Monday, 17 June 2019

Under the Skin; An Intimate Building Review of AC Martin’s LADWP Headquarters

Department of Water and Power Building; also known as the John Ferraro Building, or the LADWP Headquarters, and originally called the General Office Building. All photographs by author.

Department of Water and Power Building; also known as the John Ferraro Building, or the LADWP Headquarters, and originally called the General Office Building. All photographs by author.

Under the Skin is a new review series that focuses on buildings in Los Angeles. Each review selects one finished building, whether newly-built or long-time-standing, and takes an in-depth look at it in order to get under its skin.

In this first installment, we take a look at the Department of Water and Power Building.

Built: 1964
Architect: AC Martin and Associates
Location: 111 N Hope St, Los Angeles, CA

Building Score: 9.4

A building review is different, but related to other kinds of reviews. If you were to make a recipe of it out of other genres, it would be:

1 part restaurant review. Reviewing buildings, like food, requires overstepping the unfamiliarity or otherness of the thing in an actual physical sense. There’s a rupture in topology. You eat the food. You enter the building. You take it on in a literal way. It fundamentally necessitates a certain level of proximity.  

1 part art review. Like art, and probably any good criticism, the experience of the thing is informed by historical and contemporary knowledge of the field, and sensitivities to conversations and relations that the thing in question is engaging with.

1 part music review. Wait, is architecture still frozen music? Each building will be judged on a 10-pt scale.

1 part travel writing Because of, you know, the pretty pictures.

Finally, you add some kale, protein powder, and honey and blend it all together. Only don’t drink it on an empty subject.

Inhabiting different categorical positions and points of view, the series will approach each building from the long shot to the close-up, the macro to the micro, the general to the specific. It will look at how the building sits within its contexts — architectural, physical, historical, cultural, or otherwise. Asking: what are its big ideas? What images is it constructing and reinforcing? Who are its constituents? What reality is it prescribing? It will zoom in, highlighting specific close-ups that reveal meaningful details about the life of the building, both in actual architectural details, but also in how the building is used and experienced. What are the peculiarities of the lived-in reality of the building? Where are the parts you aren’t supposed to see? What concessions made it work? Is it fetishized for its architectural qualities?  

Buildings are the ground on which we build our lives, the bubbles in which identity is constructed. They seem to us a constant amongst a world of variables, an imitation of stability in the face of ever-changing conditions. We tell them what we want — a different-colored bedroom, a kitchen remodel, a view of the ocean, whatever it may be — and they project new subjectivities back to us, calcifying them for better or worse. We create them, and they, in a sense, create us. What spaces we occupy and how we occupy them in part defines who we are. As groups, we look to buildings as emblems of our collective identity.

“Look Balaki,” the king said. “Do you see that spider?”
“Yes,” said Balaki, “I see the spider moving along its web.”
“We are like the spider,” said the king. “We weave our life, and then move along in it. We are like the dreamer who dreams and then lives in the dream.”
(brihadaranyaka upanishad 2.1.20)

Our physical environments are the webs of people who got here before we did. We move into their houses, renovate their offices, drive down their streets. Our cities and buildings are made of bits and pieces of dead people’s dreams. How do we treat them?

Part I

In Architecture of the Four Ecologies, Reyner Banham wrote that the Water and Power Building was “the only public building in the whole city that genuinely graces the scene and lifts the spirit (and sits in firm control of the whole basis of human existence in Los Angeles).” With such high praise from one of architecture’s high priests, it’s almost shocking that this building isn’t more known and loved. (I’ve met architects who didn’t know a thing about it.) Granted, the effect Banham was talking about had more to do with the building’s lights at night, the “brilliant cube of diamond-cool light riding above the lesser lights of downtown.” Today those cool lights have dulled to a banal yellow, inseparable from any other office building, lit up piecemeal, in what is likely an energy-saving gesture, that leaves the once-glowing cube gutted.

