Travel Downtown Los Angeles is undergoing an architectural and cultural renaissance.
Tale of a new city
As our Boeing jetliner flew over the North Pole, headed to Los Angeles from the UAE, I couldn't conjure up a picture in my mind of what I was about to see. For until recently, the City of Angels has been known more for a few famous streets and a sign than for its iconic architecture. New York has the Chrysler and the Empire State buildings, and San Francisco has character in spades - its Victorian houses, the "painted ladies", sitting on a hill, the Bay Bridge perfectly framed in the distance, and, of course, the Golden Gate Bridge and the Transamerica Pyramid. Even Seattle has the Space Needle. But LA's most notable icon is the 15m-tall Hollywood sign, which has for the last 85 years stood on the Hollywood Hills. First an advertisement, it became the emblem of a city that otherwise spread out featureless across the land, down to the coast. When I thought a bit further about the city that I was to spend five days visiting, all I could think of was decadent shopping along Rodeo Drive, the younger, edgier boutiques along Melrose Avenue, and the Sunset Strip, with its boutiques, restaurants and nightclubs. But how wrong I was. Over the past few years, Los Angeles has seen several outstanding edifices spring up. In the process, the newcomers have helped give new life to a city which has seen its history gradually crumble, thanks to the San Andreas Fault, which lies beneath it, spawning a series of debilitating earthquakes over the years. LA is being reborn not in the way that Abu Dhabi is seeking to renew itself, which is more complete and will take place over the next two decades. Los Angeles seeks to find its new face in an organic way. If you watch Hollywood movies, you may have already noticed the newest centre of high culture in downtown Los Angeles. In fact, it has enjoyed cameo roles in the recent films Ironman and Get Smart. The Walt Disney Concert Hall is a world-class performance space, and, to passers-by, a celebration of shimmering, metallic curves. Its designer, the award-winning Frank Gehry, is an avid yachtsman, which is perhaps why the walls billow like sails. For the past four decades, the tuxedo-and-evening-gown set attended concertos and Academy Awards at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, a postmodern building from the 1960s that embodies the clean, minimalist lines of the period. But in 1987 the Los Angeles downtown area was given new hope when Lillian Disney, the widow of Walt Disney, endowed the city with $50 million (Dh183.5m) for the construction of a new hall. This gift was not without a catch, though. The city had five years to start construction. Without the designs in place, in 1992 the city beat the deadline by beginning construction on an underground car park. After a competition, Disney selected Gehry's design, with what was originally a somewhat conventional design. But this was the advent of the computer age, and after Gehry embraced a computer-aided design program in the early 1990s, the walls came alive: bending, shifting and leaning to and fro. When the Northridge earthquake hit in 1994, however, city planners looked on the plans for the structure's undulating stone walls with trepidation. Only after a battle of wills did Gehry agree to use stainless steel panels for the exterior. And there is more to the building than immediately meets the eye. A rooftop garden features a variety of trees from around the world. As a result, no matter what time of year it is, the space is always verdant. This location is frequently used for movie and TV shoots, and recently featured in the HBO show Entourage. As for the interior, the acoustics are incredible, with the sound design masterminded by the world-renowned Japanese expert Yasuhisa Toyota. "Everyone can now hear what the LA Philharmonic is supposed to sound like," said the hall's music director, Esa-Pekka Salonen, when it opened in October 2003. After marvelling at the concert hall, with tour guides from the city accompanying us, we walked the two blocks down North Grand Street to the next new addition to downtown. Our Lady of the Angels recently rose, phoenix-like, out of the ruins of its predecessor which suffered extensive damage from the Northridge Earthquake. It is the third largest cathedral in the world, and both a temple and a monument to art. Los Angeles is full of quirky people, our guide told us, and so why not have its architecture reflect that? And then she used the same idea to explain why this bright, sunburned yellow building had no right angles. The cathedral, designed by Rafael Moneo, the Pritzker Prize-winning Spanish architect, offered us new surprises everywhere we turned. The last panel in this Los Angeles-renaissance triptych was LA Live, the city's potent weapon to revitalise its commercial prospects. Although the City of Los Angeles built a spacious convention centre decades ago, it was never able to attract the large seminars and exhibitions because hotel accommodations in the downtown area were sparse. Then came AEG, a global player in sport management. Seeking to woo a professional American football team back to LA, it bought up several downtown blocks with the intention of building a new stadium. When that deal went awry, AEG turned its attentions to building a music campus with both intimate and large-sized venues spread across 27 acres. The result is the creation of three music venues within a few blocks of each other, able to hold 30,000, 7,000 and 1,000 people respectively. The anchor of the LA Live area is Staples Center, a multipurpose sport arena built in 1999 that now holds five professional sport teams - two men's basketball teams, one women's basketball team, a hockey team and an indoor football team. As part of the plans, AEG is building two hotels for Ritz-Carlton and JW Marriot that will offer several hundred rooms. A dozen new restaurants, a Grammy Museum, bowling alley and broadcast studio are also included in the redevelopment. This remodelling of one of America's great cities is wonderful to witness, but sometimes you want a bit of old-time glamour. So it's good to know that some places in LA have withstood the test of time. While it is lovely to have lunch above the crashing waves at the modern Malibu Beach Inn, it is also comforting to experience the kind of timeless elegance found at Beverly Wilshire. Built in 1928 and one of the few grand dames of the city, this establishment was recently added to the US National Register of Historic Places. As everyone knows, Beverly Hills is home to many Hollywood celebrities - and they all seem to gravitate towards the Beverly Wilshire, at the intersection of two famous streets, Wilshire Boulevard and Rodeo Drive. And for good reason: the service from staff was of a luxuriantly high standard, with juices, coffee, iced water and muffins waiting for you every morning in the lobby and at the pool. The rooms are also large enough to house a family - or perhaps a couple extremely comfortably - with two showers and one bath in the suites. Then again, there is also the Hotel Bel-Air, where ladies who lunch come to while away a few hours. After living in the Emirates, it was a joy to be surrounded by over 100 plant and tree varieties in the hotel garden. Before sitting down to savour cucumber sandwiches and scones, we marvelled at the white swans swimming in the pond and felt like celebrities, too.
Ivan Gale travelled with Emirates Airline on its first non-stop service from the Middle East to Los Angeles.