January 30, 1995 - From the January, 1995 issue

Ira Yellin: Architecture’s Importance Uncommunicated

At the December 8th awards reception of the American Institute of Architects - Los Angeles Chapter, Ira Yellin received the President’s Award in recognition of his efforts to revitalize the Los Angeles Historic Core through his Grand Central Square project and other efforts. In his acceptance speech Mr. Yellin issued a call to architects and the architectural community for greater involvement in public life in order to help plan the Los Angeles of the 21st Century. The Planning Report presents an excerpt of Mr. Yellin's speech on the importance of architects and architecture in Los Angeles. 


“… my compliant: That each of us in this room, but especially architects, architectural schools and firms, have in our era done a remarkably poor job, putting it gently, of selling the importance of architectural profession, its extraordinary economic and social value, to the public and to our political leadership.”

I want to thank you for your very kind remarks. The Recipient of an award is rarely as deserving as the citation suggests, and I am no exception — but I thank you nonetheless. Appearing before an audience of architects is special to me. When asked, my mother will recount how I, as a child, was always scribbling pictures of buildings, or building castles in the sand — to my family, I always seemed destined for architecture. 

Somewhere along the way, however, I acquired the totally misguided belief that architects required a great facility for mathematics — of course, now having worked with many architects (and no one architect in particular), I know how misplaced that belief was. In any event, I turned to law — but even in law school, I was designing buildings and cities in my head. I wrote a Masters of Law Thesis on "Municipal Planning for Aesthetics" — (You can see that I was still in a more naive stage of life, a child of the 60's. Believing in the efficacy of government to achieve our goals.) 

I say all of this simply to say that you, as architects, and your profession, are special to me — and I am thus doubly appreciative of your recognition. It is obvious that to whatever extent my work merits attention, it is due to the involvement of many people. This is a simple truism, and must be stated. Moreover, in an era where every development project is a confrontation in endless negotiations, with a myriad of government offices, inconsistent regulations, varying interpretations, where delay is the norm and Catch-22 the standard, a complex project happens only because of the intelligence, commitment, and creativity of the total development team. This is even more so with an historic rehab project, as Grand Central, where codes bear little relation to buildings, where regulators have little precedent or experience to fall back upon, where there is a surprise each day as a new wall, ceiling or floor is opened and revealed; and whereas in Grand Central thousands of customers move through the project seven days a week.

Thus, there are many professionals and consultants for me to thank. But there are two people without whom Grand Central Square would not have happened; it is as simple as that. Since day one, they have been part of a true development team with me. They have dreamed with me; they have fought through the problems with me; and they have worried over the finances with me. As an owner-developer, I could not have asked for a finer and more creative master architect or a more committed and loyal general contractor — and I would like them to stand and be recognized: My architect, Brenda Levin — of Levin & Associates; and my contractor, Donald Dodd — of Krismar Construction Company. 

Now that I've said my thanks, and since I still have the podium, allow me to vent some frustrations. People always ask me why I do what I do rather than more conventional, and lucrative, real estate projects. So allow me to offer an answer by expressing some of my core beliefs — in a sense, they are unrelated — but, for me, they somehow come together and motivate me in what I do.

ONE: That each person, in every generation, has a responsibility to help heal or renew their society for the benefit of the next generation — 

TWO: That there is nothing inconsistent, nothing immoral, and nothing impossible in enjoying the good life while still doing good —

THREE: That the physical form of our environment — from our homes, to our backyards, to the streetscape, has a direct and profound impact on the quality of our lives. Individually, and collectively as a society —

FOUR: That Los Angeles is still a young city — a city still discovering what it will be in the new millennium — that much of its final physical form is yet to emerge — and that this generation of architects and urbanists can determine what that form will be.

And, here, then, is my complaint: 

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That each of us in this room. but especially architects, architectural schools and firms, have in our era done a remarkably poor job, putting it gently, of selling the importance of the architectural profession, its extraordinary economic and social value, to the public and to our political leadership. We recently witnessed the effectiveness of the medical and insurance lobbies. When motivated, other professions come together and determine the outcome of political and economic decisions affecting their professions and their professional values. But rarely, if ever in Los Angeles, is this true of architects or urban planners. 

In architecture, there is intellectual discourse and refined papers in academies; there is architectural chitchat at cocktail parties and perhaps in your firms. But rarely is there an effective, pragmatic, organized, or consistent impact on the public and political disclosure that determines how and where hundreds of millions of dollars will be spent in creating the next layer of Los Angeles' physical form. 

Ultimately, then, what I'd really like to say to you, more than anything else other than my thank you, is to ask that you, as a professional community, come out of your academics and out of your firms and become more realistically involved in the daily political decision making process… To help inform the dialogue and to help guide the outcome. The reasons are self-evident: this is your city, the place where you and your families are building their future; this is a city which will soon explode again with new economic and physical growth; and, with or without you, hundreds of millions of dollars will continue to be spent.

Here in downtown alone there are opportunities emerging from the important new state consolidation plan; there is the massive new civic center plan, initiated by Chris Martin, which will unfold in coming years; there are decisions to be made where residential communities should be built in and around downtown; and there arc the fascinating urban issues of connecting the complex and interesting parts of downtown into a living fabric, from Union Station and Chinatown to the Convention Center and USC, from Bunker Hill to St Vibiana Plaza and the river. 

Going beyond downtown, if I were to create a mandate for the architects of Los Angeles, I would ask that you help this city define design goals for some of its primary physical features and then hold us all to those goals. For all of the places of entry into the city: LAX, the Port, the Freeways. For the freeways themselves, their medians, their shoulders, their entrances and exits, their landscaping (which is fast being destroyed); for the walls, those ugly walls going up along so many miles, walls that will be with us for the rest of our lives; for our beaches, one of this city's great and least cared for physical resources; for the Pacific Coast Highway itself; for our major boulevards and intersections, for under grounding utility lines and replacing them with trees, a good birthday present for Los Angeles, perhaps, for the year 2000; for the design of all public improvements, on which we spend tens of millions of dollars each year, not only for public buildings, but also for street lights, hydrants, bus stops, the metro rail cars, for the choice of trees appearing on our streets. 

Importantly, for the way we ensure the architectural integrity of major public-private undertakings, such as Disney Hall. It seems to me that the architectural profession should be the loudest, the most demanding, and the most potent voice in protecting the integrity of that design, and for significant undeveloped or yet to be formally developed sites that can help define our city. The way in which Sunset Blvd leaves downtown by the Old Plaza. And how Sunset Blvd meets the ocean, or the extraordinary opportunities presented to your profession by Crown Hill, just west of downtown. 

In conclusion, I see LA. as just now maturing into a great urban complex, physically as well as socially. L.A. bas lost the innocence of suburbia, although it still remains suspicious of its many people. Yet, I feel that something good is happening, that we are breaking boundaries, that we are being forced to deal with one another and that from this, we are beginning to create a new civic culture. 

The birth of something new is always painful, but, we in this room have the opportunity to give structure to this birth, to mold the physical form and thereby perhaps the soul of America's first truly international city. If we do this well, it will be a credit to our lives and our work, and the best legacy we can leave to our children. Again, ladies and gentlemen, my appreciation to the AIA and to each of you for this award.

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