Ronald Altoon, a founder of Altoon + Porter Architects, has been involved in some of the most talked-about restoration projects in Los Angeles.
His firm, headquartered in the Miracle Mile section of Wilshire Boulevard, recently converted the vacated Bullocks Wilshire store into a library for the Southwestern University School of Law, while maintaining the look of the once-popular department store.
Altoon + Porter also handled the conversion of an historic firehouse into Engine Company No. 28, a popular downtown restaurant.
Altoon is the author of “International Shopping Center Architecture,” and one mall complex designed by his firm Taman Anggrek, a mixed-used facility in Jakarta, Indonesia with a 1.5 million-square-foot shopping center and 2,900 condominium units has been a big success, with 98 percent of the mall leased and all of the condo units sold.
Altoon, 51, a Los Angeles native who once worked for world-renowned architect Frank O. Gehry, in December will become president of the American Institute of Architects, which has 57,000 members nationwide.
Question: We’ve heard from business and government leaders that the Disney Concert Hall, the sports arena and the Catholic cathedral will revitalize downtown Los Angeles. What are your thoughts?
Answer: I worked the first three years of my career downtown. On my lunch breaks, I would use downtown as a kind of learning laboratory to understand the subtleties of an urban area that caused it to be electrifying or somewhat static. And what I found was, the accidents in downtown were the things that were more interesting than the elements designed to effect harmony.
Getting the new cathedral is wonderful for downtown in that it reaffirms not only a commitment to downtown but a spiritual component to downtown. But (the cathedral) in and of itself does not generate the kind of extraordinary contributions to an urban area without other things that begin to play off of it.
Having an arena downtown, I think, is extraordinary and wonderful. It’s where arenas belong. But an arena by itself without a response from the city around it is not the answer. And putting the Disney Hall downtown, which is an extraordinary thing for this city and one that I strongly applaud, in and of itself, does not do it.
Putting three landmark objects that vacuum people in and keep them there and spit them out when the bell rings is not what generates life in downtown. It is what creates a special destination of downtown, because you now have a collection of destinations.
What gives life to any downtown is that it is people’s neighborhoods as well as their workplace. Any city that has a wonderful downtown is also the neighborhood of a dominant number of people in the greater community.
Q: So downtown will not be revitalized until there are a large number of people living there?
A: Until you have an enormous amount of housing at all price points downtown, until you have the resources necessary to encourage and support housing being preferentially located downtown, you will never have a downtown. Downtowns are 24-hour elements. They’re not eight-hour workday elements. And ours is an eight-hour cycle.
And I’ve always argued that until there are grade schools, junior high schools and high schools of exceptionally high quality in downtown, you cannot get young professionals with children working people with children to want to live downtown. If I care about my children and my family, what I care about first and foremost is the quality of their social and educational development. And if I can’t get that downtown, it is not an option for me. I can get that in downtown New York, I can get that in Boston. I can’t get that in Los Angeles.
Q: That’s a lot of infrastructure you’re talking about. Is there any way for architects and other people in the business community to revitalize downtown on their own?
A: I have to tell you, it’s a challenge. I’ve always, in one way or another, been involved in downtown projects. In my first job I worked on two corporate office complexes in downtown Los Angeles. And in this practice we’ve done work in the historic side Engine Company 28 downtown.
There is a strong sense of commitment to doing something positive in downtown. But I think there are several, I would call them almost administrative or bureaucratic problems, we’ve got to overcome.
There’s a breakdown there in how the public sector meets the private sector. The whole process of moving through the city has always been challenging. This city has the single most petrified reputation of any in the United States.
Q: Is the reputation justified?
A: The reputation is absolutely justified. Getting something approved through this city has been very, very challenging. It’s gotten better under (Mayor Richard) Riordan. But getting to where it needs to be, to bring health back to a city that has languished under a five-year recession, it’s a new paradigm. It’s not asking the same people to do things differently. It’s washing out the system and setting up a system that works and starting over. It’s saying, “It’s a new day, we’re doing it differently.”
Q: How do the projects that you’ve worked on Engine Company No. 28 and the Southwestern Law Library help to revitalize downtown in a more practical way?
A: When we were doing Engine Company No. 28, the folks that handled traffic downtown at Public Works basically told us that we had to cut the facade off the building because they were widening Figueroa, and you had to have a certain width of sidewalk. And we said, “Excuse me, this is an historic building. The last thing you can do is to cut the face off an historic building.” And we had to develop an idea of actually carrying the sidewalk behind the facade of the building in order to save the facade.
Now it wasn’t the city that was concerned with the legacy of this city. They were quite willing to destroy the legacy of this city.
When we got involved with Bullocks Wilshire, there was a very different thing that happened, because we engaged the cultural affairs department straight up in the process. And we created a dialogue, and it went exceptionally smoothly. And I think we have an asset that this community has loved since it was built in 1928 that will now live well on through the next century. That happened because there was a willingness to talk in that case.
It’s a kind of culture of derailment as opposed to the culture of achievement, which is what we’ve got to overcome in this community.
Q: Where in L.A. did you grow up?
A: I grew up in Los Feliz and absolutely loved it. I grew up really as a Griffith Park brat. It’s like the park was my park. And you had parts of it I kept going back to over and over again. And I used to climb through the ruins of the Hollyhock House in Barnsdall Park before it was redone. And I used to climb up to the Ennis House. So I would find my way to various Frank Lloyd Wright, Richard Neutra and (R.M.) Schindler houses not knowing who they were, but just knowing they were different and they were fascinating, only later, in college, finding out what I had been raised amongst.
Q: So you had an early exposure to architecture without knowing it?
A: It was very subliminal, I’m sure.
Company: Altoon + Porter Architects
Title: Founding partner
Born: 1945, Los Angeles
Education: USC, bachelor’s degree in architecture, 1968; University of Pennsylvania, master’s degree in architecture, 1969
Most admired person: His wife, Alice
Hobbies: Photography, travel, contemporary art, opera
Turning point in career: Going to work for Frank O. Gehry in 1973
Personal: Married with three children