It’s hard to write a piece about a building in Downtown Los Angeles while sitting in an office in Downtown Manhattan—but not because of the distance.
It’s hard because of the history the cities share.
Old school New Yorkers will tell you that our rival city is Boston. I don’t buy it. It’s Los Angeles.
LA and NYC have so much in common—yet they’re so different. They’re big, bustling cities, where people move to live out their dreams. They’re entertainment meccas, and for many people outside of the U.S., these two cities are the only America they’ll ever see.
New York and Los Angeles exchange residents on a continuous basis. The ones who leave tell their new neighbors that the place they left is overrated. The ones remaining snidely claim those who left couldn’t hack it (neither of them are correct).
Los Angeles even took one of our most beloved baseball teams. We’re still not over that one.
So it’s hard for me to write about L.A. because, well, I’m a New Yorker. And I’ll always have that snide attitude about my Left Coast counterparts.
But even I can admit—deep down—Los Angeles has an undeniable appeal. There’s been more than a few bleak winter mornings where I—crammed against hundreds of strangers in a subway train crawling down the tracks—think to myself:
“What the hell am I doing here when a place like Los Angeles exists?”
The Wells Fargo Center
On the crest of Bunker Hill in Downtown Los Angeles’s Financial District stands the Wells Fargo Center—two trapezoidal skyscrapers, opened for tenants back in 1983.
Downtown was a different place back then. At 723 feet tall, Tower I of the Wells Fargo Center (or rather, the Crocker Tower, as it was called until a merger in 1987) was the 3rd tallest building in Los Angeles.
LA has never been a city known for its skyline (always choosing to build out rather than up), so a building of that stature gained 333 Grand Avenue plenty of attention—both wanted and perhaps unwanted. Op-ed articles in the Los Angeles Times boasted that the building brought a “clean, sleek identity” to the city. Others were less enthused. Cultural critic Fredric Jameson panned the building as an example of the “depthlessness” of postmodernism.
Still others saw the building as an opportunity. In 1981—while still under construction—333 S. Grand served as a popular launching point for thrill-seeking BASE jumpers. The LA Times profiled three such daredevils (including the father of the sport, Carl Boenish) as they leapt from the building in the early morning hours in November, 1981. Strangely enough, the act of parachuting off a building wasn’t exactly illegal at the time—just the trespassing you had to do to get to the top of that building. Law enforcement was at a bit of a loss, until a judge granted a temporary restraining order requested by the building management.
The Los Angeles Times profiles three BASE jumpers in November of 1981.
Even Hollywood took notice. The yet-to-be completed tower was featured in 1983’s Blue Thunder, in a scene where Roy Scheider of Jaws fame shoots down a helicopter from the top floor of the building.
The sheer numbers behind the building were (and still are) staggering. 3 million square feet, accounting for half of all new construction in Downtown L.A. Newspapers described it as a “city within a city,” where 12,000 to 14,000 people would go to work every day. Besides the building’s namesake tenant, law firms, Prudential Insurance, and IBM all moved into what Maguire Partners called “not just office space,” but an environment.
Downtown Los Angeles
When you think of Los Angeles, you probably don’t think of Downtown.
L.A.’s core has a bit of a complicated history. Following a brief period of dense urban development in the early 20th-century, the city was impacted (perhaps more than any other metro area in the country) by wide-reaching suburbanization following World War II. As the city spread out further and further, corporations began moving their headquarters from Downtown to the exurbs of the city.
But that may be starting to change. Development projects Downtown have brought renewed interest in the neighborhood, in the form of new buildings and reawakening historic ones.
Downtown is spotted with architectural jewels, both old and new. Frank Gehrey’s ever-Instagrammable Walt Disney Concert Hall came onto the scene in 2004, the alien-looking Broad Museum (designed by architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro) across the street in 2015, while just a few blocks away stands the Bradbury Building (erected in 1893), renowned for its intricate iron work and central courtyard.
And as Los Angeles’ most walkable neighborhood—with even more public transit on the way—it’s becoming easier and easier to get around the area sans-car. Which is great for happy hour after work—Downtown L.A. is where I had the best Old Fashioned I ever had in my life at The Falls. Just sayin’.
Convene at 333 South Grand Ave.
On the third and fourth floors of the 333 S. Grand, you’ll find Convene’s newest (and first West Coast) location.
“It was important to us that it felt like Los Angeles, and not like a bunch of New Yorkers sat in an office in New York and made a space for Angelenos to use,” says Brian Tolman, Convene’s Head of Product.
To do that, the team enlisted the help of the L.A. office of design firm HOK. “We tried to avoid the stereotypes of what California feels like over New York, but at the end of the day, things are genuinely different there,” says Tolman. “California is a little looser, while spaces in New York can feel a little too tight and buttoned up. California is definitely more relaxed.”
Local graffiti artist RISK painted a commissioned work for the space.
The design team wanted to pay homage to the various neighborhoods around the building, but in a subtle way. As you walk through the space, you’ll find quiet nods to the districts that make up Downtown Los Angeles—colorful accessories in one room bring to mind the Toy District, a graffiti mural near the stairs is an ode to the Arts District. “We saw our space on Bunker Hill as the center of Downtown L.A., and we wanted to bring all these neighborhoods together in the space.”
A meeting room at 333 South Grand Avenue.
The building itself presented some unique opportunities to shape the space in a thoughtful way. Its trapezoid shape means that one corner of the building comes together at a sharp, acute angle—a space that can be difficult to design for.
“From the first time we started drawing it, I knew that I would love sitting in the ‘beak’ of the building, or what we now call the Prow,” says Tolman. “We built comfortable lounge seating into the walls, so you can sit there with windows on two sides of you in this sort of pocket. It’s so intimate and comfortable, my guess is that every time I go there, that’s where I’ll sit to work.”
The Prow features vibrant colors and lots of Southern California sunshine.
Like all Convene projects, the aim of the design team was to surprise and delight guests as soon as they emerge from the elevators. “The building itself is a pretty typical, late-century modern office building, in that there’s certainly nothing wrong with it, but there’s nothing particularly special about it either,” says Tolman. “We wanted to create an experience that contrasts the quiet nature of the building. When you walk off the elevator, you get an experience that’s more vibrant than what you were expecting to see based on the exterior.”
What Does Los Angeles Feel Like?
What does a city feel like?
It’s a hard question to answer. For places like New York and Los Angeles, the feeling of the city is often communicated through stereotypes and caricatures—a simulacrum of what a resident actually loves and knows-to-be true about their town. Capturing the aesthetic of a place, without falling back on clichés, is a challenge for even the most experienced designers. When done well, it should be more felt than noticed.
Los Angeles is definitely a place you must feel to understand. Bury your toes in the sand, get lost in the sprawling Rose Bowl Flea Market, hike a trail or two, and drive through the hills and valleys that give the city its shape.
Well damn, here I go again, getting overly poetic. If I’ve lost you by this point, I would understand. It’s just easy to get carried away writing about a place bathed in sun and far away when there’s a Nor’easter currently blowing outside your office window.
Can you really blame me when a place a like Los Angeles exists?