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Construction Gives Los Angeles A New Face - 2001-12-01

The face of Los Angeles is changing. A new cathedral and concert hall are among the latest additions to the architectural makeover of the city. Los Angeles has been derided as a city without a center, but its downtown section is seeing a revival.

A massive Roman Catholic cathedral designed by the Spanish architect Jose Rafael Moneo is nearing completion in downtown Los Angeles. The nearby Disney Concert Hall is also under construction. Designed by American Frank Gehry, the hall will house the Los Angeles philharmonic orchestra, seating 2,300 people in its main auditorium. A series of small amphitheaters will accommodate more than 1,000 others for smaller concerts.

In nearby Hollywood, a new theater and entertainment center will be the home of the Academy Awards. With other projects completed in recent years, including the Staples Center sports complex and the Getty Center museum, architect Thom Mayne says Los Angeles is undergoing an architectural renaissance. But the city, which is a mosaic of ethnic groups, has no unifying theme except diversity.

"If there's something that's unique about L.A. or that represents some sort of continuity, it's this diversity. It's a continuity of diversity. And out of that, I think you answer questions such as the architectural one, is there a connection? No. It's very different architecture. (There are) some continuities for sure - the quality of the architect, the quality of the thinking. But in terms of the look of the building, no, Rafael Moneo's going to produce a work that is extremely different in terms of its ideas and textures than a Frank Gehry. And that is Los Angeles," Mr. Mayne explained.

Still, the lack of focus in Los Angeles troubles Mr. Mayne. He and several colleagues outlined their concerns in a public discussion sponsored by the organization Town Hall Los Angeles.

Los Angeles is city of many styles, from Spanish colonial to Victorian and art deco. It is also a city with many centers. In fact, scores of separate cities make up metropolitan Angeles and no single authority unifies the region. For that reason, Mr. Mayne has joined a forum of architects and designers called L.A. Now. The informal group hopes to promote its architectural vision of a city designed to meet the needs of its residents.

Developer Tom Gilmore also belongs to the group. His firm has bought a number of historic downtown buildings, which were in danger of being torn down, and has restored and converted the structures to other uses. He recently converted a building in the city's banking district into apartment lofts to help meet the growing need for downtown housing. Mr. Gilmore says modern urban planners favor a blend of business, commercial and housing units in the same neighborhood.

"Housing is a key piece of that because it is the part that is lacking the most in downtown Los Angeles. The thing that knits cities together are the families and the individuals that comprise the street. And so I spend an awful lot of time thinking about how this city works and how the street works," he said.

The developer says architects and planners now try to integrate buildings and with street life. For that reason, the spectacular high-rise office towers favored 30 years ago are out of fashion now, at least among designers in the United States. While this type of building remains popular in Asia, American architects favor more accessible structures connected to walkways, parks and transportation terminals, which foster interaction among a city's people.

Richard Koshalek, president of the Art Center College of Design, helped organize the architectural forum "L.A. Now" to get the creative community involved in local planning decisions. He says that in the future, he looks to architects, designers and universities to create more livable cities.

"I feel that universities have locked up their creative talent, whether it's students or faculty, within their campuses, and that they've been very reluctant to take those ideas and that energy and that rhetoric and polemic into the large world. And we can no longer afford to exclude the creative community in terms of solving problems. I'm a firm believer that the architects and the designers are the alchemists of the future," he said.

Mr. Koshalek says in Los Angeles, the city's transformation has already begun in a series of new architectural landmarks.