Union Bank Square
Union Bank Square is an impressive sight, featuring a Modernist tower soaring forty stories above the Harbor (110) Freeway and a landscaped plaza nestled at its base in downtown Los Angeles.
The Union Bank tower was the first high-rise built in the Central Business District after the 1920s. It was one of the first skyscrapers erected after the 150’ height limit was repealed in 1957 and the first building taller than City Hall. It was also the first structure to be completed as part of the Bunker Hill redevelopment project that began an era of skyscraper building in the Central Business District.
Renowned landscape architect Garrett Eckbo designed the three-acre paved plaza in 1967, siting it three stories above street level atop the complex's parking garage.
The resulting design intersperses regimented rows of trees (including ficus, jacaranda, sycamore, and coral) in round concrete planters with organic, undulating islands of grass and pools of water.
The water, which is barely ruffled by quiet fountain jets, is crossed by a central curving concrete bridge offering a pleasant ramble for plaza users.
With its juxtaposition of soft green foliage and hard concrete paving and edging, the square is a modern update of an ancient rooftop garden. Eckbo created the landscape with an eye toward two distinct user experiences: one for pedestrians enjoying the park at ground level, and one for employees viewing it from their offices in the tower above.
Artist Jerome Kirk's fin-like metal mobile sculpture "Aquarius" was added to the landscape in 1970. Union Bank Square is accessed by small staircases near the freeway, a large staircase and elevator at Fifth Street, and even a pedestrian bridge from the neighboring Bonaventure Hotel. It is a hidden piece of 1960s Los Angeles, calling for visitors to come take a peek.
A recent proposal announcing a $20 million renovation sparked concerns about the future of Union Bank Square, especially the landscaped plaza feature. In response, The Cultural Landscape Foundation is including Union Bank Square as part of their endangered Landslide feature. In July 2019, the Conservancy submitted a Historic-Cultural Monument (HCM) application for Union Bank Square. It was approved by L.A.'s City Council on February 26, 2020, making Union Bank Square the first downtown skyscraper to be designated as an HCM.
As the first structure completed as part of the Bunker Hill redevelopment project, the Union Bank Square was an important step in making the area attractive to new development. The developers were the Connecticut General Life Insurance Company, which purchased the land in 1965. Placed on a sloped site, the forty-story tower rises uninterrupted from a plaza, which itself is set back above a two-story retail court which is at street level.
The tower’s recessed windows are heavily framed with a grid of concrete panels. The effect of the panels is to give the building the sense of a monolithic skyscraper from a distance, but close up it looks as if a net or cage of concrete has been lowered over a glass tower.