The Tower that Ate the Sidewalk

In all the fanfare surrounding the opening of the “Skyspace” observation deck and “Skyslide” at the U.S. Bank Tower (née Library Tower, née First Interstate Tower) in downtown Los Angeles, some other, more noticeable changes have been largely overlooked.  In addition to the changes at the top of the building, OUE, the building’s new owners have been renovating and expanding the lobby, and reshaping the street-side experience.  Between an expanded lobby and a new curb cut to facilitate automobile drop-offs, the sidewalk area in front of the U.S. Bank Tower has been reduced to about one-third of its previous width.

The new layout is a far cry from the days following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, when the tallest building west of the Mississippi River, already set back from the street compared to the neighboring buildings, was further protected with an entire lane of traffic on busy Fifth Street blocked off in front of it.  I had moved to Los Angeles just a few weeks before September 11, and the impromptu security measures were a strange introduction to this new city.  So when I saw the new drop-off lane encroaching toward the tower my first thought was how much has changed in these past 15 years.  But then I remembered the sidewalk.  Was it really necessary to sacrifice so much pedestrian space to provide yet another place of privilege for the automobile in our city?

Pedestrians squeeze between the bulging lobby facade and a new vehicle drop-off lane.  (photo by David Douglass-Jaimes)

Pedestrians squeeze between the bulging lobby facade and a new vehicle drop-off lane.  (photo by David Douglass-Jaimes)

Of course, security is still an issue in tall towers, but now it has become a largely internalized function of the building, with electronic key-cards and transit-like turnstiles protecting our urban office fortresses.  It is likely that the original U.S. Bank Tower lobby was not designed with all of these security functions in mind.  The former lobby was a relatively small space, with entrances largely obscured on either side of the street-level façade.  Instead, with it’s Art Deco-inflected diamond-shaped columns, and gently curving glass in between, the old façade provided some visual interest on an otherwise unremarkable block, and a continuity with the design of the building as a whole.

But the new owners felt the need to provide a new experience in an effort to attract a new kind of tenant.  The redesigned lobby, by Gensler, pushes the façade out, beyond those original columns, creating a single smooth curving surface of double-height clear glass, only interrupted by two brushed aluminum-clad entryways.  Inside an enormous LED screen spanning the width of the lobby shows an odd combination of videos, ranging from surfing action shots to clips of dance scenes from old Hollywood musicals.

Surfing videos on the giant LED screen inside the lobby, visible from across the street.  (photo by David Douglass-Jaimes)

Surfing videos on the giant LED screen inside the lobby, visible from across the street.  (photo by David Douglass-Jaimes)

The new lobby is much more open to the street, and the clear glass façade provides passersby a glimpse of the enormous video installation inside.  Building tenants now have a grand new entry space, but the amount of space seems excessive.  The sleek new façade seems out of place with the faceted tower above, and the expanded space extends beyond the original building footprint resulting in an awkward connection where new meets old.  The only reminders of the once dynamic façade are contrasting diamond-shaped granite tiles set into the sidewalk at perfectly spaced intervals, a far cry from the original experience.  It’s telling that in an interview with KCRW’s Frances Anderton, Henry Cobb, of Pei Cobb Freed, the architect of the original tower, had no complaints about the new glass slide appended to the top of his tower, but was a bit dismayed at the changes on the ground level.

The larger lobby may have been justified to accommodate the influx of tourists visiting the observation deck and slide, but they don’t even use it.  Visitors to Skyspace are instead channeled into a side entrance on the second floor, accessed via the Bunker Hill Steps.

Combined with the new drop-off area, the expanded lobby creates a chokepoint on the busy sidewalk.  A dense phalanx of shiny steel bollards set back from the curb eats away at the sidewalk space even more, and reminds us how ever present security concerns really are.  But the space between the bollards and the curb did provide a convenient location for demonstrators to set up, protesting a labor dispute with OUE, during one of my visits to the site.

Protesters utilize the space between the curb and the bollards outside the U.S. Bank Tower.  (photo by David Douglass-Jaimes)

Protesters utilize the space between the curb and the bollards outside the U.S. Bank Tower.  (photo by David Douglass-Jaimes)

It’s not yet clear how the new drop-off area will be used, since every time I’ve visited the whole thing has been blocked off with pristine white traffic cones.  This imposing piece of dedicated automobile infrastructure sitting empty and idle may be a perfect metaphor for how we have strangled our cities in a blind devotion to the car, but with the bland and bloated lobby façade, it makes the newly-tedious pedestrian experience all the more frustrating.

The new drop-off lane, sitting empty and unused. (photo by David Douglass-Jaimes)

The new drop-off lane, sitting empty and unused. (photo by David Douglass-Jaimes)