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Orchestrated Chaos II.
Part II: Hail Mary
This is the second of three posts about the 6AM project in the Los Angeles Arts District.
We came to the 6AM project in the eleventh hour.
Herzog and de Meuron had already been working on their master plan for several months. After I learned that another competing local corporate team was dismissed from the running, I made a cold call and barged the party.
As an icebreaker, we offered to present the developers with an urban analysis of the LA Arts District. They agreed to a brief 30-minute meeting, perhaps only because the reputation of the company I worked for preceded me.
We scrambled and made a hasty presentation one afternoon in Irvine. After we wrapped up, I gambled and told SunCal that we could match or do better than the master plan developed by their other local corporate architects, who were trying to win back the project, if only as executive architects.
I was never so bold as to say we could do better than Herzog and de Meuron. That would have been stupid.
However, I was naive enough to secretly believe that we could win the project if somehow things went wrong for the Herzog and de Meuron scheme at the City of LA or our approach made more sense financially.
The pitch worked, and we got the green light to develop an alternative design approach to the site: a parallel, stalking-horse master plan to be reviewed by SunCal and two key local advisors, Richard Koshalek, MOCA’s founding director, and Urban Planner and Developer Dan Rosenfeld.
With only six weeks to tackle the project and the likes of the Swiss duo to contend with, I decided to take two counterintuitive steps forward.
Firstly, I ruled out a predictable and safe corporate kick-off meeting. After a year at AECOM, I was pretty tired of the usual meeting agenda: team member introductions, a review of our portfolio, maybe some light design ideas, cookies, coffee, and a few bathroom breaks.
Instead, we created a game for the development team to play and asked them to give us a design concept for the site in half a day.
Secondly, we invited the calvary. With only weeks to go and far too small a team of architects at AECOM to tackle the entire project, I called in some favors and did a lot of begging.
After a quick vetting process and a lot of no thank yous, we cut our original list of thirty architects down to fifteen: UCLA Chair Hitoshi Abe, Angela Brooks and Larry Scarpa, Edwin Chan, Neil Denari, Kevin Daly, Georgina Huljich and Marcelo Spina, Andrew Kovacs, Jimenez Lai, Jennifer Marmon, Alfonso Medina, Lorcan O’Herlihy, Pentagon, Princeton Dean Monica Ponce De Leon, Paul Preissner, and Roger Sherman.
The final selection was about making a potlatch with a group of local, national, and international multi-generational practices. We assembled as an experiment to see if we could fabricate a collective and not singular approach for the massive site in under a month.
Gameboard: 11 Football Fields
To start, we made a game board and cut up some black foam blocks, a rough massing model based on their real estate proforma.
Next, we established some basic rules and wrote out some design challenges for the developers to follow.
When they showed up, perhaps expecting a design presentation, we set up the game board, handed them the architectural playing blocks, and then we left the room.
We asked them to create a few competing schemes for their property before lunch.
We intervened, like referees, two times to ask them to boil down their efforts to one approach.
To say that they were surprised when we didn’t present a menu of design concepts for their blessing would be an understatement.
The entire day must have been peculiar for them. Generally speaking, developers are used to calling the shots, scolding their architects about what’s wrong with their designs, why they don’t work, or why they can’t be built if they look too expensive. Sometimes there’s just a lot of yelling.
We tried to flip the script, asking SunCal to roll up their sleeves and work their way out of the very problem they created: how to plan a site as large as 11 football fields in an afternoon.
If they were perplexed initially, by the end of the half-day session and some catered lunch, they had surprised themselves and us by coming up with an interesting, basic, and usable master plan for the site: a counterproposal of sorts to Herzog & de Meuron’s scheme (which we had not been allowed to see) designed by the developers themselves.
Effectively, we had asked the ownership team to do something that perhaps most developers will never do: to admit that they had a crucial role in the design of their project, in other words, to own their ideas and not pawn them off on the architectural team. To the team's great credit at SunCal, particularly Mr. King, we got the sense that there was a genuine and honest commitment to producing an excellent project.
We also wagered that by getting SunCal behind a clear planning idea at the beginning of the process, I could lessen the risk of presenting them later with an approach they themselves didn't have a hand in.
It was an attempt to find a way out from the Faustian bargain that most architects find themselves in when working with commercial developers: death by a million revisions.
For our part, we had to relinquish something hard to let go of as architects: control.
Remarkably this was very liberating for everyone.
I also dumbly convinced myself that by making the clients co-equals in the early ideation process, we had a better chance of being awarded the job if something went terribly wrong with the other team.
I was, of course, going to be proven totally and utterly wrong later.
But by working together, we whittled down their solutions to a simple diagram for the property through an iterative process: the northwest corner of the would-be held down by a 30 story tower. A diagonal, pedestrian-only street, extending 6th Street to the southeast, would run behind it towards the Toy Factory Lofts.
