Lawrence Halprin designed the Library Steps to link Bunker Hill with the Los Angeles Public Library. He "choreographed" the passageway to be "an urban experience, not unlike that of a city street"(1) with terraced cafes for relaxing and eating.
His design has been described as reminiscent of the Spanish Steps in Rome.(2) Both steps have stylistic similarities, both shift the pedestrian's movement creating an ever-changing vista, both are framed and enclosed, and both are divided by landings and are split. However, the reference to the Spanish Steps is unfortunate because it infers that the Library Steps is equally inviting. Built in the 18th century, the Spanish Steps was designed at a time when piazzas, streets, buildings, fountains and urban accessories were assembled into coherent and unified visual compositions. The Spanish Steps was also designed as part of a path of procession that extends beyond its immediate boundaries into the larger city. Combining both function and aesthetics, it directs pedestrians from the Via del Condotti past the Fontana della Barcaccia, up the side of the hill to a small plaza, where the space is anchored by an obelisk and framed by the Church of Trinita dei Monti.
In contrast, the Library Steps lacks strong visual and functional connections to the surrounding city. The approach to the foot of the Library Steps is not through an enclosed street but over an open cross-walk. Rather than integrating the foot of the steps to the incoming streets with a plaza and a sumptuous fountain, the stairs begin their ascent without any mediating features. Devoid of powerful markers, definition or enclosure, the top of the staircase appears to vanish when approaching from below. The entrance to the Library Steps from Hope Street, however, is marked by a small plaza enclosing a fountain, which sends water running down a channel through the length of the staircase. But a statue atop a narrow pole in the center of the pool facing the Library, suggests that the entrance to the Library Steps from Hope Street is through the back door.
The effect of weak aesthetic and functional links to the city can be measured by comparing the large crowds that congregate at the Spanish Steps with the sparse crowds at the Library Steps. Perhaps some hyperbole from developers is expected, but the Library Steps have fallen far short of the praise by Robert F. Maguire, principal of Maguire Thomas Partners, the developer of the Library Steps, who claimed that the Library Steps is "the best public space this side of anywhere and clearly the best in Los Angeles."(3)
World renowned architect Frank Gehry was originally commissioned to design artwork for the top of the stairs. Before withdrawing from the project in early 1990, he prepared a preliminary design of a "circular spiraling sculpture, approximately 40' in diameter and 30' high...constructed of a warm, light-colored metal, with basket-weave type structure..."(4) When Robert Graham became involved in the $190,000 project, Halprin proposed a pyramid-shaped water source embellished by reliefs by Graham for the center of the fountain.(5) This suggestion was dropped and a statue designed by Graham that represents the source of the fountain's water was cast instead.
The statue is one of the few sculptural portraits of a minority woman in Los Angeles. Depicting an African-American, it conveys a sense of welcome and repose to pedestrians walking up the steps. Los Angeles Times critic William Wilson described the figure, with her outstretched cupped hands, as technically "Graham's finest work" and compared it favorably to Donatello's "David" in Florence.(6) Three crabs at the base of the pedestal are a puzzling component but have been the figures for the source of the work's unofficial title, "Person with Crabs."
Footnotes:1 "The Chronology," in "Lawrence Halprin, Changing Places, Balding & Mansell, Great Britain, c. 1986, p. 148.
2 Ibid., see also Minutes, Community Redevelopment Agency Downtown Arts Advisory Committee Meeting, August 31, 1987.
3 "The Client's View," by Robert F. Maguire, III, in "Lawrence Halprin, Changing Places, Balding & Mansell, Great Britain, c. 1986, p. 86.
4 Letter from Jim Anderson, Maguire Thomas Partners, to Mickey Gustin, Community Redevelopment Agency, October 11, 1989.
5 Minutes Arts Advisory Committee Meeting, September 5, 1990.
6 Los Angeles Times, July 7, 1992.
The text has been provided courtesy of Michael Several, Los Angeles, January 1999.
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