First Impressions: Wilshire Grand Center

First Impressions: Wilshire Grand Center

First Impressions is an occasional series about new buildings, public spaces, or urban places, based on the premise that the full story of the success or failure of a place can only be told over time.  Rather than a final critique, First Impressions is the beginning of a conversation.

Skyscrapers, more than any other building type, are works of symbolism as much as they are works of functional architecture.  AC Martin Partners’ design for the Wilshire Grand Center, the new tallest skyscraper on the West Coast, is no exception.  Like many superlative structures, Wilshire Grand is not an exemplary work of architecture.  But its significance in the architectural history—and future—of Los Angeles may outshine its momentary claim to regional bragging rights.

Like many tall buildings, Wilshire Grand is at its best when seen from afar, where viewers can take in the full structure without craned necks.  As an object, the tower reads like the physical incarnation of a simple hand sketch: an unbroken mass of gently curving mirror-glass, framed by a contrasting sail-shaped slice of horizontally banded glass, and topped with a needle-like spire.  Walking around downtown over the past year, as the building neared completion, I’ve found myself pleasantly surprised by the sleek new structure poking out at unexpected vantage points.  The highly reflective glazing and relatively slender profile gives it a more refined and subtle presence on the skyline than its bulkier late-20th-century neighbors with their gridded windows and stone cladding.  

Wilshire Grand Center rising above the Los Angeles Central Library.

Wilshire Grand Center rising above the Los Angeles Central Library.

But also like many tall buildings, where it meets the ground is where Wilshire Grand struggles.  Tall buildings are an inherently difficult design problem.  So much effort goes into creating the form of the upper portions of the tower, and so much infrastructure (structure, elevators, entrances, lobbies, emergency egress pathways, loading docks, and—especially here in Los Angeles—driveways and parking access) is required at the base, that the formal resolution is rarely satisfying.  Unfortunately, Wilshire Grand is no exception.  

The plaza at the corner of Figueroa and 7th Streets is generous, but the the multi-functional nature of the building—including a hotel, offices, and meeting spaces—creates a clutter of separate entrances at inexplicably different levels.  Outside of that corner plaza, all four sides of the building’s full block site are defined by long blank facades, interrupted only by driveways, with no opportunity for pedestrian access or activation in one of most heavily pedestrian-trafficked parts of Los Angeles.  And upon closer inspection, the sleek silhouette of the tower gives way to clunky facade articulations, and a waterslide-shaped glass roof over the hotel lobby that is incongruous with the rest of the building’s more subtle curves.

The entry plaza at Wilshire Grand Center with its clutter of multi-level entrances.

The entry plaza at Wilshire Grand Center with its clutter of multi-level entrances.

In the end it is the thin, curving profile of the sail-shaped tower, and the prominence of the spire that sets the building apart.  And it is only because of that spire that the 1,100-foot Wilshire Grand outstretches the nearby U.S. Bank Tower (and the nearly completed Salesforce Tower in San Francisco) by a few dozen feet for title of tallest building in the Western United States.  But where some may see only “vanity height,” these mega-scale flourishes represent something of a breakthrough for Los Angeles architecture.  

L.A.’s blunted skyline is the result of a long standing local rule that required all tall buildings to have a helipad on the roof to aid in firefighting and rescue operations.  But during the design process AC Martin Partners successfully lobbied the city to allow the building to forego the landing pad requirement in exchange for including an additional stairway for the exclusive use of firefighters (though as Christopher Hawthorne at the L.A. Times points out, the building still has a “tactical landing platform” where a helicopter could touch down in an emergency).  That local rule has since been permanently changed to eliminate the need for any helicopter facilities if designers incorporate other fire safety measures, likely due in part to the efforts of AC Martin Partners on Wilshire Grand.  

More than just breaking new ground for the L.A. skyline, Wilshire Grand also represents a kind of historical symmetry.  Chris Martin, CEO of AC Martin Partners, and construction manager for Wilshire Grand, and his cousin David Martin, lead designer on the project (along with colleague Tammy Jow), are grandsons of the firm’s founder Albert C. Martin.  And Albert C. Martin was part of a team that designed the last tall building in Los Angeles without a flat roof, the L.A. City Hall.  (Completed in 1928, the 454-foot City Hall was L.A.’s tallest building for 40 years.)

Only time will tell whether Wilshire Grand becomes an enduring icon of the L.A. skyline, or an afterthought dwarfed by future supertall structures.  Either way, Wilshire Grand has paved the way for a more exciting, more dynamic skyline for an increasingly dense and increasingly vertical city.