Downtown Los Angeles has been battling an image problem for quite some time now – at least since the days of snap-brim fedoras. In his 1942 novel “The High Window,” Raymond Chandler referred to the once-tony Bunker Hill district as “old town, lost town, shabby town, crook town.” The tourist guidebooks of today are no less gentle. The Access guide remarks of downtown, “Well, it’s not exactly what you might expect …” Best Places calls it “the most historic, maligned and stubborn part of the city.” Lonely Planet charts out prospective Southern California itineraries of one, two and three days, and doesn’t get around to this area until the third day, at which time it suggests, dismissively, “Quickly pay your respects to Downtown L.A., then …” With the arrival of your summer guests, you’ll likely be presented with the same uphill challenge. There will be the inevitable clamor for visits to Hollywood, Disneyland, the beach, Beverly Hills. But downtown L.A. deserves consideration, too, especially in light of two striking recent additions to the urban landscape: the Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. Newly revived and notably inviting is the stretch of Grand Avenue from the cathedral south past the concert hall, over the crest of Bunker Hill and down to the L.A. Central Library and the Millennium Biltmore Hotel. It is appealing both on busy weekdays and on all-but-deserted weekends, during the daytime and for evening cultural performances. Also, defying the cliche that nobody walks in L.A. (as fueled by the 1980s band Missing Persons), Grand Avenue is a delight to explore on foot, though the return climb can be exacting. Walt Disney Concert Hall Since it opened last year, Frank Gehry’s flight of architectural fancy has had a magnetic effect on visitors to downtown. The swooping contours and stark gray stainless steel – which varies subtly with every change in the available light – begs for a peek inside or a walk around the perimeter. Audio tours, narrated by actor John Lithgow, provide exceptional insight into the design of the building and its garden, but they won’t give you a look inside the auditorium itself. The acoustics are so precise in this hall that the opening of doors and the tramp of tourist feet disturb musicians in their rehearsals. To experience the Disney Concert Hall fully, you’ll have to buy a ticket, but unfortunately during the summer the performance schedule is a bit thin. The primary tenant, the L.A. Philharmonic, summers at the Hollywood Bowl, and only a few scattered performances – many of them pop acts (Indigo Girls, Jewel, David Byrne) – are scheduled for the hall. To do this place justice, however, you really should take in a performance of music that isn’t artificially amplified, since that was the intent of the auditorium’s design. The California Philharmonic is playing a Ravel program here on July 25. The interior is remarkable, with curving surfaces covered in fine-grained wood – and not a single 90-degree angle in which sound can rattle around. Even the ceiling has tentlike folds, though entirely of wood. The seating, steeply pitched for optimal sight lines, wraps around the performance stage. Diffused light finds its way in through tucked-away skylights in the corners – rare for a concert hall. The rich sound of an orchestra bursts toward you, and the acoustics are so impeccable that every cough, every rustled program and certainly every whisper reaches you as if through headphones. You get the sense that as the wood of the hall ages, the concert sound will gain character, as with a vintage string instrument. The only element of the Disney Concert Hall that falls flat is its dispensation of information. There seems to be no master calendar anywhere for performances at this place. The L.A. Philharmonic lists its schedule separately, as does the L.A. Master Chorale. For leased events, Music Center box-office personnel direct callers to Ticketmaster, whose Web site lists only about a third of the concert hall’s scheduled events for this summer. Even if you don’t get to a performance, however, the $10 audio tour provides a fascinating look around the edges. It guides you through the lobby, along the exterior walls and through the garden. People involved in the design and construction are heard describing the challenges of erecting a building that openly defies right angles. You learn that a global-positioning system was employed so that the builders could hit the precise coordinates for a wall that slopes outward at a 17-degree angle, for example. A peek behind a stairwell screen also reveals the Erector-Set superstructure that made it all possible. In the garden, set in a patio 34 feet above the street, are a variety of flowering trees, intended to provide splashes of color year-round. Scented geraniums appeal to another of the senses. But the most intriguing feature here is Gehry’s Lillian Disney Memorial Fountain. To construct it, he acquired hundreds of Royal Delft porcelain vases and tiles from the Netherlands … then systematically shattered them. The shards were used to create a mosaic fountain in the shape of a rose. Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels Los Angeles is a land of perpetual sunshine – or so the myth goes – and architect Rafael Moneo celebrated that distinction in this magnificent edifice, completed in 2002. Light filters into the cathedral through windows of Spanish alabaster, which subdues the harsh rays, eliminates glare and creates a natural glow within. Above the entry, the halo atop Robert Graham’s Our Lady statue is simply a crescent-shaped hole in a wall, designed to capture east-west sunlight for a radiant effect. A 60-foot cross is lit from within at night, effectively presenting a giant lantern. Volunteers lead free tours at 1 p.m. weekdays. Our tour, which lasted a little over an hour, was superb. It began moments after the cathedral’s 37-bell carillon burst to life to herald the hour. “People are disappointed that the bells don’t move when they ring,” said our guide, Mary Parker of Northridge. “They’re computerized. That little