the elaborate carvings that you'll see

at the top of the building.

The Churrigueresque style can clearly be seen

above the entrance marquee

and also at the top of the building.

The sculptor who executed this beautiful work

is Joseph Mora,

who was son of famed Spanish sculptor, Domingo Mora.

If you take a closer look at the sculptures

you'll see that it features many Southwestern elements

like bison skulls, and longhorn steer skulls,

and other allegorical features

like the comedy and tragedy mask,

a figure playing a lute, or a painter.

Now the building was designed

for Sid Grauman, theater impresario,

who went on to found Grauman Theaters.

What sets the Million Dollar Theater apart

from some of his contemporaries,

is that it was truly a movie palace.

It seated over 2,400 people at a time.

The Million Dollar Theater was also the first theater

to show Spanish language films in Los Angeles.

[soft jazz music]