Tag Archives: architecture

Living Architecture: The Bonaventure Hotel

If you sit very still and stare at downtown L.A. from the window of the Bonaventure Hotel’s cocktail lounge, this is what you will see:

The slowly revolving floor shifts the gorgeous view before your eyes. But apart from saving up for the drinks, how do you get here?

It’s public of course, but that does not make it easy to find. There are three entrances to the Bonventure, but none of them are your traditional grand salon entrance. And two of them are from those secret sky bridges of LA, the one we took joins the hotel to Hope Street past the YMCA. You enter what feels like a back door onto the fifth floor of a dark and massive tower with spiraling stairs and pillars, and street signs to direct you to where you want to go:

Not all elevators go to the top you see, neither do the escalators. In fact, I don’t think there were any escalators on this floor. You have to find the red elevator, the red one! (The vertiginous ride in the glass elevator up the outside of the building for 35 floors and all of Central LA laid out beneath you? Highly recommended.) Any other colour and you will be lost in this vast echoing space.

It has its own stores, its own running water far far down below, it even has its own track and exercise machines where you can sweat in full view.

Built by John Portman and opened in 1976, it is an iconic building. And wandering through it, I couldn’t help but think of Frederic Jameson’s comments in an essay called Postmodernism and Consumer Society. He writes that the Bonventure has no main entry because it does not wish to be part of the city, it wishes to replace it. That it puts you into such a vast space so full of stuff you can no longer get a measure of just how big it is, you lose just how much emptiness is enclosed by these enormous walls of glass. The building toys with your perspective.

He writes that this is a space that takes vengeance on those walking through it, one that forces you to lose your bearings. It transcends us as human beings, and makes it impossible for us to find ourselves within such a context.

Me? I thought it an incredible building, but it did make me feel very small, very lost, very much in desire of a nice drink. So I set off in search of the red elevator, and thought about architecture and its impacts on how we live and see ourselves in the world. And this one almost cathedral-like in how it humbles you, God replaced by wealth, retail, and facilities for showing off while working out…

[also posted at www.drpop.com]

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Thoughts on the Chicago Skyline

Downtown Chicago is all planes and angles, contrasts in brick and stone, glass and steel. It is full of amazing reflections in glass.

You see it at one level from the street, and another entirely from the El train, and from both it is visually spectacular. Your fingers itch for your camera, every step brings a shift in the lines, and changes the seen and the unseen.

I had half a day on Monday after a morning meeting, so I thought I’d do the Architectural Boat Tour, 90 minutes along the river and almost all the pictures a lustful heart could ask for…as the river goes round the loop and not through it.

But I confess my extreme love for these great buildings piled one on top of the other sits miserably with my love of social and environmental justice. They are contradictions impossible to overcome. I wonder if perhaps I love them (and hate them) for their colossal and unbelievable arrogance, because it is combined with such extraordinary technical and engineering skill. I love the fact that we have figured out how to build such things, hurling metal and glass up to the sky. I suppose we never stopped to ask whether we should. And the wealth required to build such buildings…where does it come from? Chicago is as much a city of immense poverty as it is a city of beauty. And that is where you find the answer. My question is whether we could build such things without exploitation, and in a way that sits happily on the earth.

On the tour, the guide was full of information on architectural styles and the men who created them, the requirements of building something like the Sears tower, the Trump tower, and towers x, y, and z. Everything was entirely divorced from the city or the people who live in it with the exception of a single architect, Bertrand Goldberg. He designed Marina City, which I love.

I have always loved round buildings. But the guide explained that he also tried to design buildings to create community, to encourage contact between neighbors, to provide immediate access to life’s amenities. Another of his buildings is River City

These buildings are all mixed use, with stores, child care, and access to a marina beneath. The balconies  are close together to bring neighbors together. They have beautiful public spaces. He believed density was a good thing, for community, for creativity, for life.

And so I looked him up. And I’m not sure what I think of him, I certainly disagree with much of what he says, but he makes me think. He wrote this of Marina City:

More importantly, in the Marina City forms. I made it possible for people to participate in community formation. Both in the use of space and in the form of space I discovered that behavior can be influenced by the shape of space. The faceless anonymity of the corporate box which we had used for the buildings for our government, our health, our education, our business and our living, I discovered could be replaced more effectively by a new development of architectural structure and forms that supported its use by people. We could have both architecture and humanism just as we had begun to do 200 years before in the social revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries.

I love this recognition of the influence of space on the individual and community, and the revolutionary idea that architecture should be for the people and how they will live within it. That it affects how our society lives and grows. He’s not the only one of course, but one of the few. Yet it is a typical liberalism, looking backward to some better time, and only as worthy as it can be without questioning a terribly unjust world. He wrote another speech that offers an interesting reflection on the thoughts above called Rich is Right…exposing all of the contradictions involved in his thinking.