man who pulls the rope? He’s gone.” Particularly intriguing was Parker’s information on the tapestries of John Nava that adorn the interior walls of the nave. Nava drew images of saints at his Ojai studio, then had them digitally rendered and woven on computerized looms in Bruges, Belgium. And he used the familiar faces of his community for inspiration, Parker said, because “how do we know what the saints looked like?” Rose of Lima? That’s actually a girl who works at a coffee shop in Ojai. Like the concert hall, there are no right angles in the cathedral, either, and unlike classic European churches, there is no main door at the back. Instead, the entrance is on the south side, flanked by 25-ton inscribed bronze doors (the fire department has decreed that they never be closed, for safety reasons). A slightly inclined south ambulatory leads to the church interior. Also missing are the ornate adornments common to historic cathedrals. The walls have the beige cast of California missions. The altar is a simple if massive block of Turkish marble. The floor is composed of limestone pavers, radiating outward from the altar. The ceiling and pews are of rich but unadorned wood. But the light through those alabaster panels … now that’s something special. Los Angeles Conservancy walking tours Bert Mora concluded our Saturday morning walking tour, “Downtown’s Evolving Skyline,” at the Wells Fargo Plaza on Grand Avenue. We were directed to gaze directly up at the edge of a triangular skyscraper to marvel at the knife-edge effect the design creates. It was a fascinating perspective. And we pretty much had it to ourselves. “I don’t think we’ll ever be a New York, 24-hour-a-day type city,” said Mora. “We’re just not built that way. But just in the three years I’ve been living here (downtown), I’ve seen a lot more people coming down here on Saturday and Sunday. The Disney Concert Hall has had a lot to do with that.” The L.A. Conservancy, the city’s membership-supported architectural steward and watchdog, deserves some credit, too. It offers an outstanding menu of 14 Saturday walking tours, most of which concentrate on downtown treasures – the art deco heritage, the historic core, Little Tokyo, Union Station, City Hall, the Biltmore Hotel. On our two-hour tour, which cost $8 for nonmembers, we ducked through the enchanting Maguire Gardens west of the Central Library, ascended to the rooftop of the Superior Oil Building (now the Standard hotel) for a view through the high-rise canyons, found the hidden-away resting place of the ornate elevator doors of the lamentably departed Richfield Building and examined public art ranging from Alexander Calder’s “Four Arches” in the Security Pacific Plaza to Robert Graham’s bronze nudes in the Wells Fargo Center. We concluded with a descent of landscape architect Lawrence Halprin’s Bunker Hill Steps, fashioned after the Spanish Steps in Rome. A tumbling stream down the center mimics the cascading feel of the staircase itself. Museum of Contemporary Art You’ll get a chance to broaden your artistic horizons at “A Minimal Future?” which runs through Aug. 2 at the Museum of Contemporary Art. It exhibits more than 150 works from 40 American artists who emerged in the early 1960s. Theirs was an iconoclastic vision, seeking to impel the art world to think in three dimensions and in all manner of materials. Hans Haacke’s “Blue Sail,” for example, is a blue chiffon sheet suspended over an oscillating fan and anchored at the corners by fishing weights. The work is ever-changing, driven by the air currents from the fan, no two of which have the same effect on the sail. In other exhibit areas, you might be more hard-pressed to make sense of plywood panels or a stack of children’s blocks. An open mind is essential. MOCA has had a significant impact on Grand Avenue’s revival in recent years, notably with special exhibits showcasing the work of David Hockney and Andy Warhol, as well as documentary photographs from the likes of Diane Arbus. Elsewhere Other noteworthy stops along what is being called Grand Avenue’s cultural corridor: –Los Angeles Central Library. Fire in 1986 and an earthquake in 1987 wreaked havoc on Bertram Goodhue’s 1926 homage to all things Egyptian (spurred by the discovery of King Tut’s tomb), but the library is a model of tender, loving restoration today. Don’t miss Dean Cornwall’s 1933 murals in the rotunda, which present a romanticized view of California’s eras of Spanish exploration, the establishment of the missions and the coming of the railroads. On the same floor, the Getty Gallery has presented some solid historical exhibits in recent months. Currently on view is “Enterprising Women,” which tells the stories of more than 40 women who shook up the American business world, from architect Julia Morgan to potter Maria Martinez to Barbie doll creator Ruth Handler. –Music Center. It may now have a staid 1960s appearance alongside Gehry’s whimsical concert hall, but this is still the place to catch Broadway-style productions (Ahmanson), cutting-edge theater (Mark Taper Forum) and opera (Dorothy Chandler Pavilion). On summer days, the center’s plaza can feel like a vast, concrete pancake griddle, but at least the seemingly random squirts of Jacques Lipchitz’s “Peace on Earth” fountain provide some relief. –El Paseo de Pobladores de Los Angeles. This park, directly across Grand Avenue from the Music Center, is one of downtown’s lesser-known gems. It features a soaring fountain, ample shade (provided by palm, jacaranda, eucalyptus and pine trees) and colorful bougainvillea. At lunchtime on weekdays, it teems with bureaucrats and jurors. –Angels Walk L.A. Keep an eye out for the informative signposts sprinkled throughout downtown (there are 15 in the Bunker Hill area alone). With historic photos and well-informed text, they provide a self-guided tour of the city. Eric Noland, (818) 713-3681 [email protected] AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MORE11 theater productions to see in Southern California this week, Dec. 27-Jan. 2160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!