Downtown LA's Pershing Square is the recipient of a lot of shade, and not in a literal way, which would be a great asset for a park in Los Angeles. Pershing Square and its concrete and its non-lawn are widely mocked and broadly disliked, and so the inventive designs of the four finalists in a competition to remake the space are embraced with arms opened extra-wide, because they’ll finally rid us of this park that so many Angelenos disdain.
Pershing Square today is the result of a 1993 redesign—the park’s fifth since 1886, when it was designated public space—by Mexican Modernist architect Ricardo Legorreta, landscape architect Laurie Olin, and artist Barbara McCarren. The redesign incorporated careful nods to the rich history of Los Angeles in public art form, says the LA Conservancy: "groves of orange trees" recalling LA’s debt to the citrus industry, a walkway meant to represent an earthquake fault (fittingly, the park opened a few days after the 1994 Northridge ‘quake), and a fountain that evokes the aqueducts that bring LA its water.
But just a few years after it went in, the glow of novelty faded and people started to get real about this makeover. "[T]he mood at the park is more disappointment than hope," the LA Times wrote in 1998. "Some people contend that the square's dramatic architecture is so harsh in its efforts to discourage the homeless and drug dealers that other people feel uncomfortable there too."
And making it worse was the general feeling that no one wanted to take care of the park. In fact, the Times was writing about Pershing because there was a move to hand it over to private management, the result of a mounting dissatisfaction among Downtown business owners with the way the park was being kept up. Even poor Laurie Olin, who helped design the park, told the Times back then that on his visits to the park he had "been saddened and disappointed," adding that it "doesn't have any sense that it is loved and well cared for."
Do we dislike Pershing Square because it’s ugly, or is Pershing Square ugly because we dislike it?
Maybe a lot of Angelenos are too young to remember a pre-purple Pershing. They might also be too young to recall how the installation of a parking garage under the square in 1951 meant that tall trees had to be popped in boxes (their roots couldn’t grow through the concrete of the garage), or how it’s believed that, around that time, denser plantings overall were phased out to cut down on gay cruising in the park. (The garage also put exit and entrance ramps along the borders of the park that chop up the sidewalks.)
It’s basically been downhill for the park for 60 years, but if anything, the Legorreta iteration represents—not an end point, a practically perfect park that everyone’s happy about and universally likes (we’re looking at you, Grand Park, showoff!)—but a starting point. It’s at least from a time when LA really made an effort, even just at the beginning, to hire a team with big ideas, not for getting cars under the park or getting gay dudes out of it, but for getting people into it, giving those people something exciting to see while they’re there. Legorreta’s Pershing Square gets talked about like it’s the low point in the park’s life, but really it’s the turning point. Which direction will the new redesign take it?