Posts tagged architecture

All photos: Jessica Roberts

It is always eye opening to play tourist in the city you call home. My mom – a long-time lover of all things Art Deco  – came to town and signed us up for an architectural Art Deco walking tour of Downtown organized by the Los Angeles Conservancy. Although I work Downtown, time for exploration and lingering to take in views can be limited, so the opportunity to play urban tourist with my mom was a welcome occasion.

From a landscape designer’s perspective the tour was a lot of looking up at object-oriented architecture. During the 20s and 30s architectural styles were changing in the United States, transitioning from the favored Beaux-Arts neoclassical style to what was then considered a more modern style, Art Deco, a pastiche of many styles from all over the world. Our tour began in Pershing Square, a place of controversial style in and of itself. The historic Biltmore Hotel across the street was used as a Beaux-Art foil to the more modern styles of the surrounding Art Deco buildings.

The former headquarters of the Southern California Edison building is an interesting example of the evolving urban environment. As we stepped in to view its beauty you could tell the workers there took pride in the architecture. Our tour guide showed our group an image of the Victorian homes that once inhabited Bunker Hill, all eventually torn down. Bunker Hill itself had been slightly leveled to accommodate new construction. In the 1980s the interior of the Edison building was “modernized” with drop ceilings and carpets, covering up the ornate details original to the building. Thankfully the current owners are now removing those alterations and taking steps to restore the building to its original glory.

As we continued on our walk, we looked up at the towers that had replaced the Richfield Tower, an Art Deco landmark of 1929 that was demolished in 1969 to make room for the construction of newer and more modern construction. It was interesting to see such strong opinions of style come from the tour group. One woman shouted “What a shame!”.

Other buildings were described as “Disco”. I couldn’t tell if the group reaction was favorable or not. Our tour guide mentioned that she saw some public opinions starting to shift in favor of Disco Era architecture. I myself couldn’t help but feel a certain affection for them.

Some buildings represented a transition in style, such as the Los Angeles Public Library. To get the full story you’ll have to go on the tour, but my favorite takeaway was that architect Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue had allegedly switched out the neoclassical dome he depicted in his drawings – a style he knew would sell – for the Egyptian-inspired pyramid you see today. Apparently the cultural influence that led to this switch was the discovery of King Tut’s tomb in 1922.

We all struggle to understand the world around us, and these struggles often manifest in what we create. Style is political, personal, reactionary, and unpredictable. Style reveals priorities, views on nature, and technology, and is far from passive or innocent. When we got back to Pershing Square I couldn’t help but feel a certain empathy for the park, with its funky and seemingly outdated style, and wondered how opinions of it might change after it’s gone.

A city could be imagined as the sum of its various architectural pasts. If so, then our city’s historical and evolving urban environment are inherently the roadmap to Los Angeles’ future.

All photos: Gregory Han

All photos: Gregory Han

Sixteen and a half hours is a long to time to be confined to a single seat, especially if the flight is for purposes of business, not leisure. A  person’s patience, alongside the fortitude of their bladder and their endurance for humanity in close proximity are all tested in the span of such a flight. Yet there I was, flying across the globe, crammed into the corner of a window seat, burrowing into the 14° incline seating like a rodent readying for hibernation, each attempt to find a comfortable position unfulfilled. It was the promise of exploring the Middle East for the first time that allowed coach fare discomforts to be endured.

Several single serving meals and not-so-critically-acclaimed films later, I landed in Dubai to attend Dubai Design Week. I unraveled my spine first, then turned to do the same with the city before me, a metropolis still very much in the midst of creating its own identity and history in parallel.


The surrealism of Dubai is immediate – a gigantic Sim City development of competing corporate egos materialized into high rise forms. Edifices of metal and glass jut obscenely erect against the hazy-sandy canvas of a true desert sky, some notably unique, the majority indistinct. Their placement were planned years advance, but their presence seems to communicate a perpetual state of “…to be continued” in the sum of a city. The saline-perfumed Persian Gulf is temptingly nearby, but often forgotten, as if the city’s planners deemed the natural landscape insufficient an expression of their wealth and dreams, the haze of sand and urban pollution obscuring the view for miles. The sprawl of artifice this city lays out before the eyes an urban statement makes Los Angeles seem downright undeveloped country in comparison!


At 125 floors above ground level, you might expect to feel dizzy or discombobulated. Instead, I found a strong desire to pinch to zoom.

Dubai is in beta stage, with countless experiments in the realm of architecture, landscape design, and infrastructure unfolding concurrently. Things happen here in real time, visibly and invisibly. One moment, I was surveying enormous construction vehicles slumbering across a dry canal bed from my hotel window; the next morning the same canal was opened with zero fanfare, with millions of gallons of sea water passing through the newly constructed thoroughfare where hours before wheels tracked across it (the canals were designed for solar-powered shipping boats). Where other cities plan, Dubai executes.