America is rich, America is right. Architects have always worked for the rich. We are now also working for the right.

Ah, if only that were true. Are the rich ever right? I don’t really think so. Our homeless population and slum housing certainly proves otherwise. But it is true that architects have always worked for the rich. I do like such frank admissions. But that leads to the conclusion that the 90% of Americans who are not rich just have to hope that those 10% of quixotic and self-absorbed rich people at some point get it right, no? That seems to require a lot of faith that history has never ever justified.

He goes on, extraordinarily enough, to quote Albert Speer, architect of Hitler. I read Speer’s autobiography some years ago and found it fascinating. He did not just build buildings, he created drama and spectacle, he cemented the image of ultimate power in the minds of the observer. Whenever you see Hitler speaking on a stage with the colossal architecture, the huge backdrops of red banners and striking black swastikas, the eagles, the torches… Speer designed all of that.

Albert Speer- Hitler’s state architect said: “We must learn to master technology and its potential by political means.” In contrast, modern architects of the 19th century all saw architecture as a reform mechanism for politics: that is, for helping solve social problems rooted in urban life and community needs, and for devising improved ways for people to work and learn and grow together.

It seems to me that my Chicago  boat tour proved Speer’s point, that architecture reflects the landscape of political power, and it has been mastered by the Trumps of the world. It is a skyline of corporations, not of government, ideals, or community spaces. Bertrand was alone there in thinking about these things, his buildings stand out because of it.

The tour takes you down the river again almost to the mouth of Lake Michigan. On your left is an urban renewal area. The words urban renewal hurt my soul, always. They usually mean the wholesale clearance of earlier communities, older buildings, of people of color and immigrants and all those who did not master power, who lived lives of poverty and hard work. My people. Urban renewal has been translated into a coastline full of high rise condos. On your right is another urban renewal area. It is also full of high rise condos. You can see down the coastline, more and more and more high rise condos. I didn’t particularly care to hear about the architects.

And they are busy building luxury residences for people who don’t exist. Home sales in Chicago’s metropolitan area are down 27.5% from April 2008, and unemployment is up to 10.1% according to the Illinois Association of Realtors. And they have somehow decided that these condos count as affordable housing and are asking for help:

David Hanna, president of the Chicago Association of REALTORS®. “The city of Chicago condominium sales numbers continue to reflect a critical need for governmental agencies to review the growing disparity in the ability to finance a condominium purchase in the city. This affordable housing will become unaffordable and unattainable to many qualified first-time homebuyers in the city of Chicago unless existing federal guidelines, which do not take into account nuances of the local market, are modified.”

If they did build affordable condos, I’m sure they wouldn’t be having quite so much trouble…I like to imagine what our cities would look like if they were built for all of the city’s people. Because, I do agree with this final quote from Bertrand Goldberg:

Are cities in our blood?

Are cities the natural forms of shelter which men build for themselves? Like the spider his web, or the oyster his shell? The answer to this is uncertain, but I believe it to be – yea.

I love the city.

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LA’s floating islands

Wealth in LA floats. We are not just segregated from north to south and east to west, but above and below. And I suppose I knew about the aerial isle that was once Bunker Hill, but I’d never really walked it, and until you walk you don’t really know a place. At 4th and Hope you are high up above LA, and all traces of the old Victorian neighborhood once there were completely bulldozed and destroyed several decades ago. And there followed some truly grim decades in terms of block architecture, and a planning model designed to keep public space as the exclusive right of the right people. So it is a modern wonderland of concrete and plazas leading to car garages and sleek, expensive men and women. There are a couple of skyscrapers built on it, their lights serve as the stars and I’ll not deny a strange beauty to them…there are some expensive shops and restaurants, but they all look like upscale chains. It’s that particularly L.A. thing I think, where everything is relatively new, sanitized, familiar, safe. People here trade what is real and true for a secure and enhanced façade every time, just look at sunset strip with its fake western bar, it’s fake Irish pub. Look at people themselves. And this place is made for cars, you have to climb a very steep hill to get here, and it isn’t the easiest thing on foot. I’m sure that’s quite deliberate. The right sort of person doesn’t walk in this city. I passed Gehry’s Disney hall, it’s on the edge of this as is MOCA. Wealth’s claim on high culture.

Usually I go beneath this place, through the terminator tunnel with its shiny white tiles reflecting the light when they are not falling off the walls, and the homeless sleeping along the sidewalk. I like it better underneath.  The higher you go in LA, the richer it invariably gets. From crack in Hollywood to cocaine in the Hollywood Hills and so it goes everywhere…even Echo Park has had its bastions of wealth up on top of everything, and now of course it is gentrifying at the speed of light, and from top down.

