Meet the family building Wilshire Grand

The longtime LA architecture firm A.C. Martin Partners is putting the finishing touches on Wilshire Grand Center. Cousins Chris and David Martin discuss the challenges of building LA’s tallest skyscraper and the firm’s future.

For many years, Los Angeles City Hall was the tallest building in the city. Now a new tower, Wilshire Grand Center, is taking that title, at 1,099 feet.

The architecture firm A.C. Martin designed both buildings. DnA visited Wilshire Grand with project manager Chris Martin and learned from his cousin, project architect David Martin, about new paths for the family behind the veteran firm.

“Quite frankly, the building theme is California itself. If you look at the exterior of this building, think about the Sierras. Think about Yosemite Valley,” said Chris Martin, CEO and Chairman of A.C. Martin Partners, the architectural firm overseeing the design and construction of Wilshire Grand.

Martin pointed to the roof of the tower, which features a soaring glass sail.

Architect Chris Martin talks to DnA's Frances Anderton in the elevator heading to the 70th floor of Wilshire Grand. Photo by Avishay Artsy.
Architect Chris Martin talks to DnA’s Frances Anderton in the elevator heading to the 70th floor of Wilshire Grand. Photo by Avishay Artsy.

“If you look at the top of the building, it’s got a curve to it, a very subtle curve, and then a sheer drop, that is Half Dome,” he said. “The interior design is all California inspiration. If you see the carpet, you’ll think it’s a beautiful pattern. And then you’ll realize that’s an agricultural grid of the San Joaquin Valley.”

Wilshire Grand Center is a luxury hotel and office tower owned by Korean Air. It is set to open this coming spring. The project manager Chris Martin and his cousin David Martin, the design principal, are grandsons of Albert C Martin Senior, who founded the firm of A.C. Martin over a century ago. That firm, later helmed by his son Albert Junior, designed some of this city’s signature buildings, such as the Department of Water and Power building, the May Company Building, St. Basil Catholic Church, City National Plaza (originally named ARCO Plaza), and together with John Parkinson and John Austin, the firm also built the structure that for 36 years was the tallest in LA: City Hall.

Now the cousins are on new paths and the old family firm is going through some changes. But right now, A.C. Martin is putting itself back on the map with this new building that has attracted a lot of superlatives, starting in the ground. The world’s largest single concrete pour is the foundation of this building. It is about two thirds of the size of a football field.

The building has also attained bragging rights as the tallest building west of the Mississippi. That’s due to a spire of almost 300 feet that is attached to the glass sail at the top of the structure, taking the structure higher than the U.S. Bank Tower, hitherto LA’s tallest building.

The design principal, David Martin, never intended it to be the tallest. In fact he says, since 9/11 there is less enthusiasm to be the tallest. He says the spire was part of an aesthetic concept for the design which was permissible since the city got rid of the rule that mandated all LA skyscrapers have helipads on their roofs.

“This building is a city in itself,” Chris Martin said. “It has tremendous electrical generating capacity and actually very low demand. All the lighting in the building is all done by LEDs which don’t produce heat and they’re a very low lighting load. We make our chill water at night. We store surplus water in the building. And we also are attached to the city grid in two different locations.”

“So even if we had a power failure, it’s not likely that we would fail on both legs of our power system, completely separate substations within the city that we’re tapped into. Same thing with our water supply, several taps into different water sources within the city. The intention is that this is a city within a city with multiple power, water, sewage, outlets and sources that make everything redundant.”

A view from the 73rd floor of Wilshire Grand. Photo by Avishay Artsy.
A view from the 73rd floor of Wilshire Grand. Photo by Avishay Artsy.

The $1.2 billion building may be a city in itself but it is one with neighbors, and some of them are already complaining. Some of the tenants in the neighboring tower are upset about the glare from Wilshire Grand’s curving glass windows. The owner of that building, EYP Realty, asked the City of LA to revoke Wilshire Grand’s building permit and have its glass removed.

The City has rejected this appeal, and the Wilshire Grand team states that “the glass is the same type of high performance glass used in thousands of modern buildings all over the world,” and that it “met all performance criteria, including reflectivity.”

For the design firm AC Martin, this energy-efficient glass is just one of many features that in their view makes the building special.

There is an observation deck on the 73rd floor where you will find a bar open to hotel guests and the public. Chris Martin adds that this bar will have a very special meaning for him. He says that when Korean Air Chairman Cho Yangho asked him to be the manager of the project, Martin initially said no.

“And he came back a second time and he asked me again, and again I said no. And then the fourth generation of our firm was my son Patrick Martin, and he passed away on January 3rd, 2012. And the chairman came to me and he asked me again the third time to manage it. And I answered him by saying after the death of my son, I want to immerse myself in work. So I will take it on personally as his project manager in memory of my son Patrick. And the bar on the corner of this floor is called Patrick’s.”

Workers on the 73rd floor of Wilshire Grand. Photo by Avishay Artsy.
Workers on the 73rd floor of Wilshire Grand. Photo by Avishay Artsy.

The late Patrick Martin was to be the fourth generation of Martins continuing to lead the family firm. So what happens to the firm now?

“My son is an artist, and tried architecture and moved into art,” said David Martin. “There will be a fourth generation but I don’t think they’ll be family. We’ve we’ve set a standard here and it really belongs to that generation. And that’s exciting.”

A.C. Martin has brought in a new generation of young designers who are revitalizing the firm by bringing new skills to the traditional crafts of designing buildings. David Martin says merging those skills was essential to designing Wilshire Grand.

He has left A.C. Martin and is now working with his wife Mary on art, furniture and philanthropic projects of a very different scale, such as a design studio they’re supporting at USC School of Architecture, which is aimed at providing shelter for some of the thousands of homeless people on LA’s streets.

“I’ve been fortunate to be involved with designing four or five of these big high-rise buildings, and Wilshire Grand and so on. But you start to realize that the skyline’s important, we had fun talking about it, it should emulate nature. But it’s what happens at the street level that’s really interesting and a brand new area,” David Martin said.

“To me there is more design needed at the street level than there is the technology of building these big buildings. How do people work in public spaces? How do people feel satisfied and thrilled living in an urban environment? Around the world, people are moving away from the suburbs into the cities. So how do you make the cities beautiful wonderful places to be?”