The World’s Best Design Cities 2017

Metropolis editors choose 15 cities around the globe that set the bar highest for progressive design and good living.

For our annual cities issue, we analyzed two years of Metropolis coverage to identify the urban centers where architecture and design are flourishing. We take a critical look at 15 cities, examining their achievements and challenges and highlighting the advocates who are moving forward.

LOS ANGELES

Addressing a Manhattan audience during his 2012 Comedy Central special, Weirdo, millennial Renaissance man Donald Glover turned snarky: “I lived in downtown L.A. It’s kind of like the eighties decided to stay there. They’re like, ‘You guys go ahead and be the nineties. Go enjoy Ace of Base. We’ll be here practicing the moonwalk and selling crack!’”

Until very recently, bashing downtown Los Angeles (DTLA) was as casually accepted as digs against its traffic, smog, and superficiality. Despite the city’s efforts during the early 2000s to revitalize the area through heavy investment in subway construction and cultural building expansion, the so-called revival was far from convincing.

A mere half decade ago, the man credited with designing the building that sparked downtown’s renewal had all but given up on the area: “We can will it into being eventually….Maybe in 10 to 20 years . . . I would guess it’s more like 30 or 40,” moaned Frank Gehry in a 2013 interview with Los Angeles magazine. L.A.’s biggest starchitect also added that he wished that Walt Disney Concert Hall had been built in Westwood.

Fast-forward to 2017.

In the time since Gehry’s cranky tirade, the perception of DTLA has shifted. With L.A. now the front-runner to host the 2024 Olympic Games, the district currently finds itself in the midst of a huge building boom. The Los Angeles Times reports that the number of large projects under construction is the highest in nearly a century. This has fueled ravenous residential growth. In 2016, Realtor.com named downtown one of America’s ten fastest-growing neighborhoods, with a projected growth rate of 8.8 percent. The Southern California Association of Governments expects its average annual stream of 5,000 new residents to continue through 2040.

Angelenos have taken notice: “Warner Bros. Music Group relocating from Burbank to the Arts District is a big sign of confidence that DTLA is the future,” exults Brigham Yen, creator of the popular urbanist blog DTLA Rising. “I’m also really excited about what the skyline is going to look like in the next ten years. We’ll have one of the best skylines in America.”

The case for downtown’s revitalization has been cemented by a laundry list of transformative projects: Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s parametric Broad Museum (2015) has become a cultural mecca while A.C. Martin’s soaring Wilshire Grand Center (2017) bucked the trend of L.A.’s infuriatingly flat-topped skyline. The 1,100-foot tower is now the tallest building west of the Mississippi River, and the first L.A. skyscraper adorned with a spire since the Art Deco city hall was built in 1928.

L.A. Metro’s completion of the $2.5 billion Exposition light-rail line (2016) linking L.A. to Santa Monica reinforces DTLA’s centrality. The Expo marks the opening of the city’s first rail connection to the Westside since the Pacific Electric Red Car was discontinued in the 1950s. Rios Clementi Hale Studios’ playful face-lift of Grand Park (2012) gave downtown its first green gathering space. Even Gehry has had a change of heart: In 2015 he was selected to create the L.A. River “Revitalization Master Plan,” which will include the transformation of 11 miles of glorified storm drain from Griffith Park to downtown into a public park artery. In late 2016, his indefinitely delayed Grand Avenue Project, across the street from Disney Hall, was resurrected thanks to a surprise $290 million influx of Chinese capital.

With the area’s growing population fueling an increasingly vibrant street life, local restaurants and venues are filled to capacity: L.A. Live, REDCAT, the Ahmanson, Disney Hall, Grand Central Market, Little Tokyo, the Novo, Bottega Louie, the Orpheum…And just try getting a reservation at Orsa & Winston on Friday night.

But while the brick and mortar thrives, the city finds itself in desperate need of more public parks. “The new OMA park at First and Broadway (FAB) is a large step forward for a city that’s notorious for undervaluing its public spaces, but there needs to be more,” reflects author and bicoastal Wired journalist Sam Lubell. “Pershing Square is a concrete monstrosity.” Fortunately, the winning redesign of the park, by French firm Agence Ter, promises an abundance of greenery.

Another even more pressing problem is the fact that there is a growing population of close to 58,000 homeless people in L.A. County, several thousand of whom live downtown. Gentrification has encroached on skid row, making the area smaller, denser, and more volatile. The city has made an effort to direct the needy to organizations that provide food and temporary shelter, but it’s barely made a dent. The recently passed Measure H, which raises the sales tax one quarter of 1 percent (approximately $355 million per year for a decade) and allocates the revenue toward homeless needs, will certainly help. County officials are convinced that it, combined with Measure HHH (essentially a $1.2 billion bond for homeless housing), will get many individuals off the streets.

That’s years away, though. Right now, downtown Los Angeles has two realities. It’s a fun, vibrant place for those who work in the skyscrapers, play in the clubs, or live in fancy refurbished lofts, but it’s also a squalid ghetto, where the dispossessed scrounge for food and battle to hold on to their last shreds of dignity. And never the two shall meet. But there’s hope. The City of Angels has taken giant steps forward and made quantifiable progress in addressing its most dire problems.

As for Glover, downtown L.A. mocker extraordinaire, well, he’s living here again. We’re finally out of the 1980s, but not quite out of the woods. —Thomas Musca

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