Observing Los Angeles

Let's take a trip down Wilshire Boulevard

LA Times architecture Christopher Hawthorne continues his survey of changing boulevards with Wilshire — a street that he writes "has always stood apart from the city it slices through. It is denser and more urbane, its architecture more vertical....Rather than act as a perfect symbol of Los Angeles, Wilshire has operated as a proving ground for new ideas about architecture, commerce, transportation and urbanism in Southern California...a string of hypotheses 16 miles long." I can't disagree. More from his piece:

Most of the major boulevards The Times has examined in this series over the past year had faded in prominence in the post-war, freeway-building era, only to find new momentum more recently. Wilshire, though, never lost its reputation as the place where Los Angeles embraced and tested out the future.

But if Wilshire has been the prow of L.A.'s ship, there have been quite a few icebergs along the way. The street's history is full of dreams dashed in high-profile fashion. It's where plans for a subway to the sea and the tallest building in the world — among many other big-ticket projects — have risen and stalled.

Wilshire is our boulevard of cold feet and second thoughts, the place where Los Angeles confronts its deep ambivalence about putting a low-rise, car-dominated and essentially suburban past behind it for good.

The result on today's Wilshire is a lurching, piecemeal utopianism that can take you from a world-famous piece of architecture to a weed-choked lot, from a realized ambition to an abandoned one, in the space of a few blocks.

Wilshire is a subject I know a little bit about, and I like his takes on the boulevard. Wilshire was originally developed on the cusp of the automobile era, and grew accidentally into the city's westward main street. BW-lao-daylight.jpgGaylord Wilshire, the boulevard's namesake, had grandeur in his eyes for the only four blocks he ever had anything to do with (the Wilshire Tract runs from Park View Street to Lafayette Park), but he had left town to be a socialist publisher in New York and London by the time the city began pushing his boulevard west into the future. Wilshire Boulevard became the street where the freedom from the limits of a core downtown and away from rail-centric mobility became the Los Angeles norm — Bullock's Wilshire was the first department store built with the grand entrance in the rear for drivers — and where advances in driving like painted lane lines and automated traffic signals were tried and perfected. But things change, and Wilshire's linear downtown created by and for the car is also likely to eventually become LA's first truly successful rail transit corridor, though not for several decades.

Our book came out around the time that the Ambassador Hotel was being razed, and before the subway extension as far as Westwood started to look like a real possibility. Hawthorne posits that the subway into the Miracle Mile and Westwood will be a game changer, especially for LACMA and for UCLA. He sees great potential in the large surface parking lot at Wilshire and Veteran Avenue — UCLA's Lot 36 — where Metro intends to build the Purple Line's Westwood station.

Because UCLA isn't subject to local zoning or height limits, it could build atop the subway stop a very tall tower holding classrooms, apartments and even a museum or auditorium.

"We have a temporary building there now, but we do see this as a key site for UCLA in the future," Jeffrey Averill, UCLA's campus architect, said in an email. So do other architects, who look at the chance to design a tower on Lot 36 as the commission of a lifetime.

An architecturally bold skyscraper on the site "would dramatically change the image of the university," said Neil Denari, an architect and UCLA professor who has produced a preliminary study for a cluster of connected towers at Lot 36. "It could be a kind of instant conversion to urbanism" for a school that until now "has been a drive-in, drive-out world."

The Times story includes an interactive graphic and video of Hawthorne, plus photos by Luis Sinco.

LA Observed photos: Top, a Metro Rapid 720 bus crosses the intersection of Wilshire and Veteran Avenue. Lower, the face of Bullock's Wilshire.

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