Stealing the architectural spotlight this summer is the re-opening of Los Angeles’ iconic John Anson Ford Theatres complex. Dating back to 1920 – and nestled in the Hollywood Hills – the open-air theatre is one of LA’s oldest performing arts centres.
The first major renovation of and new construction on the site, which cost $72.2 million, was left in the safe hands of LA-based Levin & Associates Architects – the team behind the revival of much-loved landmarks such as LA City Hall, the Griffith Observatory and the Wiltern theatre.
The sensitive restoration has allowed all of the original elements to shine again. The poured concrete entranceway, designed in 1931 to resemble the gates of Jerusalem, and the turreted concrete towers flanking the amphitheatre stage were carefully restored, while the seating was replaced and the concrete tiered deck repaired and waterproofed.
Yet much of Levin & Associates’ work involved adding function and technology to bring the theatrical relic into the 21st century. One of the main updates was a new, curved, three-storey building with a loading dock, administrative offices and public terrace, which solved many practical difficulties for the complex.
The new amphitheatre stage at night, with the natural backdrop
‘The biggest surprise was how long the Ford operated under the pre-renovation conditions – without the acoustic and theatrical improvements, and the artist and patron amenities,’ says Brenda Levin, architect and founder of Levin & Associates Architects.
A new ‘canyon green and sky blue’ sound wall at the rear of the amphitheatre was designed to reduce noise bleed from nearby Route 101: ‘The new sound wall successfully achieves a major reduction in the ambient freeway noise. In fact, once you close the doors to the theatre, you may hear birds chirping. And the acoustics inside are among the best in the country for an outdoor amphitheatre.’
The theatre also has a new custom-designed decorative metal-panelled control booth, kitted out with the latest recording technology to document the high quality sound and performance.
The amphitheatre stage was completely replaced with a new two-level Brazilian walnut ipe hardwood stage. Beyond the fourth wall, other materials were refreshed in line with the historic style of the theatre, such as a new stone veneer used on the retaining walls and theatrical stairs of the upper stage.
The loading dock and sound wall attached to the new building
‘One of the primary goals of the project was to improve the Ford for the performers. That included providing more dressing rooms, showers and a green room as well as a wider, more useful crossover. The only option was to increase the square footage under the stage and below the amphitheatre seating,’ says Levin, who cannily cut 3,500 sq ft of extra space from the bedrock.
While the impressive surrounding environment is one of the cultural draws of the Ford Theatre, it was something of a logistical mountain for Levin and her team to climb. To make the site sustainable and safe, they had to stabilise the canyon and hillside through erosion control measures and drainage systems, and design new retaining walls. The site itself was a challenge, too.
Thanks to Levin’s hard work, visitor access has been greatly enhanced. The new Zev Yaroslavsky Terrace (The Zev) and Ford Terrace Café provide vital social spaces to linger and enjoy the architecture and the hillside vistas. Landscape designers Mia Lehrer + Associates worked on smoothly blending the space with the surrounding groves of mature trees, planting native Southern Californian species such as two mature coast live oaks and two strawberry madrones (as well as Mediterranean species), and designing a series of stone walls and lighting elements to build atmosphere.
Levin can’t help but feel satisfied: ‘The County now has a totally re-imagined Ford – a state of the art theatre in which any and all artists will enjoy the technical and aesthetic improvements; and for the patrons, a beautiful new picnic terrace with gourmet food options. All accessible for the first time.’