How the Rodney King Riots changed LA architecture

Out of the ashes of April 29, 1992, a new attitude to Los Angeles was born.

This week marks 25 years since Los Angeles was blown apart by the Rodney King riots. For a new generation, it’s a story, a part of LA lore, now being retold in numerous documentaries through photos and newsreels because lasting physical scars are so hard to find.

For those of us living here then, that event is seared in memory. For many in the design community it was a pivotal experience, changing our perceptions of, and relationships to, Los Angeles, its people, and in some cases our lives and work.

On April 29, 1992, I was editor of the AIA/LA’s newsletter, and was working out of their offices on the 9th floor of the Wiltern Building at Western and Wilshire in Koreatown. I’d been living here for 10 months.

I’d first visited LA in 1987 as an associate editor at the Architectural Review magazine and had fallen under the spell of the then-outsider architects who were experimenting in a hugely infectious way with form and materials. I moved here in 1991, along with a wave of architects and design students attracted to that same free-spirited LA.

Frank Gehry, photographed by Tim Street-Porter for the Architectural Review’s special issue on Los Angeles, published December 1987. Designers were having such fun then.

I was staying late at the office, toiling on the Pagemaker layout program. The newsletter was due soon at the printer.

As night fell, the phone started to ring. Several friends called to warn me to stay put because the fires had started. What fires, I thought? New to LA and hyper-focused on work, I had not fully understood the implications of the trial of the police officers caught on video beating up Rodney King.

I opened a window (yes, the marvelous Art Deco Wiltern office building has openable windows) and saw the sky was orange. I smelled the smoke and banged the window shut. I was not sure whether to be frightened or fascinated and certainly had no idea what to do next.

Finally, I went downstairs to talk to the one person I could still find in the building, the security guard. Carl Hall lived in South LA. I sat with him in his office (all the rules were broken that evening), and we stared at the security TV screens that were now mostly showing footage of the fires. At one point he went silent. He thought he recognized a building shown in flames on the TV. It was where he lived.

Jesse Jackson meeting Angelenos immediately after the riots, 1992 (image courtesy The Marshall Project.)

Finally, around 3 am, he walked me to my car in the underground parking garage (after all this Carl and I became firm friends).

I headed west on Wilshire, driving a small Volkswagen Beetle that a friend had loaned me. I felt somewhat vulnerable, especially when cars packed with screaming teenagers zoomed past. I later learned that rioters had made their way to the Beverly Center. Maybe that had been them.

The next day was one of strange calm, spent holed up in my apartment in Santa Monica, not able to go back to the office. I was as dependent on TV for news of the unfolding havoc as friends and family in London.

But it felt wrong to be sequestered. On the third, or maybe the fourth day, I drove with my friend April Rocke to join a group cleaning up South LA.

That’s what happened in those late days of April 1992. The explosion of rage and destruction gave way to a collective urge to repair, to clean up, to renew. It was a moment of extreme catharsis. People flowed from all corners of town to join the effort. Other people left town, horrified by the violence and destruction.

Architects saw a chance to redo mini-malls, many burned in the riots. (photo courtesy Hyungwon Kang, Creative Commons).

Elected officials and community leaders were also flowing in – some local, some national – seizing the political moment. I went with April, who is African-American, to Watts, and we saw Jesse Jackson speak (he was extremely charismatic).

That desire to understand and to renew galvanized many people in LA.

And I believe it fueled a change in priorities in the architecture world, from preoccupation with formal experimentation to a desire to grapple with the social upheaval.

Architects looked at the physical manifestation of the grievances that had come to light. They jumped at what they saw as the chance to rectify deep urban planning mistakes.

Of particular concern were the mini-malls, many of which were torched by rioters. Communities hated the mini-malls for their divisive liquor stores. Architects hated the mini-malls for their deeply anti-urban nature, cutting off the corners of city blocks. Jason Payne, a designer who was a student at SCI-Arc at that time, recalls that for a few months following the unrest, design studios focused intensely on mini-malls, and also housing in South LA, as well as, “rather pessimistically, fire stations.”

Other designers dove into projects that could help salve the city’s psychic wounds.

Skid Row Housing, Star Apartments, designed by Michael Maltzan

One of the legacies of that time is Inner City Arts, the arts school serving LAUSD kids in the Skid Row area of downtown LA, designed by Michael Maltzan with Marmol Radziner. It was already in the planning stages, but the uprising prompted a surge in fundraising.

Maltzan subsequently went on to become deeply involved with designing for the Skid Row Housing Trust. On a Which Way, LA? broadcast to mark the 20th anniversary of the riots, Maltzan explained how his career and attitude to LA were utterly transformed by that moment in late April 1992.

He had come to LA to work for Frank Gehry on the Walt Disney Concert Hall, excited by the creative confidence in the city, and then “the riots took place [and] all of that got called into question… the insular debate that was taking place about form, about materials, about what this architecture was about, seemed really separate from this new reality which was that the city where all this work existed was in a deep state of trouble.”

