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Clear water revival

Oliver Wainwright

Oliver Wainwright finds that the river runs deep in downtown LA

Images of Los Angeles’ bid for the 2024 Olympics seem eerily familiar. There are the usual sparkling stadia and luxury legacy investment opportunities you’d expect, but snaking through it all is a seductive ribbon of blue. It’s a river, just like east London’s Lea, that is to be transformed from post-industrial dumping ground to glistening new amenity by a liberal sprinkle of Olympic fairy dust.

‘People really underestimate the power of badminton,’ said Lewis MacAdams with an ironic smile when he saw the plans. The 70-year-old activist poet has spent the last 30 years trying to raise awareness of the plight of the Los Angeles River, ever since he arrived in the city in 1980. He was  horrified to discover that the very water source that first drew tribes to settle here 1,000 years ago had become an abandoned 51-mile-long concrete gutter, the result of canalisation in the 1930s after severe floods had devastated the city.

‘I thought I just had to convince people the river could be better,’ he said. ‘But the problem was no one even knew there was a river.’

Star of dystopian film scenes, from Terminator motorbike chases to Transformers explosions, the river recently hit the headlines when it was announced that Frank Gehry had secretly been appointed to mastermind a new plan for its entire length. This has thrown the status of MacAdams’ carefully laid community-driven plans, developed with a local landscape practice over a decade, up in the air.

Once a place of half-vacant buildings and empty streets, DTLA now bristles with bars, studios and gaggles of property developers, hot on the heels of the artists

Without either Gehry or the Olympics, LA’s long-abused concrete ditch is already enjoying a new life thanks to the grassroots work of MacAdams’ group, Friends of the LA River. You can now kayak down a stretch and go riding alongside it, while a riverside cycle lane now swarms with lycra-clad commuters. Property values along the river have rocketed. A new arts district is growing out of an area of old industrial buildings, where biscuit factories and veg wholesalers are making way for the ubiquitous regeneration cocktail of galleries, craft beer and artisan coffee shops.

It’s just one aspect of the unexpected revival of LA’s long-maligned downtown – ‘DTLA’ to the cognoscenti – which has seen an influx of young creatives, priced out of Venice and Santa Monica, and even New York lured here by the big spaces and sense of frontier possibility. Once a place of half-vacant buildings and empty streets, DTLA now bristles with bars, studios and gaggles of property developers, hot on the heels of the artists.

It’s a new lease of life that offers hope for the latest beacon on the city’s ghostly cultural acropolis of Bunker Hill, where Gehry’s Disney Concert Hall and Arata Isozaki’s Museum of Contemporary Art shout across the six lanes of Grand Avenue and its deserted sidewalks. Parked like a big concrete sponge next to Gehry’s billowing titanium sails, The Broad museum is an enigmatic addition to this parade of arts buildings. Its monolithic facade gives nothing away – which makes it more tempting to discover what’s inside.

Designed by New York architect Diller Scofidio & Renfro, it is the latest gift bestowed on LA by the city’s richest man, Eli Broad, as a repository for his private collection of contemporary art. Inside, it feels like a Bond baddy’s hideout: from a dimly-lit concrete cave you’re whisked up through a tunnel on an escalator to a top-lit acre-sized gallery, where Broad’s booty of Koons and Kusama trinkets shine even brighter than usual in the dazzling LA light. The journey back down a winding labyrinthine stair allows snatched glimpses into the ‘vault’ where the rest of his bounty is stored.

It’s a strangely fitting final act for the 82-year-old Broad, who made his billions building cheap suburban housing and then spent three decades trying to champion the revival of LA’s downtown, mostly in vain. In the end, as with most big plans, it’s kind of happened organically, without him. •

Oliver Wainwright is architecture critic at the Guardian


When LA’s mayor, Eric Garcetti, announced Frank Gehry’s appointment to the LA River project, he declared him to be the ‘Olmsted of our time,’ referring to the godfather of landscape design, Frederick Law Olmsted, creator of New York’s Central Park. He might have done well to consult Gehry, who later admitted: ‘I’m not a landscape guy.’