DTLA Domain

Luckily for us, the civic center mall has since become much less boring and we can actually enjoy it beyond the view of the car window, and in the daytime no less. You could even enjoy it on foot. If you were, for instance, to walk from City Hall through Grand Park, and you had some kind of architectural predilection, you might begin to notice a curious power dynamic in the relationships of buildings. Clustered around Grand Park is one of the densest groups of civic buildings outside of Washington D.C. It is indeed the functional civic center of the city, anchored on one end by City Hall, and on the other, by the Water and Power Building, perched atop the hill like the Parthenon in some kind of modern, axial Acropolis. Whether by accident or by virtue of a shrewd siting, the building occupies the position of civic power in a classicist sense. From Grand Park looking up, its floorplates float overhead, and from the upper section of its 17 floors, you look down on City Hall below.

Does the physical position and posture of a building have any significance beyond its own physicality? Would it be silly to suggest that the relationship of the Water and Power building to Los Angeles City Hall somehow speaks to an underlying power dynamic between these two entities? On the one hand, it’s purely naive to look around the city at the physical relationships of buildings and try to read anything meaningful into the complex operations of contemporary institutions and bureaucracies. But on the other, in some way that’s fundamental to the history of Western Architecture (i.e. the boulevards and churches of Rome). Architects more than anyone risk conflating the power of architecture with the power of institutions holding it up. But given that the institution in question is literally responsible for the preconditions for LA’s existence as a major city (via its delivery of water, which travels from as far as 200 miles away), there is an incredible resonance between LADWP’s commanding perch atop the hill, and the organization’s infrastructural role in underwriting the immense diversity of life that flourishes here.

Heterogeniest City

Los Angeles has long been known as a heterogenous city. If it has any kind of encompassing architectural or urban identity from the last 40 years, that would be it. The city of parts and pieces, of enclaves, and many small villages, where you find French architecture next to Spanish, next to Tudor, next to Japanese, where Frank Gehry’s Santa Monica house has loomed large for generations, and Morphosis has a whole design philosophy based on irregularity, and whatever you have to say about John Jerde’s Citywalk in Universal Studios, it achieved a diagrammatic clarity that seems to still be operable today. Heterogeneity. At the height of post-modernism, Charles Jencks wrote Heteropolis, a book-cum-diatribe-cum-love-letter-to-LA-architecture that blunders into an argument of Corbusian proportions, claiming that a heterogeneous architecture is the only way to off-gas and avoid future revolutions of the masses – by which he means revolutions like the Rodney King riots. (This argument is a perfect case in point about overestimating the power of architecture and conflating it with the power of institutions.)

The argument for heterogeneity is an argument for the place of the individual, for the personal, and idiosyncratic. It was postmodernism’s response to the relentless and oppressive bureaucracy of modernism, to cite an oversimplification. Every house on the block can have its own style of architecture to represent the uniqueness of each of its inhabitants (as long as those inhabitants are sufficiently wealthy that is). The ideology behind this argument, as Zizek has pointed out, is inseparable from the intrusion of the personal into spheres of our world where it does not belong, where being subject unwillingly to someone else’s idiosyncrasies can be its own special kind of fascism.

Ecology V: Infrastructuralia

At the time the Water and Power Building was built, the firm of AC Martin had a kind of mantra: “The firm is not an individual.” And indeed, the building transcends any singular notion of architecture, achieving a kind of celebration of infrastructure, and of itself. It delights in the expression of simple building elements: columns, floorplates, glass, concrete. Through its particular combination of fundamental parts, it creates a powerful poetic that speaks to its place as an object in the city, and shines as an emblem of the infrastructural processes that uphold the city itself. Despite being fundamentally and even radically contextual, it remains autonomous. It’s not an autonomy as we would typically understand it, but a kind of autonomy from its architects, or from anything that would refer beyond its idea of itself. It stands as its own justification, embodying what might be called a transpersonal rationality). This building, literally and phenomenally, underwrites the proliferation of heterogeneity of the city.

This is what makes it such an important building in Los Angeles today. In the next part of this review, I will take a closer look at its architecture.

Part II

As a pedestrian, one of the most generous and radical urban experiences you can have within the context of Los Angeles is to leave Hope Street and cross over to the plaza that encircles the base of the Water and Power Building. It’s a dramatic space that you experience as something that might be called a Phenomenal Enclave.

Phenomenal Enclavity

Much has been said about the city’s lack of built public space, which is understood to be a consequence of a lack of planning combined with the Enclave as a paradigmatic diagram for development – namely, the self-centered tendency to turn inward, neglecting any notion of a public offering. (Prominent examples of such developments include the Bonaventure Hotel, the Grove, City Walk, etc.)

