1462580_10151992064704303_1304593705_oThe recently reopened Echo Park Lake shows form and function making nice

Story by James Brasuell, photographs by Monica Nouwens

The lotuses are back, paddle boat fleets float on the surface, and fishermen will soon again stalk their prey along its banks: The best of Los Angeles past and present is on display at the recently renovated Echo Park Lake. To explore the park’s improvements, de LaB recently led a tour of its design and engineering features with about 100 interested participants on a beautiful Southern California Saturday.

Echo Park Lake opened in 1868 with the unceremonious name Reservoir #4, making it one of the city’s oldest amenities. The park is nestled among neighborhoods like Echo Park, Elysian Park, and Angelino Heights—some of the most historic neighborhoods in Los Angeles—with views of downtown in one direction and the San Gabriel Mountains in the other. Mitch O’Farrell, city councilmember for the neighborhood, welcomed de LaB to the park by calling it “one of L.A.’s iconic locations.”

Underneath the beauty of the place lies a sober function as a water storage facility. The city recently invested $45 million to upgrade both the aesthetic and the infrastructural role of the park, closing the park for two years before reopening to the public in June of 2013. The highly anticipated nature of the re-opening and the park’s central role in the cultural life of Los Angeles drew de LaB to the park.

Project engineer Jim Rasmus of Black & Veatch and project landscape architect Josh Segal of AECOM guided the tour through the design and engineering details that deliver the twin goals for the renovation project while also fulfilling the requirements for preservation inherent in the park’s cultural historic monument status.

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Until the renovation, the park had fallen into a state of disrepair, with function trumping form around the lake’s edges. The renovation, however, has “taken the most problematic elements and made them beautiful,” said Councilmember O’Farrell. The Department of Interior, which oversees the park’s landmark status, calls the approach taken by the recent project “rehabilitation” (i.e., preserving the spirit of the original). Historic touches are most obvious at the north end of the park, where the Lady of the Lake (real name: Nuestra Reina de Los Angeles or Our Queen of the Angels) statue has been returned to its original, 1936 location and the lake’s famous lotus bed has been returned to its former splendor.

The greatest source of excitement is the restoration of the lake’s lotus bed found at the northwest corner of the lake, which had flourished since the 1920s until problems with hydrogen sulfide accumulation dwindled the flowers to a paltry few. Thanks to the renovation project, the full lotus bed will continue to draw crowds to the lake every year in the spring and early summer.

In what Segal described as the biggest change from the earlier lake’s condition, the rehabilitation added a broad wetlands area at the northeast end of the lake. The wetlands—rich with native and non-native species selected for maximum treatment of the water—create a filter for the toxins and pollution that will inevitably enter the lake from the watershed.

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The wetlands provide a natural, beautiful solution contributing to the lake’s primary purpose as an “offline detention system”—or temporary holding location for rainwater runoff. Two storm drains bring in runoff into the lake—in one location near Glendale Boulevard, flowing in over a concrete weir, or dam. Once in the lake, circulation, the wetlands, and additional treatment processes clean the water.

The wetlands might be the most obvious example of form marrying function, but Segal said that designers took every opportunity to “turn functional eyesores into something useable.” Along those lines, viewing platforms cover the lake’s weir, dams, and storm drains; pedestrian-scaled LED lighting, designed to recall the 1918 globe lighting once found in the park, rings the lake; and all of the lake’s edges are new, providing seamless transition from land to water.

According to Segal, “Echo Park Lake means a lot, to a lot of people,” and once again Echo Park Lake will be a beloved place of refuge and relaxation, as well as a key component of the city’s watershed management infrastructure. Echo Park Lake’s marriage of form and function is, as de LaB founder Alissa Walker put it: “A perfect example of designers and architects working together to make great public spaces for the city.”

See more photos from the event here.

James Brasuell (pronounced like casual) is an architectural writer and critic based in Los Angeles who writes for Curbed LA, The Architect’s Newspaper and KCET, among many other places.

Monica Nouwens is a photographer originally from The Netherlands who now lives in L.A. Her work has appeared in publications including VogueBlueprintArchis, and Surface.

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This is the first event in our Making LA series, which is made possible by support from the National Endowment for the Arts. Making LA consists of ten free programs hosted throughout the city between fall 2013 and fall 2014 that focus on designers and architects working closely with communities and civic leaders to improve Los Angeles. The series will culminate in the Making LA conference in fall 2014, a one-day event where creative leaders from across Los Angeles will share best practices and investigate new ways to make their burgeoning civic, architectural or design projects a reality. Want to sponsor an upcoming event? Learn more.