October 24, 2008
  At Gonzalez Goodale’s Wilshire Public Park, a Monument to a Dead Hero and Living Activism
A site already laden with history takes on the legacy of RFK

by Zach Mortice
Associate Editor

Summary: Wilshire Public Park uses public art and materials that are untraditional for monuments to create an inspirational park space dedicated to Robert F. Kennedy, who was shot at the Ambassador Hotel, which used to inhabit the park’s site. Gonzalez Goodale’s design, at the urging of the Kennedy family, avoids passive tropes of historic memorials and instead uses color and public art to create a call for social activism and justice.

How do you ... design a public park based on the ideals of social activism that honors a historic figure without referencing historicist motifs?

Wilshire Public Park in Los Angeles is perhaps a too-rare instance of commercial excess being leveled for the public good. It may sound superficially like an unqualified moral victory, but the reality is more complex.

The site of the park is where the former Ambassador Hotel once stood, a Mediterranean Revival building built that hosted Hollywood elites through generations of “golden eras,” from Rudolph Valentino to Sammy Davis Jr. However, the 1968 assassination of Robert F. Kennedy in the hotel’s kitchen ensured that more Americans would remember the Ambassador for this lasting image of 1960s riot and transformation than for all the good times had by Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe. After decades of disuse, the hotel was demolished in 2006—over the objections of preservationists—to make way for a much-needed complex of K–12 public schools designed by the Pasadena, Calif.-based firm Gonzalez Goodale. During the design process for the schools, community calls for a public park on the site were met with a simple, aspiration design, also by Gonzalez and Goodale, and Wilshire Public Park is now under construction and expected to be complete by the summer of 2009.

With demolition of the Ambassador, the question of how to honor Kennedy came down to a preservation scheme that might have maintained the kitchen where he was shot in an eerily solemn memorial that would be equal parts historical museum and mausoleum. Or, Gonzalez Goodale could bring Kennedy’s message of social justice and civil rights “out into the light,” says David Goodale, AIA, firm founder and principal, with an open and inspirational public park. Goodale says the Kennedy family preferred the latter option, eschewing even the historicism that would have referenced a time when the Kennedy family members played such a pivotal role in the United States at a time of singular cultural upheaval.

Expressive contemplation
Wilshire Public Park will sit on a 19,000-square-foot, rectangular strip of land along Wilshire Boulevard. The park steps down from the sidewalk and the busy street with a short staircase into the main section of the park, ending at a sandstone wall. Goodale says this will create a room-like space of closure, isolation, and peaceful contemplation of Kennedy’s legacy and how his ideas apply to the modern world. Also, by stepping below grade, the wall at the end of the park doesn’t block views to the restored new schools being built, which sit at the top of a hill beyond the park.

Goodale says the entire site is topographically rich. “The way the earth moves to form this thing is probably the biggest compatibility with the overall [school] project,” he says.

At the park’s entrance, visitors are greeted by a stainless steel art installation by May Sun and Richard Wyatt, who collaborated on many aspects of the park. This rectangular sheet is placed in the middle of the park and is perforated with a liquid rippling pattern. Its accompanying quotation from Kennedy speaks about how actions of social justice can ripple across society like an altruistic contagion. The steel sheet sits in an ovular pool of water, drawing another paralleled plane to the ripple pattern. Through these perforations is a portrait of Kennedy on expressive, gold sandstone. In a rich color palette that is far removed from most dour, gray memorials, this bright sandstone wall meets a deep blue lithocrete floor that contains reflective bits of glass.

Beyond remembrance
Gonzalez Goodale’s design picks and chooses from the broad lexicon of monument motifs. It adopts the central, spatial orientation of a primary figure that is being honored, as well as a sense of peace and isolation and a public setting. It rejects typical monumental materials, colors, and historicist forms. The park calls for a very specific reaction beyond simply “remember.”

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Visit Gonzalez Goodale’s Web site.

Images courtesy of Gonzalez Goodale.

Wilshire Public Park is recessed into the ground and features public art that explains Kennedy’s legacy as a social activist.

See what the Public Architects Knowledge Community is up to.

From the AIA Bookstore: Monuments: America’s History in Art and Memory, by Judith Dupre (Random House, 2007).