When the history of public art in downtown Los Angeles is written, 1989 will be remembered as a year of transition. Prompted by the Community Redevelopment Agency's 1985 percent-for-art policy, several projects completed in 1989 reflected a nationwide trend in which public art was treated as part of architectural and urban design. Rather than installing free-standing objects that promoted a corporate image, artists were creating works that attempted to enhance the character of the city by responding to the surrounding social, cultural, and historical context.
Nowhere in downtown did the break with the past go further than at the Grand Promenade. The design of this 27 story, 372 unit apartment located on Bunker Hill across from the Museum of Contemporary Art, involved a unique collaboration between the artist, Michael Davis, and the architect, Kamnitzer and Cotton. Going beyond executing site-specific art as an end in itself, the objective of the design process was to reinvent the urbane and civilized city. Indeed, the CRA's art requirement was applied, not for commissioning a discrete work from Davis, but for improving the overall appearance of the upscale high-rise apartment and for shaping an open space in downtown.
The project might be viewed as a summary of Davis' career up to that time. If any overriding theme unified the variety of works he executed over the years, surely it was their intimate connection with the surrounding physical and political environment. After receiving his M.A. at California State University at Fullerton in 1971, he fashioned minimalist forms that simultaneously evoked a sense of time and place. As the size and scale of his works became larger, they also became increasingly architectural. But his spatial and visual references to storage bins, "Shotgun Houses" and sheds were more than aesthetic statements: they implied that his sculpture, like architecture, is a social art. Davis reinforced this underlying message by leaving his works outdoors for months and subjecting them to a variety of climates as a reminder of the power and strength of the environment in shaping our world and influencing our lives.(1)
One of his large outdoor works was "Polarity/Isolation" for the prestigious annual "Art on the Beach" sponsored by Creative Time in New York City in 1980. Davis aligned the cruciform enclosure for viewing (through peep-holes) the Empire State Building on one side and the Statue of Liberty on the other. He also incorporated debris found at the site, which was a former city dump. Focusing on national symbols of economic materialism and political liberty, his work captured the contradictions and tensions between the worldly and the ideal.(2)
After establishing a studio in downtown Los Angeles, Davis returned to gallery pieces but with a dramatic shift in focus: horizontal shapes were abandoned for vertical forms. Expressing more than a change in orientation, his works represented a new emphasis on issues affecting the urban rather than the natural environment. Though not completely embracing a minimalist style, his sculpture--classical fluted columns incorporated as a central element in works suggesting modern office towers--exhibited a reductionism that has been called Post-Modern Minimalism.(3)
By the mid-1980's, the public issues and private concerns raised by his works were expressed in a new forum when he began executing pieces within an architectural context. One of his most successful early public art projects, "Oculus", was a collaborative installation with Terry Schoonoven for the interior of the Koll Center in Irvine. Completed in 1986, Davis designed three pillars that appear as if they are holding up Schoonoven's ceiling mural.(4) The installation required the architects, Gensler & Associates, to extensively redesign the lobby by lowering the floor, altering the shape of the ceiling and changing the scale of the space. What could have been a difficult project was smoothly executed because of the close interaction between the two artists and the architects. With his successful experience in working with architects, Davis was invited by Goldrich & Kest, the developer of the Grand Promenade, to join the architects in designing the building.
Davis persuaded Kamnitzer and Cotton to strip their initial design of references to New York City apartments from the 1930's, and transform Grand Promenade into a more individual statement. He also suggested accenting the building's upward thrust by incorporating curved vertical bows in both the east and west facades.(5) Davis also wanted light to accent the hardscape, the canopy extending out from the entrance and the porte-cochere. Because of cost, however, the lighting was not installed, leaving the building with a sinister and isolated appearance at night.(6)
One of Davis' most important contributions was in selecting materials. Having executed finely crafted works in a variety of media, he is particularly sensitive to the diverse expressive qualities of both natural and synthetic materials. He recommended stainless steel railings, symbolizing the modern and the moderne for the individual terraces, and recommended cast cement rather than the originally proposed stucco to give the facade a clean look.
The relationship to the public realm distinguishes the apartment most significantly from the massive nearby office towers. With most of Bunker Hill now developed, the area has the genteel sterility of a typical suburban office park instead of the mix of toughness and elegance found in a true city. Its intentional anti-urban character is shaped in part by uninviting open spaces that are gaps between monumental skyscrapers or sanitized voids isolated from the streets. In contrast, the connection between the ground floor of the Grand Promenade and its adjacent open space represents a fundamentally different way of looking at the city. Public space and not just open space was designed to restore the street as a center of public life.
Befitting its name, circulation at the street level plays an important part of the Grand Promenade. A porte-cochere, proposed and designed by Davis, serves as an amiable marble frame accenting and articulating the entrance to the elevator lobby. All of this is united with the hardscape to transform the public doorway into a dramatic focal point. What is powerfully stated visually is ironically the apartment's biggest missed opportunity. Stimulating a sense of movement, this formal entrance would have made approaching the building a truly magnificent experience if it was connected to a processional walkway. Unfortunately, pedestrians walk toward the building not from the front, but from the side. Here, the view is different: 14 pillars, which are the most sculptural contribution Davis made to the project, appear to be lamp posts. Their illumination, however, is for aesthetic effect, rather than for lighting the hardscape or brightening the building.
The pillars are aligned to form a series of outdoor rooms between the apartment and the street. These spaces are the cornerstone of what is conceived to ultimately be a lively two block promenade of outdoor restaurants and upscale specialty shops linked to the Frank Gehry designed Disney Hall. If the promise of the artist-architect collaboration at the Grand Promenade is ever fulfilled, however, new construction along Grand Avenue should mirror the sensitivity that Davis and the other members of the design team exhibited in linking the apartment and its open spaces to the surrounding city. Their pioneering work will be measured, not by aesthetic standards alone, but by the pedestrian activity that is created on Bunker Hill.
Footnotes:1 "Artists and Environment," by Suzanne Muchnic, Los Angeles Times, April 3, 1978, Pt. IV, p. 4.
2 "Art on the Beach," Artnews, October 1980, "Art on the Beach," Artforum, October 1980.
3 "Sculpture '82, A Contemporary Survey," curated by Bob Nugent, catalogue essay by Melinda Levine, March 18-August 29, 1982, University Art Gallery, Sonoma State University; "Urban Totems," by Joan Hugo, Artweek, September 25, 1982, p. 3.
4 "Koll Center Provides Art Experience," by Martin Brower, Orange County Business Line, September 1986, p. 5
5 Interview of Michael Davis by Michael Several, August 5, 1989.
The text has been provided courtesy of Michael Several, Los Angeles, October 1999.