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404 South Figueroa - LA's mutation of space

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If you’ve driven through downtown LA you’ve definitely seen the Bonaventure Hotel. Next time you’re stuck in traffic on the 110, look to the side for four cylinder glass towers. Designed by developer and architect John Portman in 1977, the Bonaventure on south Figueroa stands out in the LA skyline as one of the few buildings worth looking at twice. I’d been hoping to visit it since seeing it from the roof of The Standard, and I got my chance while diagramming the building with a class from Otis College of Art and Design (field trip!). It turns out what I had first simply evaluated as a good-looking building is a postmodern masterpiece.


Tired of the simplicity of modernism, the key to postmodern architecture was defying what we’re used to or expect in both program or aesthetics, throwing together shapes and colors in built defiance. The Bonaventure does just that, but unique in the fact that the element that has been warped is not in aesthetics but in terms of space. By space I mean a defined area, everything from the room you’re in now to the parking lot at a grocery store.

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The architect wanted to separate the building from the rest of the city by making itself a miniature city of its own. The glass covered structure gives the viewer views of the surrounding city rather than itself, using reflection to separate the hotel from downtown Los Angeles. Once inside, from the numerous entrances that drop visitors on the second or sixth floors, lack of orientation distances the building from the people as well. When I entered the building, I had to ask an employee what floor we were on. There is no entrance that leads to the front desk either, so you either have to ask around or be really familiar with the orientation of the building from each street entrance. Even if you are familiar with the building, you’re still not home free as the symmetry of the four towers that lead you up to the rooms makes it difficult to keep track of which side of the hotel you are in. The main space/lobby area has fountains, seating, plants, and walkways that push the concept that the interior of the Bonaventure is a city of its own. The upper levels of this opening are lined with stores and restaurants, though difficult to reach and return to with memory. The forms of transportation, escalators and elevators that take a person outside the building for a view, are referred to as “people movers” by Portman. I found out that this building was made famous partly by the writings of Fredric Jameson who called out the originality of this building in how we relate with the spaces created inside. Jameson proposes the notion that this building is a mutation in built space itself. “My implication is that we ourselves, the human subjects who happen into this new space, have not kept pace with the evolution; there has been a mutation in the object unaccompanied as yet by any equivalent mutation in the subject. We do not yet posses the perceptual equipment to match this new hyperspace, as I will call it.” And that the Bonaventure “has succeeded in transcending the capacities of the individual human body to locate itself.” In other words, we might be able to understand how to interact with this building in the future, but not as of yet.

One of the major goal of design is to give us what we are lacking as a society. At the time the building was built, with the emergence of postmodernism theory, the popular notion was that society was missing out on new and varying ways of experiencing life. The Bonaventure gave us just that.
I haven’t stayed overnight so I can’t tell you if the rooms are cool, but there’s a rotating bar/restaurant on the top floor with a view of our city that opens at five. Sure, the Disney concert hall is beautiful and a bigger architectural hit in downtown L, but that wow-factor will be done again while the Bonaventure is something you’ll probably never see anywhere else.

Top Photo by Ike Bahadourian/LAist
Bottom photo by Payton Chung via Flickr