If a greater sense of Other People is important in the continued development of the city, then the radicality of the Water and Power plaza lies in its success in creating the sense of enclavity while remaining open and exposed to the surrounding city. The moat, and its accompanying negative air space, are effectually an urban void. In passing through the void into the plaza, you experience the enclave’s reprieve while still connected to the city.

The moat that encloses the plaza, the only open body of water (and just large enough to be called a body of water) in the downtown 10-101-110 loop, is essentially a giant air conditioner, cooling the plaza and the building through evaporation. The plaza, together with the moat, rises off the western slope of Bunker Hill, forming a plinth that is part cul-de-sac, part ambulatory. The terminus for the Grand Park promenade, it offers a unique perspective of the city in all directions.  And if you’re downtown, it happens to be a lovely place to visit on a warm summer night, with its cool air rising off the water. (Although, pro tip: the moat will be empty until later this fall as they’re currently patching the concrete.)

Maison Domino + Black Box = Radiator

There’s a simple way to understand the architecture of the Water and Power Building. If you took the Maison Domino diagram, enlarged it, extended it up to 17 floors, and stuck a floating black box (ala the NSA Headquarters) into its floorplates, then surrounded its base with a moat on a plinth…

[waves hand] Voila.

With a few simple moves, you produce a building deeply paradoxical, poetic, and striking in its effects.

Taken as one whole thing, the building, in a proto-postmodern gesture, sits atop the hill looking like a giant cooling machine. It symbolizes its function and acts like a duck, albeit in a less figural way. It displays that which it offers to customers: water and power. This building is the radiator of the giant car that is LA, pumping coolant through the tubes to keep the city from overheating. If you listen carefully, you can hear in its form the steady drone of millions of air conditioners citywide.

On the other hand, taken as a combination of parts, the building clearly distinguishes between its Domino system and the floating black box stuck inside the floorplates. Its darkness is a superficial, not material, quality since sunlight reaches the glass so infrequently. This inner box rises above the top floorplate where it becomes more utilitarian, screening the rooftop cooling towers, and slips below the lowest floorplate as a receded soffit. The differentiation creates a sense of disjunction between these two systems. Horizontally, the floorplates extend outward 12’ beyond the glass wall, and a row of exterior columns supporting them reinforces the effect of the box’s embeddedness and the reading of the building as two intersecting systems.

The moat and floorplates, which are the main identifying features of the building, are firstly and essentially functional. In what’s essentially a primitive louver system, the extension of the floorplates is the simplest way to shade the building’s envelope from the sun. The moat, actually called a “cooling pool” by LADWP, integrates with the building’s cooling system and in fact is largely fed by recycled water.

Desert of the Real

The material topside of the exterior floorplates is not, as you would expect, concrete. Instead, looking out from inside the building, on the floorplates you’ll find a layer of crushed brown rock, just larger than gravel. For LADWP employees who occupy the building, it’s a visual metaphor that produces the image of a desert-scape under the city. From this perspective, you could understand the building as a box of rectangular desert slabs, one stacked on top of another, 17 stories tall. It’s a reminder, perhaps, of the importance of the goings-on of the building and what the environmental conditions would be like here without them. In other words, it undermines the image of the city as an autonomous metropolis and makes conceptually apparent the infrastructures on which we all rely on to sustain life.

Ecology VI: Fantasy

If you’ve seen Inception, you will recognize this building as Leo and Marion’s home within the dream city they’ve created – at the deepest level of their dream world. In that city, you could see an alternate version of Los Angeles, one of the many invisible cities that have been born of images of the place itself. The fact that this office building is made to be their home speaks to its sense as a seat of power, as well as the paradoxes of the building that make it so rich. It’s particular effect, for instance, of being fundamentally connected, yet removed from its context.

I’m interested in Inception not for its cinematic qualities, but for the latent architectural critique in its location scouting and production design that sets building at the heart of a dream city. The moat here plays host to a museum/mausoleum-type negative space, holding replicas of the characters’ childhood homes, buffering the building from the city.  

Have a building in mind you’d like to see reviewed? Leave a suggestion in the comments.


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