A scale model of Dubai Creek Harbour, currently being constructed. Upon completion, the development will be three times the size of Downtown Dubai and include the world’s tallest twin towers, alongside eight million square feet of retail space, 39,000 residential units, 3,664 office units, and 22 hotels with 4,400 rooms.

A scale model of Dubai Creek Harbour, currently being constructed. Upon completion, the development will be three times the size of Downtown Dubai and include the world’s tallest twin towers, alongside eight million square feet of retail space, 39,000 residential units, 3,664 office units, and 22 hotels with 4,400 rooms.

Later that same day, I was rocketing upward on an elevator traveling at 3 floors per second up to the highest observation deck inside the tallest building in the world. At 124-125 floors up the landscape below takes on a whole new persona, one more akin to computer game simulation or real time strategy level rather than the reality of life unfolding below. The urban landscape of yet-to-be-finished developments, sprawling shopping centers, checkerboards of pools glistening aqua, and large squares and strips of lands still left barren, all intersected by freeways as busy as Los Angeles and trains as perfunctory as Paris are revealed. The view is so unrealistic, the mind is lulled into disbelief rather than vertigo.

As the sun began to set, the desert landscape ignited in a spectacular display of reds, oranges, and yellows.

As the sun began to set, the desert landscape ignited in a spectacular display of reds, oranges, and yellows.

Only a few days later I was boarding onto an Emirates flight to make the same 8,000+ mile trip back to Los Angeles. Besides the complete open row of seats – the best surprise ever – I found one last surprise awaited.

About a half an hour into the flight a desert landscape never seen before revealed itself below – an arid realm I had only seen in science fiction movies…or dreams. The land appeared shaped by the nocturnal kicking of once slumbering, long forgotten titans, like bedding kicked into folds and piles. A range of mountains, dunes, and other indescribable geological formations stretched for hundreds of miles without the sight of habitation.

“Where am I?!”

I was flying over Iran – the modern lands of the ancient Persian Empire.

In realizing the plane was traveling over a country I was very unlikely ever to set foot upon in my lifetime, a tingle of excitement shot through my body. I was flying over a forbidden landscape, and everything laid before me was stunning. For those several minutes, with nose pressed against glass, my coach fare felt like first class.

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Image 1_Bird in the City

Birds are everywhere. Sometimes the first sound of my morning is the song of a green parrot in front of the window. Later in the day in Pershing Square or FIDM Park during my lunch break, I’ll watch pigeons or sparrows wandering around in the hopes of some leftover food from the lunch crowd. It is fascinating to observe how birds have adapted to urban environments, altering their diets and navigating natural predators or manmade threats (especially pigeons and sparrows).

Graphic sourced from presentation by Travis Longcore

Graphic sourced from presentation by Travis Longcore

On the other hand, anywhere between 365 to 988 million birds die from crashing into windows in the United States every year. A staggering figure when considering these deaths equal somewhere between 2 to 10 percent of the total bird population in the United States. Birds are prone to death by crashing into windows because of their inability to discern open skies from reflections created by reflective building windows; from their perspective, buildings and the skyline are one continuous line of sight to navigate. Birds also tend to focus on distant objective, ignoring the extraneous surroundings along their route, an explanation for why birds are easily trapped within 3 or 4-sided courtyards.

In order to save bird from collision, we need to build cities more cognisant of bird behavior:

Design visual noise to send signals that bird will recognize.
Birds can fly through visible openings larger than 2 inches tall or 4 inches wide. Therefore, we should keep the reflective sight of vision or open space that bird can see smaller than 2”-4”. Balconies, window screens, varying panel materials, perforated panels, awnings that shade reflective glass, or anything else that breaks down a continuous plane of sight could help birds avoid crashing into buildings. The challenge also presents an opportunity for designers to experiment with architectural detailing across building façades, adding an element of fun and energy to their design.

The building on the left is an example of bird-friendly architecture, vs. the traditional highly reflective skyscraper responsible for many bird deaths.

The building on the left is an example of bird-friendly architecture, vs. the traditional highly reflective skyscraper responsible for many bird deaths.

Design buildings with dimmable indoor lights and outdoor architectural uplights, focusing light downward at night:  
Birds are attracted to light at night much like moths are to a flame. When birds reach a light source, they can become disoriented or blinded by the glare. Attracted by bright red lights on top of towers, birds will mistakenly circle the light source, risking injury by surrounding cables attached to tower tops. The results can be disastrous, resulting in 6.8 million deaths by communication tower alone.

Ornilux is a new type of glass that birds can see more easily.

Ornilux is a new type of glass that birds can see more easily.

The total figure of preventable bird deaths per year is staggering. Designers can really make a difference, but it’s important to note most avian casualties are not attributed to collisions with skyscrapers, but instead small buildings, including single and multi-family residents. Therefore, it is our responsibility as designers to educate people about the importance of selecting the right building materials and lighting to help make Los Angeles – and every city across the globe – a safer place to live, whether feathered or not.

