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Acclaimed architect Frank Gehry stands outside on Sed's lounge, which is part of Conrad Los Angeles, a luxury hotel in the Hilton chain.Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

In downtown Los Angeles, art gets a city on a hill. Grand Avenue runs along the top of the looming Bunker Hill, stringing together a cluster of art museums and concert venues. The jewel is Frank Gehry’s shimmering Walt Disney Concert Hall.

And yet the street has long been cut off from the life of the city and the region; it has some office towers, those cultural venues and not much else. That changes now, with the addition of a new Conrad Hotel, a shopping plaza and 436 beautiful apartments – all in a new complex, The Grand, designed for the developers related by Gehry.

Though the shopping complex is not scheduled to open until next year, the hotel is welcoming guests to its 305 sophisticated rooms and to its restaurants run by chef Jose Andres. It provides a new perch to explore some of the most remarkable architecture on North America’s West Coast and a way for visitors to get a handle on some of the region’s best contemporary architecture.

You don’t have to look far. As my wife and I sat down to breakfast on the terrace of the Conrad’s San Laurel restaurant, it felt like we could touch Disney Hall. The stainless-steel petals of the hall seemed to reach across the street to garnish my plate of Andres’s Spanish-style eggs.

There’s a reason for Disney Hall’s showiness. When it was completed in 2003, “it was a sculpture on its own, because it had to sit on its own,” the Canadian-born Gehry said in a recent interview. “It was surrounded by parking lots.” Then the Broad, the contemporary art museum, opened next door in 2015.

And now, with the completion of the Grand, this one block is taking on a distinctly urban feeling.

The Grand consists of two towers, the apartments and the hotel, atop a shared base that contains the shopping plaza. On these buildings Gehry employed a favourite trick and broke them up visually into different sections; the hotel tower begins at the top in stainless steel, splitting into an L and tumbling downward in sections that suggest different buildings. From the deck of the hotel pool, we could look up and spot our room by its protruding bay window.

This kind of architecture – a bit messy yet humane, and connected to the city around it – is what Gehry likes to deliver. “We created a different scale of buildings around Disney Hall,” Gehry explained. “The older office towers to the south are singular and they’re not talking to each other in any way. Our buildings are smaller in scale. It creates the feeling of a separate district – an Arts District – which is coming together now.”

Indeed it is. Next door to the Grand, Gehry is working on a concert hall and extension for the Colburn School. Already, you can walk to performances at the 1960s complex the Music Center or Disney Hall, to catch by the LA Phil or a touring performer. (The genre-smashing jazz trio The Bad Plus play Oct. 14.)

In our summer visit, we strolled across to the Broad, which has emerged as a major L.A. tourist destination. Eli and Edythe Broad’s collection of blue-chip modern and contemporary art sits within a remarkable shell of glass-fibre-reinforced concrete, designed by the New York architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro.

Next door, the landscape architect Walter Hood created a gorgeous plaza framed by half-a-dozen ancient olive trees. Here people were enjoying a glass of wine on the restaurant patio next door, or just hanging out in the welcome shade and listening to a busker. It felt entirely urban.

“Urban” is a fraught word in Los Angeles, a massive and sprawling city where cars are famously dominant. But as much the region has a centre, it’s here, downtown. City Hall is a few blocks away; as is the city’s landmark central library. Bunker Hill itself was cleared in an urban renewal project that began in the 1950s. The office tower cluster that emerged here in the and 1980s didn’t make the place very pleasant to walk around, but it did bring people and amenities.

California Plaza, the complex designed by Canadian architect Arthur Erickson, includes an ampitheatre by the landscape architect Cornelia Hahn Oberlander. It also helped birth the Museum of Contemporary Art, whose building by the Japanese architect Isozaki holds a stellar collection. (And it’s generally much quieter than the Broad.) On my visit, a quilt by the makers of Gee’s Bend, Ala., alongside a quiet little Piet Mondrian.

After these excursions, it was a pleasure to walk back to the hotel – no car required. The Grand isn’t finished yet, and the retail and restaurants that will eventually bring some life to the street aren’t open. But up in the hotel, the decor by Tara Bernerd defines a zone of low-key luxury, mixing Italian marble with concrete tile and nubbly cotton. It’s a place above the city, and yet of it.

Gehry said he’s been in for dinner at San Laurel a couple of times, and plans to come back to see this city centre evolve. And his buildings, with the occasional flourish, will help to make that happen. “Too often in architecture, everybody’s doing their individualist thing,” he said. “But with a little extra thought, you can make it so that these buildings talk to each other.”

The writer was a guest of Conrad Hotel Los Angeles, which did not review or approve this article.

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