What’s going on with the Pershing Square redesign?
Over the past year, a world-class group of urbanists have been working steadily and creatively toward the groundbreaking of a reimagined Pershing Square. Led by L.A. City Councilmember Jose Huizar, the City’s Recreation and Parks and Bureau of Engineering departments, Agence Ter design lead Henri Bava and project manager Annelies Ne Nijs, and Pershing Square Renew, the partners have refined and evolved the winning proposal of the global design competition and will share an update with the public on Monday, Dec. 4.
Few are better equipped to talk about what’s been going on behind the scenes than two of the women managing this complex and historic project. Debra Gerod, partner at Gruen Associates, has built a career leading significant civic and cultural projects in California, and was brought in this year by the design team to shepherd the initiative to completion. Lauren Hamer is an accomplished landscape architect who represents Paris-based Agence Ter in L.A. We met up for coffee on the terrace at Pitchoun on Olive Street, across the street from Pershing Square, and talked about its present and future.
Lauren and Debra talk placemaking and public space
How did you get involved in the Pershing Square Renew project?
Lauren: I have been involved since the design competition phase and relly enjoyed the design process with Agence Ter and the L.A. partners. What I valued most is the way the team moved really carefully, quietly, gently, in a very deliberate way. The openness to ideas and a kind of lack of hierarchy—from architects, designers, local homeless activists – I found it really striking. So when Agence Ter was looking for somebody on the ground in L.A. who understood the team, who really understood their design process, I guess I seemed like a good person to take that on, and I jumped at the opportunity.
Debra: The real story? I overheard a phone message being taken for my business partner several months ago, and the struggle over this French name. It was Annelies at Agence Ter, and she was told by the City it’d be a good idea to have someone with experience managing big complex public projects in L.A., which quite frankly is me. It’s been my primary focus and my practice for 29 years. So I swooped in. My goal is to get the project done, working collaboratively so everyone feels like a partner, while also keeping the strength of the design.
And for us at Gruen, because we weren’t part of the design competition, it’s really important that we not step on anyone’s toes, especially since everyone is now under contract to us, and we’re contracting with the City. We’re focusing on how we help marshal the team forward and make this project successful.
It’s been over a year since the announcement of the winning design. Is the project going as planned?
Debra: While every project is different, this is the most critical time in the project for sure, when you either garner support or fizzle away. Projects have a certain need for inertia, and there’s been a healthy amount of post-competition project time, but when that starts to wane, it can be a problem. This is a time when we need everyone to rally around something and gather momentum. I almost never worry about budget or schedule – I mean, it’s a worry, but it’s something you can deal with in specific ways: you do more, you do less, you do things a little differently to take care of issues. But it’s really the general support for the project through this phase, once you start to lose that, it becomes really difficult to push a project forward. That’s what I’m focused on.
How do you move through this critical phase?
Debra: The hump is getting through the conceptual design phase, getting people to rally around an idea. We don’t need to figure out every question, but we do need a basic way forward, then we have a lot of design work left to go. It’s not that whatever we decide today will live forever, that’s not the case. People get more worried about that than they need to. It’s the basics. And the process right now is about vetting the concept to make sure it all works—the specifics on how can we modify the parking structure, where is the perfect balance point that allows this to actually be implemented, that won’t put the garage out of commission.
What do you care about most in designing a public space?
Lauren: I love that landscape architecture is a connection between the social and natural world, and my focus in designing spaces is on simplicity of design, one hundred percent. So I really liked that a European firm was doing something extremely simple with Pershing Square. When I was studying architectural history and theory, I stumbled onto some books by Gunther Vogt and a bunch of Swiss landscape architects, specifically this book called “Distance and Engagement: Walking, Thinking and Making Landscapes,” and I read it and thought, that’s it. This is what I want to do. I worked in Switzerland and Germany and fell in love with the European landscape style. In the U.S., you see a lot of geometry and swoops and curves and shapes and patterns. But in general, I think design should be more like good security: if you don’t see it, it’s doing its job. It’s allowing you to just live your life, as a clean stage.
What excites you the most about the new vision of Pershing Square?
Debra: I was in the library tower looking at the park recently. From above, you really see how paved it is. I’m so excited about taking it back to vegetated green space—there’s just not enough green space right now. The more people live downtown, the more that’s clearly apparent. And that’s the best thing about a park.
Where are your favorite green spaces in L.A.?
Lauren: I live by Echo Park Lake and I go there a lot and visit with everyone’s dogs, since I don’t have my own. It’s a really successful space—open at night, it’s safe, a great amount of shade, it holds a ton of events and festivals, it’s a place for families to gather and really use the green space. A lot of day-to-day community activity. It’s a really successful place in L.A.
Debra: I live in Eagle Rock, and I’m drawn to green spaces where I can walk my dog, Sammy, and take him off-leash. We go to Debs Park, where he likes to swim in that little pond, and Rosie’s Beach in Belmont Shore, absolutely the best—a big white beach.
What do you think are the most successful public spaces in the world right now?
Lauren: I lived in Berlin for years, and the Germans know how to use a park. Europeans in general—they set up shop all day and all night. Have your birthday party there, do everything there. In Berlin, I love Templehof, Hasenheide, Tiergarten, Monbijouxpark. When I’m there, everyone is gathering in the parks, drinking and eating, being together. Also, you can be totally alone, dance, whatever you want, no one will bother you. There’s not really a comparison in the U.S. I come back and I’m like, y’all don’t know what they have over there, parks and parks and parks.
Debra: I also love Tuileries in Paris and Tiergarten in Berlin. They’re both so special. And I’m a native Chicagoan, and the parks in that city really gave me an early education about how public spaces are used successfully. What Chicago does really well, with the parks along the lakefront and with Millennium Park, is make art interactive and part of the public experience, and allow for concerts, events, open and controlled in a way that doesn’t feel programmed. It’s a field of play.
Tiergarten Park in Berlin. Photo: Pierre Adenis
What can the public do to be supportive of this phase?
As with every step of the design process so far, the public’s role in contributing ideas and feedback is welcomed and crucial! We’re excited to share the latest updates and new renderings at our next public event on Dec. 4, so we invite all who care about Pershing Square and/or are curious to join us there and tell us what you think.
To learn more and see new renderings as the design of the future Pershing Square evolves, join us at the next public event on Dec. 4. RSVP and details here.