Additional information about a bird-friendly city:


I’ve just returned back from the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica, where I left the recognizable landscape of the city for one wholly different. Lush, wild, somehow both chaotic and orderly, the coastal rain forest in the southern end of Costa Rica is where some of the world’s first skyscrapers arose, trees towering so high a whole ecosystem of birds, insects, primates, and even sunbathing iguanas can be seen, albeit sometimes only with the aid of a telescope. My eyes were stimulated by the sheer amount of data and detail to process, yet not overwhelmed. Instead, there was an undeniable sense of awe felt within this landscape encompassed within the womb of a forest. It’s not too often I feel this sense of experiential joy within a city. Why?

A landscapes beauty can be an immediate emotional and intellectual experience. I felt many moments of this in Costa Rica. Photo: Gregory Han

A landscape can be an immediate emotional and intellectual experience. In Costa Rica these opportunities are many, while back in Los Angeles too few. Photo: Gregory Han

While flying back into Los Angeles airspace l I was struck with the sight of my hometown from overhead. Though the city’s vast expanse is intricate and wild in its own urban way, it’s also an undeniably unattractive chaos (at least during the day; at night the city takes on a different personality, becoming an illuminated circuit board on a grand scale).

The beauty of Los Angeles is mostly hidden, found in historical pockets, singular architectural moments, and along bordering remnants where native flora and fauna have been protected or forgotten to grow. But mostly Los Angeles is covered by development formulated by “per square foot profitability” rather than with any civic sense of “per square foot beauty probability”. There’s much I love about Los Angeles, but the city’s architectural landscape and lack of green space as a whole leaves a lot to be desired.

Which takes me to a video by Alain de Botton titled, “How to Make an Attractive City”. In it de Botton argues certain cities are more beautiful than others for specific reasons…reasons which are not subjective as is often argued, but actually objective in their universal appeal. According to de Botton a beautiful city is represented by common characteristics which appeal to both our conscious and unconscious receptiveness to beauty:

  • Order (buildings should be uniform in appearance and layout with some variation to distinguish the individual lives within)
  • Visible life (foot traffic, bicycles, and maybe even horse drawn carriages make for interesting traffic)
  • Compactness (density)
  • Orientation and mystery (a mix between larger and smaller streets which allow for the possibility of getting lost)
  • Scale (buildings should be no higher than 5 stories with certain exceptional landmarks)
  • A sense of the local

I’d add a seventh element which makes the most beautiful cities memorable and desirable: an integrated element of the locale’s natural elements. Think the jagged coastline of Santorini in Greece, the waterways of Venice, or the trees lining the walkways of Paris. Los Angeles has too few of its natural past interwoven into its present infrastructure, and we suffer for it.

Since its inception as a city, Los Angeles has never had much in the way of  native landscaping incorporated into its planning, instead relying upon introduced species like palms and eucalyptus.

Since its inception as a city, Los Angeles has never had much in the way of native landscaping incorporated into its planning, instead relying upon introduced species like palms and eucalyptus.

But there is hope as city planners, landscape architects, and architects are working to incorporate more native and natural elements back into city life here in Los Angeles to help mitigate erosion, water loss, and fire hazards, spurred on by state wide drought. It’s ironic a manmade disaster might prove the impetus for us to finally appreciate what was always already here. The bonus is we might end up with a more beautiful city in the process.

– Gregory Han

Photos: Julie An

Photos: Julie An

During my last few days in Greece, I thought about what I wanted to write about for AHBE Lab. I had several ideas but I decided to stick with what struck me the most: Greek mythology and its relation to the landscape and architecture of the Greek civilization and other civilizations that followed.

3. The Omphalos_Julie An

Among the many archaeological sites visited, my favorite was the Apollo Sanctuary at Delphi. Situated in the southwest slopes of the Mt. Parnassus ridge, the site overlooks the beautiful Phocis valley. The unparalleled site of Delphi blessed the Greeks with breathtaking views and terraces that organized this ancient sanctuary. Delphi was considered by the Greeks as the center of the world, as the myth behind Delphi tells the story of Zeus sending two eagles from opposite ends of the universe to meet at the center, where the Omphalos – “Navel Stone” – is located.

4. The Temple of Apollo_Julie An
5. The Temple of Apollo and Views of the Valley_Julie An

Delphi was also the site of the Oracle, who delivered prophecies from Apollo. Whether good or bad, it was commonly believed the prognostications of the Oracle were true.

1. Approaching the Agora_Julie An
As one entered the sanctuary they would first come across the Agora, or open marketplace surrounded by a portico lined with Ionic columns. Continuing along the Sacred Way, worshippers would pay respect their designated treasuries. Further upward, passing the Omphalos, one would reach the Temple of Apollo where the Oracle shared prophecies with visitors. The Temple of Apollo was a central platform, as views across toward the valley and to the theatre are most spectacular from here. At the uppermost terrace, spectators viewed athletic competitions at the stadium.

7. The Stadium with Mount Parnassus backdrop_Julie An
Like the myths behind Delphi, every site has a story, and these stories are what make a place unique. As designers we must understand the stories of the past in order to tell stories of the present and future through our designs.

2. Treasury of the Athenians_Julie An