Melding Past & Future at the Ford: A Conversation with Brenda Levin

By Carren Jao

It seems fitting to be visiting architect Brenda Levin at her new offices within the former Macy’s Plaza complex downtown, where change is afoot everywhere you look.

Brenda is a renowned preservation architect responsible for reviving many of LA’s architectural gems, including the Wilshire Boulevard TempleGriffith Observatory and the Wiltern, to name a few. Over the years, her work has subtly shaped the LA landscape by preserving its most cherished landmarks.

Brenda is at work again at the Ford Theatres, ensuring that Angelenos will experience the venue’s intimate natural beauty for generations to come.

Check out some of the Ford’s new features!

“The Ford will be at once familiar, but also changed – mainly in the way you move through it,” she said, spreading out the plans for the future Ford Theatres, her pen busily dashing here and there, making notes on the margins. All around her, renderings and material samples gave me tantalizing clues to the venue’s revival.

“What’s special about the Ford is that as an audience member, you’re looking at nature,” she said. “At other venues, nature is behind you but with the Ford, the canyon is part of the backdrop.”

Rather than compete with the Ford’s architecture and natural backdrop, Brenda’s design takes its cues from it. For example, a dramatic new acoustic barrier that will dampen noise from the 101 Freeway will use a soothing green and blue palette interspersed with wood battens, creating an organic extension of the canyon.

Architect Brenda Levin sits before a rendering of the Ford in her Downtown LA office.

Brenda had been to the Ford perhaps five times in the 30-odd years she’s lived in LA but this project has given the architect a deeper understanding of the venue and the role it plays in the LA arts landscape.

“What I didn’t appreciate until we had master-planned the venue was the County’s commitment to local artists in terms of capacity building,” said Brenda. “There are a lot of theatres in LA, but they tend to feature very well-known artists. I can’t think of another location where the commitment to diverse up-and-coming artists is that clear. [The Ford] represents a cross-section of the region.”

Brenda’s design reflects the Ford’s focus on local artists. Instead of a raked stage, Ford artists will now enjoy a new stage that is centered and level. Plus, there will be new dressing rooms, increased storage space and easier access to the stage for artists with disabilities. New lighting and sound equipment will also ensure that performers are given more flexibility to experiment and push the envelope – a bonus for audiences too.

A rendering showing the entire renovated venue from a bird’s eye view.

Adding to the magic of an evening at the Ford is the new picnic terrace, which will accommodate 150 people and will include a new concessions building with full kitchen (for faster service and more food options – yumm).

There’s much more to the renovation, of course, like slope stabilization and a new loading dock, but these will be invisible to the casual visitor. “It’s not just paint, patch and repair. It’s more complex that it seems,” added Brenda.

What patrons will notice, however, is that the Ford’s iconic Neo-Judaic concrete structures will remain in place, as well as its distinctive wood doors (which are an artifact from its origins as the Pilgrimage Theatre). But, all around it, something new and exciting will emerge. I can’t wait to experience the transformation for myself!