Blowhard, Esq. writes:
The architectural degradation of our government buildings during the 60s and 70s is both fascinating and depressing. What mass hysteria gripped the Establishment of the time? Did no one object? What can and should we do with the legacy we’ve been handed? Back here, I wrote about the Santa Ana Civic Center, and now I’d like to take a look at a similar travesty in Long Beach, California. Here’s a bird’s-eye view of what we’ll be exploring.
The first thing to notice is all that white concrete with those four bleacher-looking things. That’s actually a rooftop garden which sits on top of the city’s library. The picture below, taken in 1978, just two years after the civic center opened, shows what it’s supposed to look like.
Instead, the planters lie empty and gates, which we’re about to see, prevent anyone from going up there.
Alright, enough overhead shots. Let’s see what this place is like at ground level. We approach from the east. If you look at the Google Map above, I’m standing near the words “Pacific Ave.” The severe, military-bunker quality of the area is already apparent.
Now you can see the stairs leading up to the abandoned garden, a sign helpfully informing us that the AREA is CLOSED. A homeless person’s belongings in front of some neglected landscaping. The only people that linger in this area are transients. Everyone else walks through it very quickly.
Hard to make this crap any uglier than it is, but that sign sticking out and those tacked-on lights are making a decent go of it.
This is a service entrance to the library, I think. Creates some wonderful deadspace for collecting leaves and trash. Would it be in poor taste to say this has all the charm of a Nazi gas chamber? It would? OK, then I’ll hold my tongue.
The entrance to the library, that democratic temple of education. Here’s another library entrance for comparison.
A closeup of the pockmarked wall, just to the right of the library entrance. I assume that protruding block used to hold a water fountain. But, in a continuing theme of this complex, it’s obviously been long neglected.
The pipes you see in these photos were not part of the original plan. They were added later to channel the run-off from the leaky garden above. The architects designed the garden without proper drainage.
Another view of the above-ground-yet-underground-feeling library.
Standing under one of the sewer holes, looking up to the gardens above. The blotchy concrete, utilitarian pipes, chain link fence, and cheap wooden slats do a great job of making the user feel like a Morlock or one of the Mole people.
I turn right to the empty plaza. The only thing it needs is a tumbleweed blowing through.
A better shot of the amphitheater-like setting, dedicated to the city’s centennial. I took this picture on a Saturday, hence the lack of flags on the poles. I’m sure when they’re up, though, they completely transform the area into a monument of civic pride and confidence.
Public art? But of course! The complex was built in 1976, so is that a not-so-veiled reference to the Soviet sickle that somehow slipped by the city fathers?
The city hall tower. Constipated, overly rational, condescending in its dismissal of pleasure. It holds you in contempt. Let’s compare it with another nearby city hall.
The city is rightly proud of how it has integrated bikes into its downtown, which I wrote about back here. I wonder how long ago the arrow fell off the library sign? I wonder how often they’ve had to clean graffiti off that wall?
The city hall entrance. Let’s push in a little closer.
I’m sure there’s some regulation that requires those green-circle decals to be on all automatic doors, but it reads like “supermarket entrance” to me. Again, just for fun, a close-up of the entrance to another city hall.
Just to the left of the entrance is this makeshift community garden. Yes, it’s maybe more than a bit pathetic, but on the other hand, it adds some much-needed vitality. No doubt it gives the workers something to care about.
A closer view.
Here’s how the city of Long Beach ca. the 1970s decided to post announcements. Here’s how Paris does it.
Did some high school student make that sign in woodshop?
Cracked concrete, rust, water stains, peeling paint, general who gives-a-shitism.
I’m now facing the street with the city hall tower behind me. Hey, if I ever decide to remake A Clockwork Orange I have a ready-made set, right?
The reverse angle of the shot above, so now the street is behind me. Have these people not heard of a street wall? Why is the building set back so far?
More of a threat than an invitation.
The sidewalk. That’s Ocean Blvd., the main drag, to my right.
Pretty awful, right? Naturally, I couldn’t help but wonder what existed here previously. The utility boxes around town usually feature various artwork and one of them helpfully commemorates LB’s city halls past. I’m not sure why the city felt the need to have three different buildings in as many decades. Perhaps it was growing quickly and they needed the space. The artwork shows a familiar story: from Beaux-Arts, to Art Deco, to Modernist. Same as it ever was.
A little googling and I was able to turn up this old postcard of the 1899 city hall.
And here’s Lincoln Park, from a very similar angle to the 1978 photo above. Which looks more inviting, humane, comfortable, and pleasant to you?
Next logical question: who’s responsible for this mess? One of the key architects on the project was Donald Gibbs and, whaddya know, he still has his offices in Long Beach. Here’s a screencap I pulled off Google Street View. I was shocked, shocked I tell you, to discover the dude works in a glass box.
He even has his own website. Here, I shit you not, is the image from the home page.
JFC, you can’t make this stuff up. Hey genius, Don Draper would never have picked that crappy military stencil font. Curiously, if you poke around his website, you’ll see the architecture section of his photo gallery offers no shots of the LBCC. Why not? Is he not proud?
So, next question: What To Do? It seems the city has finally had enough of this garbage. Back in September, it held a public forum to discuss future plans. It’s a good thing I didn’t know about this thing, because I would’ve showed up and pounded on the podium like Mussolini. Gibbs shows up to defend his work and some were reluctant to bad mouth the building to his face:
Architecturally, our Civic Center can look monolithic, and at times, downright soul-crushing. But architect Alan Pullman of Long Beach-based Studio One Elevenpointed out that the Civic Center drew its appearance from a long line of influences, ranging from Swiss-born architect Le Corbusier’s attempts to romanticize concrete to the structures designed by Kevin Roche, John Dinkeloo and Associates in the 1966 Oakland Museum and in the 1969 Knights of Columbus Building in New Haven, Connecticut.
Pullman acknowledged he was uncomfortable delivering a critique of Long Beach Civic Center with Gibbs listening, and he relieved the tension by making light of his assessment of City Hall. “Really, it’s a Modern building. It’s a Late Modern building,” Pullman said correctly.
It’s like ordering a steak and when the chef asks you what you think, you respond, “Really, it’s beef. And it’s grilled.” This past February, the city issued a Request for Qualifications for completely new designs of the entire area or seismic upgrades to the existing structures. The RFQ bluntly states: “The entire Civic Center design lacks human scale and is oblivious to its surroundings. The Civic Center is difficult to access, has poor street front visibility, and lacks activity and vitality after business hours. In summary, it does not meet the functional and aesthetic needs of the City.” The deadline for submissions is this Friday. I’m curious to see what people come up with, but I can’t say I’m eager given that the Gehry-Koolhaus-Mayne-Hadid gestalt reigns. Here’s hoping the Powers That Be realize that chasing trends and awards is what brought them here. Watch this space.
- i09 features a gallery of Brutalist buildings that should be dystopian movie sets. LB city hall’s council chamber was used for Abrams’ STAR TREK reboot. Back here, I wrote about how UC Irvine was used in CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES.
- I gave Mayne’s CalTrans building a once-over here.
- Apparently someone thought L.A.’s Petersen Automotive museum should look like a Transformer turd.