Michael Pride founded the Design Professionals Coalition and embarked on community-based design working with the residents of St. Elmo village in Mid-City Los Angeles on improving their buildings.

“I was devastated by the riots personally and because of what it meant for my community and my family,” she told Which Way, LA?. “On the other hand, the rallying of the Los Angeles community around recovery was so powerful to me.”

LAPD Rampart station, designed by Perkins+Will (image © Michael Urbanek Photography)

The unrest catapulted into the limelight writer Mike Davis, whose book City of Quartz, published in 1990, suddenly seemed so prescient, inspiring a generation to read LA’s urban fabric through a socio-economic lens. (I’d met Mike in London before moving to LA, before his book was published in the US and became a sensation, when his LA was just one narrative among others, competing for space on the LA mythology bookshelf along with Reyner Banham and Raymond Chandler.)

The uprising birthed the radio show Which Way, LA? on KCRW which served as a valve for the region — bringing together voices who you would rarely find in the same room, to hash out the underlying causes of the rage. I determined then to work for Warren Olney, to better understand and engage with my chosen home. Those years of working with Warren fed into DnA, which looks at design and architecture not in isolation but in relation to the society it reflects and affects.

The constructive energy — almost ecstatic in its early phase — waned after a few months, and in the end much of LA was patched back together by the property owners and politicians. Many of the idealistic schemes wound up languishing on shelves. And initiatives like Rebuild LA, founded to bring investment to underserved parts of the city, did not deliver on expectations.

It would take another calamity, the 1994 earthquake, to unleash a surge of construction dollars.

But longterm seeds were sewn by that post-riot will to mend.

LAPD Metro, a remodel of the original Ramparts station by Perkins+Will (photo ©James Steinkamp Photography)

Perhaps the most important manifestation of this is in the police stations built over the last 10 years, which broke from the fortress-like designs of the William H. Parker/Daryl Gates era. The consent decree that followed the riots brought with it a commitment to greater engagement with the community and found architectural expression in stations that were more welcoming, and even drew on the local communities for input into style and color.

The first of these to open was the new Ramparts station, designed by the firm Perkins + Will.

It is located on a different site from the original, which became tainted by the Ramparts scandal in the late 1990s, and was designed, says Gabrielle Bullock, the firm’s leader for global diversity, “to be as welcoming to the community as possible. Not that everybody was going into the police station but (the idea was) the grounds around the actual building could be used by the community. So there’s a large welcoming lawn there. And the design of the station itself has lots of light and is very welcoming so that it is meant to not be a barrier or wall to the community.”

Now that original station has also been updated by Perkins + Will, again emphasizing light and accessibility, and last week it won an award from the US Green Building Council’s LA Chapter for being a LEED Platinum building.

The attention to neighborhood concerns that you now see in large public projects — from the character of mass transit stations to the design of new civic parks — is part of a nationwide trend away from top-down to grassroots planning. But I am sure the memory of the riots, demonstrating that people will destroy buildings and environments they feel uninvested in, undergirds the commitment here to making space that locals care about.

LAPD Metro by Perkins+Will features kitchen gardens (photo ©James Steinkamp Photography)

Los Angeles still has fissures — indeed, the LA Times found a rising number of Angelenos believe another riot is possible, in part fueled by Black Lives Matter and the shootings by police of African-Americans; the LAPD is still grappling with how to reduce officer-involved shootings.

But in many ways the antagonists seem to have changed. Now the biggest battle seems to be over development, as in over-development, and the allegiances have shifted. Measures S and LV brought together folks of diverse backgrounds and neighborhoods, for or against heightened density and mass transit.

Back in 1992 many neighborhoods in South and East LA were no-go zones, and their elected officials begged for investment. I remember driving West from downtown LA with a friend in the mid-90s, and as we drove through the Pico-Union neighborhood she ducked under the dashboard; that’s how fearful some people were of the neighborhoods beset by gangs and poverty.

Now Inglewood is on the rise, Compton wants to be the new Brooklyn, Venice rents are higher than in Beverly Hills, Koreatown is jumping, Boyle Heights is investment gold, and the new enemy is the gentrifier (whoever imagined artists would become the bad guys!). 

Or the enemy is the driver, or the cyclist, depending on what side you are on of the battles between bikes and cars.

And where calming gang wars used to be a primary concern in many parts of Los Angeles, now neighborhood groups grapple with the downside of greater peace: higher home and rent prices, and how to deal with the rising numbers of homeless people on their streets.

All of these concerns play into architecture and land-use and policy; and where a generation of architects came to LA 25 ago years for its design freedoms, the post-1992 generations are drawn towards creatively planning and reshaping its neighborhoods.

Out of the ashes of April 29, 1992, a new attitude to Los Angeles was born.

The redesigned Los Angeles State Historic Park. The designers held 65 meetings with community members to develop a design they could feel invested in. (photo by Avishay Artsy)