These things make me angry, so I’m glad the YMCA is still there, giving people one last reason to democratize space. I was walking because I forgot a clean shirt to change into after workout, sauna and steam, and couldn’t face jumping on a standing room only bus full of people going home from work. Especially since I was going home TO work. Happy Friday to me. But I haven’t really been home for so long, so I’m still enjoying it.

LA Adventures

They’re winding down…a month to go exactly, and I have never loved LA as much as now when I am about to leave it…it is an amazing city. I only have 4 weekends left before I leave, and they are full to overflowing with plans already…This is more of a journal entry for me to look over when I’m nostalgic in Sctland, so apologies…yesterday spent the day with meo and her unborn, haven’t seen her in ages! We went out to brunch and then walked about Silverlake a bit, went to Secret Headquarters, the new comic book store and it’s great, I got Love and Rockets which was madness because i am supposed to be getting rid of all of my material possessions, but i swear i am going to read it on the plane. I also realized that a few blogs ago I stated that men only look good in boxers…the Tomatoes episode, a classic LA moment…and I have to now partially reverse this sweeping statement and say that to ME, men only look good in boxers. Apperently, to other men, men look much better in small colourful briefs or thongs…this thought gives me a shudder, but as proof I offer the following view into Rough Trade:

We wandered on in, it’s quite tame in the front room, you can see the hard core bondage stuff peeking flirtily from the back, and there’s an upstairs as well, but meo wasn’t feeling like stairs so we scarpered. We also found a great T-shirt shop, and I bought one featuring “chelvis,” or che crossed with elvis, it’s ridiculous…

We then headed over to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollyhock House, i cannot believe in all my years here I had never gone the 20 minutes down sunset to see it. It’s quite beautiful

though they would allow no photos inside the bastards. I even went to look for a picture to scan of the inside because it is quite glorious but actually found jack all on the internet and I realized my big art books are almost all sold…hooray for that! It was beautiful, if a bit cold, and sadly I discovered that Mr. Wright did not understand plumbing or allowing for rain so apparently most of his 28 roofs leaked…anyways, it’s highly recommended in spite of a slightly annoying tour guide. The views over LA were incredible as well, and since it’s been so windy the sky was incredibly clear, and you realize what a difference the absence of smog can make in your life…

Saw Pan’s Labyrinth, everyone must see it, and on the big screen if at all possible, it is one of the best movies I’ve seen in a long time. With the possible exception of you Chris, if you’re reading this, given it is a bit of a fairytale. Still, it’s an anti fairy tale really, and the previews are crap as it is only partly goth fantasy and the other half you might not be able to resist – the Spanish civil war and the splendid facsist step-father. It’s all about disobediance and doing what is right, has incredible characters with actors to match, and I loved it. I believe i will even buy the dvd as I think it requires a couple more viewings. I have also have discovered I have a bit of a crush on Dave White who writes reviews for movie.com; here’s what he says: “What’s the Deal? Do not, I repeat, do not take kids to this movie unless you’re somehow convinced of their innate worldliness, knowledge of the Spanish Civil War and its dour aftermath and ability to withstand nightmare-inducing horror. Because more than anything, this is a frightening, brutal adult fairy tale that really takes its cues from old-school fairy tales in which something evil never fails to befall hapless innocents. It’s violent, creepy and unlike anything you’ve seen in a while. It’s also insanely imaginative and beautiful. An awesome movie, but not for little kids. At all…And Another Thing: I want to send writer/director Guillermo Del Toro a thank-you note for not being afraid to go down the darkest, most heartbreaking path toward his movie’s ending. Anyone have his address? I might send some chocolates, too.” Alright, so this isn’t the funniest review, a good one was blood diamond, which I was also contemplating: “What’s the Deal? It was high time Hollywood stopped trying to make people care about genocide in Africa with stuff like Hotel Rwanda and simply embraced its natural impulse to exploit. Now it’s just a really exciting and gory backdrop for a chase movie about a hot smuggler chasing diamonds who then falls for sexy American journalist Connelly.

Who Hates Jennifer Connelly? My guess is that it’s director Edward Zwick. I have no proof of this, mind you, other than the little problem of her performance being world-class awful. It’s the kind of sore thumb that makes you think careful editing and a grudge was involved.

When to Check Out: The last scene, when the guy from 7th Heaven is talking and the diamond industry gets to tell you that they do not condone the sort of “conflict diamonds” the whole movie is about. Then there’s uplifting dumbness with Hounsou. If you just get up and go, you’ll save yourself from a big inappropriate laugh in a crowded theater.”

he’s brilliant, I shall be reading all of his reviews from now on.

