How Should Pershing Square Be Renewed?

Should the square be “radically flat” so it flows smoothly into the surrounding ground plane and doesn’t defeat entry by being raised off the ground as it is now? Should the parking structure below be completely rebuilt because it’s totally outmoded? Should the square be transformed into a picturesque landscape of undulating hillocks and pathways? Or bisected diagonally by pathways into quadrants, two of which slope up, for catching sun or for viewing a performance?

These are just some of the questions and solutions posed by the four competing schemes for a renewed Pershing Square that were unveiled yesterday, to a capacity audience at the Palace Theater on Broadway in downtown.

The teams, helmed by high profile landscape architects and architects, are: whY with CivitasJames Corner Field Operations, with architect Frederick Fisher & PartnersAgence TER with SALT Landscape ArchitectsSWA with Morphosis.

All proposed far more greenery than in the current space. All proposed ways in which to get rid of or alleviate the invasive top level of the parking structure below. All celebrated the new life that animates downtown with visions of farmers markets, performance, pop-up art, cafes and restaurants, children’s play parks and spaces for relaxation.

Their schemes also addressed a philosophical question facing public space designers today, namely: what makes the public come to a public space?

The finalists’ designs are seen by some as a litmus test for competing trends in this regard. “Placemakers” like Fred Kent of the Project for Public Spaces and a consultant to Pershing Square Renew argue that a park’s success depends on round-the-clock activation and that “over-design” by an architect or landscape architect can cause the death of a public space. Exhibit A in his view: the Legorreta design for Pershing Square.

After all, as the architect Robert Venturi was quoted as saying (on this week’s DnA) when he was once invited to design a square in Washington, DC: “Americans don’t like sitting around (in public squares), they have to be entertained or fed.”

Many landscape designers and architects will argue that of course strong design matters, it just has to be good.

The competing schemes show varying levels of formal design. Perhaps the one that suggests the least circumscribed uses is Agence Ter/SALT’s scheme, described by designer Henri Bava as “radically flat,” with a grassy center, wooded flank on the Biltmore side and interactive canopy shading varied activities on the Hill Side. The SWA/Morphosis on the other hand, goes for a redefinition of what a park can be, by proposing a hydroponic, urban farm in a futurist structure in the heart of an otherwise arcadian space.

But some big practical questions surround the proposed overhaul, the main one being: will it actually happen?

The finances to pay for the renewed park are not yet in place, and the very process of public outreach surrounding the design development is intended to stimulate interest — and money — for the project.

This is because it is conceived as a public-private partnership, with local businesses contributing, on the understanding that an enhanced park is better for business. MacFarlane Partners and the city gave seed money for the competition; Southwest Airlines gave a grant to support the community outreach, and once a winner is selected, fundraising will start, for an estimated $50 million.

So check out the designs below and offer your thoughts at Pershing Square Renew. Public comment is invited through May 4. A winner will be announced on May 12, and once a team is chosen, fundraising will begin in earnest.

The Four Finalists

whY is based in Culver City and has worked on many buildings that house art, including Grand Rapids Art Museum and galleries at the Art Institute of Chicago, Harvard Art Museum and locally, the David Kordansky Gallery. They’re teamed with Civitas, a landscape architecture firm.

James Corner Field Operations, with architect Frederick Fisher & Partners. The two worked together on the design of Tongva Park in Santa Monica; and James Corner is perhaps best known for his landscaping work on The High Line in Manhattan.

Agence TER, a firm of landscape architects, architects and engineers based in Paris, is working with SALT Landscape Architects, as well as urban planner Deborah Murphy and other consultants.

SWA is a global firm with an LA office whose many projects included landscaping the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and Milton Street Park along the banks of Ballona Creek. Morphosis is helmed by Thom Mayne, known in LA for the Caltrans Building and the Emerson College campus in Hollywood.

For more on the issues surrounding Pershing Square, from cost to competing philosophies of public space design, listen to this DnA.

For a conversation between Frances Anderton and Steve Chiotakis about the newly unveiled designs, listen to this episode of DnA on ATC: