For architect Ron Altoon, buildings are a form of free speech. He also believes that all structures should involve interaction with the community. He's brought that attitude to bear on projects as diverse as a Mission Viejo shopping mall, a train station in Singapore and a 101-story high-rise in Jakarta, Indonesia. A native of Los Angeles, Altoon began his career like so many architects working for Frank Gehry. He spent a few years at now-defunct Charles Kober Associates before forming his own firm in 1984 with a partner, Jim Porter. Altoon + Porter did extensive work on the master plan
for the Grand Avenue project in downtown Los Angeles. The firm has transformed the venerable art deco Bullocks Wilshire building into the Southwestern University School of Law and designed USC's School of Social Work. Last month, Altoon received the 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award for Distinguished Service from the American Institute of Architects.


He has a unique vision for transforming downtown Los Angeles that begins with the restoration of the Los Angeles River, but expresses frustration with a political process that has stalled other projects, such as modernizing
Los Angeles International Airport.


Question: You grew up in the Los Feliz district. How did that shape your interest in architecture?
Answer:
When I grew up, Vermont Avenue between Hollywood and Franklin was like Main Street. It was extraordinary. Today, I can sit down and recall probably 70 percent of the merchants that were there. I knew them all by name. But I saw it completely decimated when a Post Office moved in and then a big supermarket. I saw first-hand how it wounded the community.


I grew up at the base of the hill underneath (Frank Lloyd Wright's) Ennis House, which I used to ride my bike to, only to be chased away by a large German shepherd. I used to play in the gardens of (another Wright building) the Hollyhock House. So I would interact with the buildings and they left an impression on me. I didn't know what they were, but they impressed me. When I was under 10, I used to take the streetcar with my grandmother downtown to go shopping, and we'd have lunch at Clifton's and
ride the wood-slat escalators. My dad used to take me to baseball games at Wrigley Field and I remember the first time we went on the 110 Freeway right after it was built. My memory goes way back.


Q: Did you know you wanted to be an architect?
A:
When I a kid I was very good in math and art. I wanted to be a heart surgeon, but my dad was a pharmacist when they were actually alchemists, with a mortar and pestle. I had a high school counselor who said I could be either an engineer or an architect. So she set up a meeting at the USC School of Architecture, and I applied.


Q: Then you went on to get a master's degree from University of Pennsylvania.
A:
I went to USC as an undergraduate and it was always a conservative campus. There the biggest protest you got was a guest lecture by Hubert Humphrey. But when I went to the University of Pennsylvania, there was a more liberal dialogue, not politically liberal, but a dialogue about liberal education, meaning you are open to all ideas and you don't shut out ideas based on your political leanings.


When I was there, there were demonstrations against the Vietnam War and the administration building was seized by students. At the time, I was in a graduate class and we were watching the sit-in, but there were only eight Americans out of 23 people, and the international students didn't really care that much about what was going on.


Q: Do the demands of work cut into your home life? And how do you maintain balance?
A:
I try to work my choices around the important events in my family's life. The only one I didn't was when I turned 50. I was in Singapore. My partner was there and we went and had a great Cognac and a wonderful Cuban cigar and my wife was a little upset that I wasn't home for my 50th birthday. She said, "Excuse me, I'm part of your life."


Q: How do you deal with being constantly on the move, traveling all the time?
A:
I had just turned 30 and one of the architectural magazines, which picked three firms to watch over the next decade, suddenly put us on the list. For an architect just building a career, it didn't get any better than this. But one day, one of the few nights when I was home, I got into bed at about 1 a.m. My young son climbed out of his crib and into bed next to me and fell asleep. I was home for a week, and every night the same thing happened. On the fourth night, it hit me: I realized that I had searched for my creative limit, but I hadn't found my heart. And that's when I decided to spend more time with my family. I started cutting back on my hours.


Q: Tell me about the Grand Avenue project and what you see as the problems facing downtown.
A:
We were invited to participate in a design exercise to evaluate the Los Angeles Music Center campus, which includes the Walt Disney Concert Hall, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Ahmanson Theatre, and the Mark Taper Forum. We set up a series of design workshops with stakeholder architects on the street: Frank Gehry, Raphael Moneo, Japanese architect Arato Isozaki, landscape architect Laurie Olin and Stuart Ketchum.
We all began to talk about what was right and wrong with Grand Avenue. The problem is that Grand Avenue is essentially a "plop street." You plopped the Music Center there, which Frank described as three pavilions on an aircraft carrier. And what that aircraft carrier edge did was to deny the street the activity of the plaza. Everyone bemoaned that.


Q: Were there other problems as well?
A:
You have these two insular, fortress-style buildings on the other side with the County Hall of Administration and the Los Angeles Superior Court. These are buildings that essentially say to the public, the government is stronger than you are. Between them is a huge depressed park and nobody in the world knows it's there. As you move down the block, there's a tinker-car garage, and then there's MOCA (the Museum of Contemporary Art). All of the buildings are inhospitable to the street. This is supposed to be the grand street in Los Angeles?


On the north end, you have the Cathedral (of Our Lady of the Angels), which seems a little isolated from everything. Across from that you've got the Mickey Mouse stuff on the Music Center that, as Prince Charles would say, is like a carbuncle on the face of a good friend. It's the most prominent site downtown with the ugliest building on it. And then, of course, you have the freeway.


Q: Describe the process of coming up with a design plan for Grand Avenue.
A:
We worked on it for 12 months, Frank (Gehry) worked on it for 12 hours. The way the process unfolded is, in the interim, we produced a plan and a series of renderings on it and shared them with everyone else. That plan was presented to the board of directors of the Music Center and won unanimous approval. It was presented to Mayor Dick Riordan, who loved it; Gloria Molina, who commented that dropping the plaza created a public space of culture for the first time. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky liked it, and he likes nothing. Eli Broad liked it. We were all ecstatic about it except the city of Los Angeles and the county of Los Angeles, which don't really want to talk to each other. The county owns the tinker-toy parking garage and didn't want to give up the 18 parking spaces to allow the road to be aligned and allow an Ellsworth Kelly sculpture to be placed in front of Disney Hall.


Q: Ultimately, the plan got scrapped for a different version, right?
A:
They basically decided to simplify the plan. We had set up a $300 million project that was like a Chinese menu. You could take a piece of this, a piece of that. It was one of those plans that had its half-life, and I feel as pleased and proud of what we did there as anything I've done.


Q: Is there any chance of resurrecting Broadway and the old theater district?
A:
We have an extraordinary stock of historic buildings downtown but we have the most morally corrupt public policy as it relates to those buildings. On Broadway, there's a collection of 14 historic movie houses. It's extraordinary. But they're not used for movies or live theater because people are afraid to go there. Skid Row is a block away. So now the theaters are used for jewelry exchanges and pornography.


Broadway is one of the most successful retail streets west of Chicago, in terms of sales per square foot. Why? It has become a regional shopping center for the surrounding Hispanic community. It is still potent and successful. But on the second level, above the shops, it's a bird sanctuary.


Q: Why do you think this has happened to buildings?
A:
It's a maximum return on investment. It's all about dollars. And to me it's something that shouldn't be about dollars, but about the vitality of the city we're rebuilding. If the developer of a building says it's not in my pro forma and that he's not going to pay for it, then what the developer needs to hear from the city, is that the city will not pay for it. The developer can find another city. This city has never had a shred of political courage in my lifetime, starting with giving up the streetcars to General Motors and right up to refusing to do the right thing at the airport.


Q: I knew you would eventually talk about the airport.
A:
We have the largest airport in North America, the third-largest port in the world, we're the gateway to this country, and we have an international airport that is less impressive that Seoul, Denver, Hong Kong, Copenhagen, Helsinki and Oslo. Why are we putting up with this?


The residents nearby are entitled to complain about it and be paid a fair market value for their property, and be paid more than that because they may have to be moved. But they should not be standing in the way. You have to think of the city's greater good at some point, even if it's going to cost money. Someone has to have the courage to say that. The problem is that everyone is running for his or her next office. It's the best reason for term limits.


Q: Altoon + Porter had a reputation for doing retail work, mostly shopping malls, and you wanted to change that. How did you transform the firm?
A:
At the time, we had six partners and we all got together and everyone talked about what they felt about the practice. When they got to me, I said that we needed to change. I had written a memo and told them I was giving notice, and that in another seven years, if we hadn't achieved three things getting work globally, doing institutional work and higher education then I was going to leave the practice and I didn't want anyone to be surprised.


Q: What did you learn as president of the American Institute of Architects?
A:
I'm very cynical. I watched two things happen in Washington, D.C. I watched a city become physically transformed by political courage. Pennsylvania Avenue generated it and all the redevelopment that took place north of that. That's a city that was the saddest moment in American history and it has turned into a shining star. At the same time, however, I watched a political process unfold in Washington that I found so unworthy of the values of this country, on both sides of the aisle. I won't go into that too deeply, except to say that you either have the interests of the community at heart or you don't. I'm looking for the day that Los Angeles has a mayor that understands that self-esteem has a lot to do with how you look and how you present yourself.


Q: What do you think of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa?
A:
I'm very intrigued by his energy and his interests in issues that are dear to my heart, one of which is the Los Angeles River. I set up the first task force on it years ago to study the river, and now we're seeing a lot of that starting to play out.


I believe we need a Hausmann plan (architect Baron Hausmann, who redesigned Paris). What Hausmann created in Paris is the most homogeneous city in the world, one that works at the scale of grandeur and intimacy. I see it working from the L.A. River.


Q: What would your plan be for the L.A: River?
A:
Imagine taking the Los Angeles River from downtown L.A. through South Central. What's there? Some of the most disadvantaged families in the city, with no access to recreation and lots of youth crime. You could spend the billions to buy the land and turn it into a regional park with the river running through it. You'd regenerate the area, create jobs, and the worst place in L.A. would become a totally transformed place to live. It would be politically courageous.


* Ronald Altoon
Title:
Founding Partner
Company: Altoon + Porter
Born: 1945, Los Angeles
Education: B.S., University of Southern California; M.S. Architecture, University of Pennsylvania
Career Turning Point: Deciding to change direction from working mostly on retail shopping centers to international work on public and education projects
Most Admired Person: Weld Coxe, founding principal of Coxe Group, the oldest management consultant firm exclusively serving architects
Personal: Married, three children aged 21, 31 and 33
Hobbies: Traveling the world

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