AECOM1 acted as the site's curator, detailing the streets, pedestrian routes, and open spaces. We created four urban districts with six unique blocks, programs, and volumetric zoning envelopes for each architect to develop.
The rest of the site would be filled in by a street and lane network based on the original 19th-century plan for the area, combined with two big arcs: phantom traces of old railway right-of-way spurs; one real and one imagined.
The leftover spaces created by the street networks’ misaligned intersections provided room for a public plaza, a playground, and a dog park— all connected by the 6th Street extension. All the streets were designed to have the means to close them off to make the entire area pedestrian-only as needed.
To achieve a sense of synthesis and allow the team of fifteen architects to work alone without being concerned about their peers’ efforts, we assigned every architect to a unique site without any contextual information.
We then had each team sign a non-disclosure agreement with SunCal2 to keep the project a secret, so none of the architects knew who else had been invited.
Effectively, they were all flying blind, designing for sites with no neighbors or context; they were only given orientation, access points, area, and height allowances.
That meant that until all the projects were turned in to be assembled in one collective 3D printed model, we ourselves had no idea what the resulting urban scheme would resemble: a mess or viable way forward.
What was really weird to discover later, when it was all assembled, was that despite no direct communication between the team members, they somehow produced projects that were strangely in dialogue with each other or shared a formal syntax or spatial characteristics.
Keeping the group in the dark may have been a bit unfair, but it also allowed me to work with my seven-person design team at AECOM to design four set-pieces along the edges of the property quickly: the 30 story tower, a proposed art museum, multi-family housing, and creative office space.3
An Urban Archipelago
One key aim of mine was to create an urban archipelago— a concept borrowed from Oswald Matias Ungers’ 1977 manifesto The City in the City: Berlin, a Green Archipelago.4 Ungers used islands and archipelagos as metaphors or analogical models for analyzing post-war Berlin’s strange urban conditions, voids, and dead zones created as much by devastating bombing raids as by the presence of the Berlin Wall.
Ungers used the archipelago as a metaphor and a conceptual framework to assess and counter how historical European urban fabrics were swallowed up by peripheral growth patterns, pushing suburbs into rural areas and engulfing medieval cities with new urban growth.
In Downtown Los Angeles, I saw the island and archipelago metaphor somewhat differently: a means of understanding and critiquing the recent mega-urban projects in our formerly industrial urban environments; imagining those massive projects as a rising sea, drowning what is left of LA’s historic core.
So I wanted to create a flexible strategy capable of expanding or contracting to allow individual “islands” of new architecture to emerge in conversation with other staged architectural and urban “events” like small parks and plazas.
We designed the site as a floating stage of sorts, with various architectural actors participating in an urban drama, reacting to each other and the audience (the local context) while negotiating urban swells, winds, and tides (pedestrian flows, vehicles, diurnal city patterns like traffic.)
The point was not to figure out how to make a better version of the new massive megaproject development type shrink-wrapping parts of LA: obliterating diversity, flattening our late 19th century, and early 20th-century core; turning everything into an elegantly dressed up, outdoor mall.
Rather, the idea was to implant a “new city” in the city without eliminating the palimpsest of LA’s past or the potential of an alternate future: a compromise, if you will, between utopia and nostalgia.
To be concluded on Friday, August 25, 2021.
The exceptional AECOM team was: Aspen Arnthors, Franco Chen, Ivan Cremer, Shen Gao, Tyler McMartin, Benzi Rodman, and Jordan Squires. My boss Ross Wimer, Americas Architecture Lead for AECOM, provided oversight, support, and invaluable guidance. My GSD classmate Nate Cormier, then at AECOM, now a Managing Studio Director at Rios, assisted with the landscape concepts. Finally, my friend and colleague Stephen Nieto, then at AECOM, now Director of Urban Design at the Altum Group, helped us figure out the open space approach, making the entire development car-free, or at least optionally car-free.
I also had to sign an NDA on behalf of AECOM, which prevented me from talking about or publicizing this project for several years. So this is the first time that I've been able to write about it.
We proposed to excavate down thirty feet to bury a sea of parking, 3000+ ridiculous stalls needed to meet the current code.
As noted in the introduction to Lars Müller Publishers’ 2013 reprint, Ungers and his colleagues from Cornell University [Rem Koolhaas, Peter Riemann, Hans Kollhoff, and Arthur Ovaska] “…presented the first concepts and intellectual models for the shrinking city. In contrast to the reconstruction of the popular European city, they developed the figure of a polycentric urban landscape. However, the manifesto really began to exert an effect beginning in the 1990s onwards, when the focus of the urban planning discourse turned to the examination of crises, recessions, and the phenomenon of demographic shrinking.”