Today, chinatown with Ruel, haven’t seen him in ages either. We had dim sum at the Empress Pavilion, and it is the best in town…this morning’s feast was worth every second of the hour wait to get a table. Here’s a view of the restaurant, it is huge and packed to overflowing so that the poor servers with their carts full of hot steaming deliciousness can hardly move around…you really have no idea what you’re getting because English is in short supply, but you can see it…we passed on the tentacled thingie that looked somewhat alive, and the shark fin was a surprise but not bad at all if a little chewy.

Go here too if you’re ever in town. 15 pounds heavier than before, we stumbled out the door to get coffee and dessert (managed that somehow without unbuttoning my trousers), and amble around chinatown, saw groups of men standing around playing a complicated game involving concentric circles and white game pieces, a woman playing the something something, I’m really betraying my ignorance today, but the stringed instrument she was playing was heartbreakingly beautiful, a nine year old Mongolian contortionist who did amazing things that made my stomach turn a bit, as you can see:

a woman who could balance absolutely anything…she had 3 raw eggs balanced on a stick on her nose and made it look remarkably easy…I might try it myself later, though I’d be happy with just balancing an egg on an egg in the palm of my hand. Apparently almost no one else can do this 3 egg balancing act, and I quite believe it.

I shall miss this place just a bit I think.

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Low Culture and High Culture

About 5 years ago my friend Jeronimo took me to this restaurant in the depths of South Central, you could hardly call it a restaurant, it was like a trip to El Salvador…the way it looked, the way that it smelled…it took me back I must say. It’s all outdoors behind a white building that looks like a hole in the wall and closed to the public, with huge grills where they cook mojarras (grilled fish), and pupusas, and you eat at these long tables under plastic tarps, and on the walls are cheap decorations and towels with pictures of salvadoran scenes. They serve you on paper plates covered with foil, curtido and salsa on the side. I must say, the salsa could use a heavy dose of chile – that’s not the Salvadoran way however, and I can respect that…today I found it again without even looking! Like finding an old friend, Jose took me this time, it’s called Don Lencho’s and it’s on 61st and Normandie, and still delicious! I decided against the fish, for while delicious, its fragrance remains with you for the rest of the day, so had pupusas de frijol y queso, and I ate them with my fingers and they were soooooo good! I should have gotten Jose to take a picture before I ate them, because the remnants of a good meal are never classy, but here is Don Lenchos in all of it’s splendour!


The red towel behind me with the ladies making pupusas is seen everywhere in El Salvador and actually something I own, it was a gift from one of my old clients and therefore one of my prized possessions since it was someone I loved and respected very much…I helped Juan with his asylum case, but when his father died we tried to get a visa so he could return for the funeral. We did not succeed and that I still feel was one of the most unjust things in the entire world, for Juan’s father…imagine – one of his sons was tortured and killed, the other son tortured and fled and he never saw him again…and all they had done was teach cathechism and literacy. Juan just left because his father dying without saying goodbye…it f*&ed him up a little, he came back with a coyote and I was so afraid he wouldn’t make it back…and he still found time to buy me a gift. Anyways, finding this place again was enough to make my day, I love it!

This evening after work I went to the Central Library to see Alain de Botton speak on his new book Architecture of Happiness…it was very highbrow and very nice, and I have to say, I enjoy hearing Oscar Wilde and Stendhal quoted, I enjoy discussions of architecture, and I enjoy wondering why exactly it is that the world is not more beautiful, and how important architecture really is, and how my surroundings affect my thoughts and aspirations…I’m a bit of an architecture enthusiast but politically feel people should come first, so I’m always a bit torn by beautiful, and expensive, buildings. I enjoyed laughing at pictures of aesthetes who wandered the streets with large sunflowers so as not to see the horror, who care more about the colour of the wallpaper than the people who put it up…and still must admit that I have my aesthetic side that cringes at what people decorate their homes with, though I do not allow even those horrible plaster cupids with gilding on their silly wings to affect my love for people. I even enjoyed the older eccentric woman, who twice whispered quite loudly “stop talking” when the other guy was speaking, though technically it was a dialogue between Alain and Christopher ? who writes the architecture column for the Times. I suppose she’s old, time is ticking and she just wanted to get onto the Q&A section…

Speaking of architeture, I bought tickets today for the LA Philharmonic which set me back a bit and though painful, will hopefully be worth every penny. I’m treating my parents to a concert in Gehry’s Disney Hall on Sunday…My first time inside and I’m pretty excited about seeing it and hearing the accoustics, will be a good weekend I think!