For more than five decades, the Music Center Plaza on Bunker Hill has served nearly exclusively as an entryway to catch a classical concert, a ballet, an opera or a theatrical performance. There have been exceptions, from serving as a red carpet destination when the Oscars were held at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, to a place for hundreds to try out moves during an al fresco Dance Downtown event, but after the crowds visited, it usually reclaimed its role as a large space that was largely devoid of life.
Located at 135 N. Grand Ave., the Music Center has been widely criticized for a “fortress” design that fails to connect physically and visually with the surrounding community, particularly Grand Avenue. Although people flock to the Ahmanson Theatre, Mark Taper Forum and Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, many visitors drive in, park underground, see a show and then drive away without ever leaving the campus.
Now, after decades of talk, there has finally been a sizable effort to change that behavior. On Wednesday, Aug. 28, Music Center leaders will unveil a $41 million overhaul of the Music Center Plaza, the expanse between the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and the Mark Taper Forum.
“The world has changed and how we use space has changed,” Rachel Moore, president and CEO of the Music Center, told Los Angeles Downtown News during a visit to the renovated site last week. “So we have just made it more relevant to today. It’s not that the past was bad.”
Rios Clementi Hale Studios (the firm’s work includes Grand Park) designed the project, and greater interactivity with the neighborhood was a goal from the start — the work included widening the stairway at the Grand Avenue entrance. Additionally, those who drive in can no longer park and pop right up into the plaza. Instead, they are ushered out onto Grand Avenue, and reach the performing arts venues either by ascending the renovated staircase or riding the escalators.
“There is now really just one front door when it comes to the whole plaza,” said design firm Creative Director Bob Hale.
The project has been decades in the making. According to Howard Sherman, vice president and chief operating office of the Music Center, the idea of an overhaul took root in 2001, in part because the Music Center’s subterranean garage was leaking. Although upgrades then would have capitalized on the construction of two key Grand Avenue projects — Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels — the plan stalled.
Talk continued, and in December 2017 the County Board of Supervisors finally green-lighted plans for a renovation, and pledged to provide $30 million. The Music Center agreed to raise the remaining $11 million through donations, and secure an additional $5 million for programming.
“It started as an opportunity to fix a real aging issue and turned into an incredible opportunity to create a new space, very different from how spaces were created in 1964,” Sherman said.
A Vibrant and Reconfigure Music Center
Sherman’s comment harkens back to the original project, which itself was the result of a nine-year fundraising effort spearheaded by Dorothy Buffum Chandler, a department store heiress who married Norman Chandler, from the family that owned the Los Angeles Times.
By 1959, Chandler had raised nearly $20 million of the $33.5 million construction cost. The county agreed to provide the land and cover the rest. The Music Center broke ground in 1962 and opened two years later.
Dan Rosenfeld, a real estate veteran with experience in the public and private sectors, said that there was a strong drive in the mid-1900s from civic leaders and families like the Chandlers to showcase Los Angeles on a global scale.
“We had no skyline and we had no cultural center,” Rosenfeld said. “I think the Music Center was another statement announcing that Los Angeles has arrived. The Music Center was really our coming out.”
Yet that mid-century push for a cultural symbol also led to much of the criticism lobbed at the Music Center, according to Eric Haas, a professor at USC and an expert in architecture and urban history. He said that at the time of its development, designers were not building spaces with pedestrians in mind
He added that the Music Center was built in a way that recalled the Acropolis in Athens, overlooking the rest of Downtown Los Angeles from Bunker Hill. In the era of the Music Center’s design, he said, access for motor vehicles took precedence.
“One thing that is important to keep in mind is that the role of the pedestrian was not central to the way that cities worked,” Haas said of the era.
The project, which took 20 months, concentrated on making the central area between the two cultural venues flat and more welcoming. The Jacques Lipchitz “Peace on Earth” sculpture was moved from the middle of the plaza to near the valet dropoff on Hope Street. Replacing the statue with a water feature that can be turned off during events allowed the Music Center Plaza to double its capacity from 2,500 to 5,000 people.
New landscaped vistas allow visitors to sit and look out over Grand Avenue and City Hall, and the plaza is now dotted with 20 shade-providing Australian willow trees. Additionally, five buildings were constructed, including a welcome center and permanent restrooms.
There are a trio of new food and beverage spaces: Mullin wine bar, the sit-down restaurant Abernethy’s and a cafe operated by Go Get Em Tiger. They join the previously opened Cocina Roja and Upstage Burgers.
Additionally, there are two large LED screens equipped with cameras and sensors near Hope Street. The overall goal is to make the Music Center Plaza a destination for more than just people taking in a performance.
“This was really not much of a place before,” Hale said. “It was a foyer to all these great facilities. It was a beautiful foyer, but it wasn’t a place that you would just come to on its own.”
The revitalized plaza fits into a changing Grand Avenue that includes the cathedral, Disney Hall, Grand Park, The Broad, MOCA and the Colburn School. Next up is the $1 billion The Grand, a mixed-use complex under construction at the southeast corner of Grand Avenue and First Street.
County Supervisor Hilda Solis, whose First District includes the Music Center, said the reworked plaza will prompt visitors to experience a wider sampling of the arts.
Moore said a goal is to draw people to the Music Center Plaza through a consistent, diverse slate of events and programming (see sidebar). This includes a lineup of activities throughout the opening weekend.
Moore said a goal in the future is to bring in a wider spectrum of artists, and to build upon the partnership that the Plaza can have with Grand Park, creating one of the largest open spaces in Downtown Los Angeles.
"The notion is one of building a community where we are deepening the cultural life, along with our partners on the corridor, so we’re all collectively working together,” Moore said.
Sherman added that while there is a focus on programming, there is also an aim to allow the plaza to operate as an organic open public space.
“We want there to be surprises, we want you to come and interact with the screens and create art in ways you didn’t know, but we also want you to come and just hang out,” Sherman said. “It’s a real balancing act, I think.”
©Los Angeles Downtown News 2019