Posted by: Brad Nixon | October 6, 2010

Do Androids Dream of the Bradbury Building?

We continue our walk across part of downtown Los Angeles, striking Broadway at 5th street, and heading north as the numbered streets decline in order. To see the previous three posts, click back at the bottom of this entry, or scroll down, depending on how your browser displays this blog. Or, to start at the beginning, CLICK HERE.

As you walk north from 5th street along Broadway, you pass unremarkable storefronts in one- and two-story buildings. These shops sell inexpensive electronics, luggage, costume jewelry and a variety of clothing. The foot traffic is steady but not dense, a polyglot mix of Angelenos of every race and culture, from the middle and lower strata of the economy. Most of them seem to be purposefully heading somewhere else, except for a few window shoppers. Then, at the southeast corner of 3rd St. and Broadway you reach the Bradbury Building. The exterior is notable for a style from almost 120 years ago, but, otherwise, it’s not particularly striking.

Bradbury Building Brad Nixon 3447 (640x449)

According to the L.A. Conservancy, this is the oldest existing commercial building in downtown.

Bradbury Building Brad Nixon 3442 (640x473)
From the Broadway entrance you walk though heavy wooden doors into an interior that, if you didn’t know about it in advance, would utterly amaze you. Even knowing what to expect, and having seen photos and movies of the place, I was utterly captivated. Most of us have seen our share of buildings contemporary with The Bradbury — built in 1883 — but this structure creates a world all its own: unique, unlike anything you can recall.

Bradbury Building Brad Nixon 3435 (476x640)
Like, perhaps, all great architecture, or at least all memorable buildings, the interior immediately draws your eye inward and up, up, up. It’s a common design trick to place the viewer in a compressed space and lead the eye elsewhere into more open space. The Bradbury does it stunningly; as you enter, you’re in the ground floor atrium hallway, which is a relatively narrow space above which several floors open onto the center atrium, which is topped with a broad glass roof. The ironwork traceries of the railings and the open cage elevators are silhouetted against the light from above. This, you realize, is one extraordinary place.

Bradbury Building Brad Nixon 3434 (640x480)
The floors and walls are tile, accented with wood casings and mouldings, and the remarkable amount of wrought iron clearly expresses the technology of 1883, especially in the visible mechanisms of the two cage elevators.

Bradbury Building Brad Nixon 3431 (480x640)
Looking at this building, one concludes that Renzo Piano and his gang have nothing on the architects of the Bradbury in making form follow function and expressing technology explicitly in the structure of a building. Rising layer after layer, the place is a kind of indoor ziggurat that just beckons you to go running up stairs and around and around the open balconies in a kind of Escherian frenzy. Don’t try it. The LAPD has some offices there, and you can only go to the top of the first floor of stairs before attracting unwanted attention.

Eventually I did think of some near-contemporary buildings that have something of the Bradbury’s aesthetic, although they’re not precisely the same style: the interiors of the somewhat older Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan and the slightly newer Post Office Pavilion in Washington, D.C. Many cities have “galleries” or “arcades” that imitate the great European ones like the Milan Galleria. Brother Mark draws attention to the one in Cleveland, 1890, of which I was unaware: CLICK HERE. This is architecture from the early burgeoning of the Industrial Revolution, when architects used steel and glass to express the power and optimism of the new industrial world.

It’s breathtaking, and if that seems like hyperbole, then so be it. I challenge you to walk inside The Bradbury and not be utterly astounded.

Bradbury Building Brad Nixon 3433 (640x458)
Remarkable as it is, and located in the movie capital of the world, it’s no surprise that the place has been used as a set for innumerable movies and TV shows, including, I discovered, the office of “77 Sunset Strip’s” Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.’s character during the show’s final seasons. Beyond any doubt, its most prominent onscreen appearance was as the location of J.F. Sebastien’s workshop and the scene of the climactic fight between Harrison Ford and Rutger Hauer in “Blade Runner,” the film adapted from Philip K. Dick’s story, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” (hence the title of today’s blog). Thomas Pynchon refers to the place in Gravity’s Rainbow, so we can add it to our list of L.A. Pynchonalia. The Wikipedia entry provides a long list of the movies and TV shows that use the Bradbury Building as a set: CLICK HERE.

When you visit L.A., note that immediately across Broadway from the Bradbury is another L.A. landmark that can take a lot more time to visit, the Grand Central Market.

Brad Nixon 3427 (480x640)
It’s also a longtime survivor, built in 1897. It takes more time to visit there because it’s full of food and people and buying and selling. It’s the kind of place that once existed in every major city, and it would be interesting to speculate about what it is about L.A. that has allowed this place thrive for so long. CLICK HERE to visit the Conservancy page about the Market.

As much as one would wish to linger in The Bradbury and connect with the long-ago patrons who worked in those offices or conducted business there, my tight schedule demands that I get back to Bunker Hill for my meeting. I have an ace in the hole, though, that will elevate me onto the hill in a jiffy, and it’s like nothing you have in your town. That’s tomorrow’s entry. Be sure to tune in.

CLICK HERE to read about the building on the Conservancy Web site, which includes a photo by renowned L.A. architectural photographer, Julius Shulman.

© Brad Nixon 2010, 2017

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Responses

  1. Having moved from L.A. environs to Orange County some 25 years ago, I had long ago forgotten about this venerable old downtown building.

    Your post reminded me that when I was starting out as a young lawyer in L.A.’s mid-Wilshire district in the 1970’s, one of my young colleagues decided to move her office from mid-Wilshire to downtown L.A. She chose the Bradbury. Great choice!

    Like

    • Those would be very cool digs, indeed.

      Like


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