Surrounded on all sides by "business blocks of architectural beauty and metropolitan dimensions," the intersecting planes of Pershing Square in Los Angeles provide a modernist retreat for many Angelinos in the downtown area. While to some, the square's large stucco tower and aqueduct-like water feature serve as a cultural landmark, the park has drawn negative press due to its lack of green space and abundance of drug-related activity. John Moody purposefully concentrates on the perception, memory, and identity of the space in his documentary Redemption Square—winner of the Best Urban Design Film 2017 at the New Urbanism Film Festival. Using the voice of strangers, residents and those who used to call it home, Moody guides you from the park’s formation in 1866 to its impending renewal: a “radically flat” redesign courtesy of Agence Ter and Gruen Associates.
The first iteration of Pershing Square was in every sense a “working man’s park.” Envisaged by John Parkinson, who would later design several civic buildings across Los Angeles, the park served as an escape for those who could not afford a garden of their own. Popular among locals and visitors alike, its features were reminiscent of royal parks across Europe: several clearly defined paths radiating from a single focal point; a three-tiered fountain; which encouraged the gathering of a community. Its importance within Los Angeles was emphasized by both the erection of several statues to celebrate local and national pioneers, and its regular use as an accessible public forum, in particular during the war.
However, this importance began to diminish with the post-war decentralization of Los Angeles, as Pershing Square saw several changes that would have a great effect on its future development. A car park built underneath the open space in 1952 lead to limited access, with the corners of the park offering the only route around the large ramps that descended below, while the diverse pockets of trees and flowers made way for a thinly laid lawn. Consequently, a large number of LA's homeless took refuge in the relative safety of the park. Consequently the documentary’s star, Lorraine Morland, recounts the several nights she spent within the comparative comfort of the dried up pond. Through economic necessity, the square had become the "neglected jewel" at the heart of the city, primed for reinvestment.
Designed at a time when landscape urbanism was only just emerging as a concept, Ricardo Legorreta and Laurie Olin’s concrete-heavy modernist playground was tasked with altering Pershing Square’s negative reputation, capturing the zeitgeist of the newly-fashionable downtown LA. Heavily influenced by the 1980 Pritzker Prize Laureate Luis Barragán, Legorreta used bright colors and cubist forms to highlight the park's ability to slow life down, envisioning a space where people came to reflect on the many sculptural interventions during their hectic day-to-day. Due to the raised height resulting from the parking lot and outer walls, the square was almost completely dissociated from the street, while the terraced grass on the north side gave birth to event spaces and the park’s various stucco features evoked memories of both past and present.
Initially a success, the park later lost favor in the city due to the returning drug addicts and homeless, with the LA Times stating that in order to use the park people must “be willing to rub shoulders with citizens they seem to prefer to keep at a distance.” Amending the mishaps of its post-war neglect, Agence Ter and Gruen Associates hope to break down the harsh concrete shell, where green space plays second fiddle to the city around it. The walls of Legoretta’s design that gave refuge to many people like Lorraine are to be removed, and the ceiling of the car park below lowered, to create a seamless blurring of street and park. Reinstating some features similar to the classical layout championed by John Parkinson, the design allows the promenade to take center stage, with a pergola acting as a linear focal point running along the east side. The new proposal goes down a path of reversion; malleable in a way that allows for future adaptation, appreciating the continuous development of the urban fabric.
Pershing Square was once the centre of a young and growing Los Angeles' civic life. Our Pershing Square Renew initiative will once again shine the light on Pershing Square as the City's centerpiece—a beacon and symbol of Downtown Los Angeles' resiliency, vitality and vibrancy and a destination point for all Angelenos.
– Councilmember Jose Huizar
However, described in the documentary's stories as “a park for everyone,” where “anyone is welcome,” is Pershing Square once again in danger of turning a blind eye to the problems that have always lead to its downturn? Founded as a green space for all of the city’s people regardless of their situation, would yet another redesign simply recycle a society-wide problem to other parts of Los Angeles in favor of attracting a more white-collar clientele to the area?