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Architecture review: What should a big-city park look like?

April 23, 2009 |  9:15 am


Forget the proverbial clear day: Even on a smog-filled or glumly overcast afternoon, you can see a remarkably wide swath of Los Angeles from the Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook, a state park that officially reopened to the public over the weekend with a new visitors center by San Diego's Safdie Rabines Architects.

Rather than offering a panorama of lush, idyllic Southern California, though, the view presents a more honest version of how the city and the larger region have developed -- a blend of the natural, the architectural and the nakedly utilitarian. You can see the clustering towers of downtown and Century City from the park, along with the outlines, in the distance, of Catalina Island and the San Gabriel Mountains. The Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area occupies the next hilltop over, to the east, and there is a working oilfield just to the south. An insistently large cellphone tower, dotted with barnacle-like satellite dishes, rises just a few feet from the main entrance.

The overlook, just as important, also offers a symbolic glimpse of the kind of persistent, deep-pocketed planning effort that is required to carve out new parks in and around Los Angeles, particularly in areas historically lacking green space. Its location means that it will be easily accessible not only to Culver City, which spreads out directly at its feet, but also Baldwin Hills, Ladera Heights and Inglewood. According to state figures, the amount of open space in the five-mile area that surrounds the park (and holds roughly 3 million residents) is unusually meager: less than one acre per thousand people.


Baldwin HillsThere is also practical and symbolic value in the overlook's location south of the 10 Freeway. By and large the biggest and most mature parks in and around Los Angeles lie not just well north of that highway but also in neighborhoods where sizable private gardens, redundantly enough, remain commonplace.

The overlook is the product of a political fight that goes back more than a decade, beginning with an effort by nearby neighbors and the Baldwin Hills Conservancy to hold off a residential development slated to fill the hilltop with as many 230 new houses. In 2000, the parks department in Sacramento, using funds provided in large part by Proposition 12, a statewide bond measure, spent $41.1 million for the 68-acre property. At the time, that was a record price per acre for undeveloped land in the L.A. metro region, although the state itself soon broke the mark by paying $30 million for the 32-acre "cornfield" property on the edge of Chinatown, where it is now developing an ambitious plan by landscape architect George Hargreaves and architect Michael Maltzan.

Those projects, along with a new state park at the Taylor Yards site along the Los Angeles River north of downtown, suggest that the most significant effort to create major city parks in Southern California is being coordinated in Sacramento, rather than in L.A.'s City Hall or in Washington. All three have been overseen by the state park department's Urban Strategic Initiative Team, which for years has looked for opportunities to build new green space in crowded sections of our biggest cities.

The state opened the overlook to the public in late 2000, soon after buying the property, and closed it in the middle of 2006, when construction began in earnest on the visitors center and new trails. The park's new facilities complement the view it provides, at least in the sense that they waste no time trying to look handsome or perfectly tended. (Anybody expecting some Westside version of Descanso Gardens will be disappointed.) After spending more than $40 million to purchase the land for the park, the state dedicated $10 million to building it, a figure that includes the new buildings and trails and landscape work that is now reintroducing a range of native species. That 4-to-1 ratio of land cost to development cost suggests the challenges of trying to shoehorn new park space into an expensive and built-out urban region.

Parts of the hillside have been regraded to mitigate the flat-topping of the property that was done in advance of the planned residential construction, and in certain ways the land still looks as though it's recovering from the earlier violence. The landscape architecture -- handled in the park's earliest planning phases by Pamela Burton, and later taken over by the San Diego office of Wallace Roberts and Todd and the restoration ecology firm Earthworks -- remains a work in progress. Taggers, meanwhile, have already climbed the hill and left their marks on the new construction.

Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook 1

The drive up to the park from the streets below, along a twisting road, mimics the approach to some of L.A.'s best-known historic landmarks, including the Griffith Observatory and Frank Lloyd Wright's Barnsdall House. This time there is new architecture at the end of the uphill trip. The three-building visitor center that anchors the park features concrete walls polished to a high sheen and has an aesthetic personality both sleek and tough.

Instead of occupying the top of the hill, where the views are the most dramatic, the buildings, with modified butterfly roofs, sit instead buried partially into the hillside. The idea, said Ricardo Rabines -- who runs Safdie Rabines with Taal Safdie, his wife and the daughter of well-known architect Moshe Safdie -- is to allow the buildings to operate as a series of portals, rather than a grandly executed destination crowning the hill. They are meant to guide visitors briefly inside, then send them onto a trail that winds through a couple of re-engineered hillocks that carefully hide, and then frame, a view of downtown.

The first building holds a series of exhibits, aimed largely at visiting school groups, on the development of the movie, oil and transportation industries in Los Angeles. Tucked in the back of the second are service facilities, including bathrooms and a kitchen. The third is a pavilion -- open-air on one side but also protected from the high winds that regularly buffet the park -- that will be rented out for special events, including weddings.

The ensemble of architecture and reshaped topography comes together at the park in an compellingly frank whole. The design strives to update the popular notion of what a state park can achieve architecturally, trading the ranger station tucked away in the shade of a pine tree for a crisp ensemble of buildings squeezed almost entirely dry of romanticism.

There is also a bigger goal at stake here: the effort to stitch together a series of parks in this section of Los Angeles so that wildlife as well as people can move through a series of protected open spaces -- eventually covering 1,300 acres, park officials hope -- from the beach through the city and toward the mountains. The state plans to build a land bridge to the east, to connect the new park with the Hahn Recreation Area. It is also working on a link to Ballona Creek and from there, along a bike path, to Marina del Rey and the ocean.

--Christopher Hawthorne

Photo credits: Top image courtesy state Department of Parks and Recrection; middle and bottom courtesy Safdie Rabines Architects.