Every great city has its gathering place: Union Square in San Francisco, the expansive Central Park of New York City. In downtown Los Angeles, that iconic public space may finally have its beginnings in Grand Park. A joint venture between the city and county of Los Angeles, the space is a signature project from Rios Clementi Hale Studios, the firm co-founded 30 years ago by USC architecture alumnus Mark Rios ’78, former chair of the USC School of Architecture’s landscape architecture program.
Now USC Trojan Family Magazine explores Grand Park and its significance, in the words of several of the firm’s architects.
How did you create a park that welcomes people from diverse cultures, who may use parks in different ways?
Grand Park’s intense material and visual palette draws from the many cultures and diverse citizenry of the city of Los Angeles.
Reflecting this goal of global inclusion, the diagram of the park draws on the projection of the major continents of the globe onto a two-dimensional map. The park features species from the six floristic kingdoms of the world – Boreal, Neotropical, Paleotropical, Cape, Australian and Antarctic. This scheme unites the four urban blocks that comprise the park, including the Fountain Plaza, Community Terrace and the Performance and Event lawns. Each space allows for a different use of the park for various groups – making this truly a “park for everyone.”
– Mark Rios ’78
Why do parks matter as places for people to gather, learn and celebrate, and how does this manifest at Grand Park?
Grand Park straddles the roles we expect from contemporary urban parks: to absorb large crowds in our reinvigorated downtown, yet provide a sense of intimacy and visual richness. Since its 2012 opening, the park has become an urban sanctuary for Angelenos, as well as the site of important civic events. During recent large public assemblies, such as the Women’s March in January, crowds gravitated to the park to raise their voices and find solidarity from their diversity.
Community workshops during the design process informed programming for the site. As a result, the park accommodates a range of events—from small storybook performances to multi-block street fairs and fiestas.
– Frank Clementi, former instructor at USC
How do parks promote health in urban environments, and how does this manifest at Grand Park?
Parks provide a vast array of health benefits. Not only do they promote physical activity, but they also serve as botanical urban oases, which can improve air quality and remove local pollutants. Grand Park is no different; it provides a place for residents to walk their dogs, a playground for children to explore, park-sponsored fitness programming and an environmentally beneficial landscape.
– Bob Hale, former instructor at USC
How do you create a park that will last and feels timeless, rather than feeling dated within a few years?
Our approach is to tell the story of the place itself, and allow the resulting design enough room to accommodate new stories that will unfold later. For example, in Grand Park, we restored the historic fountain and added a large splash pad at its base. The splash pad provides visitors young and old a chance to cool off or play, while also interacting with the historic fountain.
We also designed a set of custom site furniture that was inspired by the ubiquitous woven lawn chairs many of us grew up with. Our more durable version is bright pink, and the color – “park pink” – is now synonymous with Grand Park.
– Julie Smith-Clementi, former instructor at USC
What about sustainability?
Grand Park features a raft of sustainable initiatives. Water collection, bio-filtration and a percolation zone at the site’s lower lawn take advantage of water’s natural flow. Preserving and relocating existing specimen trees, establishing a plant palette adapted to L.A.’s climate, and providing an education outreach program all work in concert to distinguish Grand Park as a sustainable and iconic place for all of Los Angeles.
– Mark Motonaga ’91
Comments were edited for length. Learn more about Rios Clementi Hale Studios’ work with Grand Park and other landmark architectural projects in its recently released retrospective book, Not Neutral: For Every Place, Its Story.