Monday, April 27, 2009

Modernist vs. modernist

The modernists are at each other's throats.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation has just declared that Century City's Century Plaza hotel, currently operated as a Hyatt Regency after undergoing a $36 million facelift not even two years ago, is one of the 11 most endangered buildings in America. One wonders whether the standard "top ten" list was perhaps padded by one to include the modernist Century Plaza, a pet of the Trust's Modernism + Recent Past Initiative. The endangered listing is also supported by the Los Angeles Conservancy, who usually have their hands full protecting much older buildings.

Mnioru Yamasaki's Century Plaza Hotel, 1966

The touchstone issue is that developer Michael Rosenfeld, who bought the Century Plaza in June of 2008 with fiscal muscle from the D.E. Shaw Group at a reported price of $505,000 per room (there are 726 of them: do the math, folks) now wants to raze the hotel, which he once referred to as "a jewel," and put up a $2 billion set of 600-foot mixed-use twin towers. More square footage = more income.

The existing hotel, which opened in 1966, becoming an instant celebrity magnet (it still has the largest ballroom in a town that loves ballrooms), was designed by modernist architect Minoru Yamasaki, later celebrated for Manhattan's World Trade Center. It's hardly a masterpiece, and the Los Angeles Conservancy's plea for preservation seems to be based more on the building's "embodied energy" ("the equivalent of 7 millions gallons of gasoline") than on any esthetic factors.

The replacement building has as its architect a no-less-formidable champion of modernism: Henry N. Cobb, one of the founding principals of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners. (Yes,
that Pei.) I remember experiencing a frisson at the frigid banality of Cobb's Place Ville-Marie in Montréal on my first and only visit there, way back in 1974, although in all fairness he has done much better work since then.
Meh vs. meh

Frankly, I've never liked the Century Plaza hotel. My anti-modernist prejudices aside, I find it simply cold and uninviting in a way that not even Slim Aarons could romanticize. The renderings for the proposed replacement towers show them to be equally cold in that steel-and-glass Pei Cobb Freed way, albeit warmed at street level with some stone cladding on the peripheral structures à la Richard Meier's Getty Center. Interestingly, the one feature that remains in the proposed project is the curvature of one of the façades, an element of Cobb's work most recently evidenced in the Hyatt Center in Chicago.

Given that Century City
—one of the most sterile and hopelessly inhumane tracts in Los Angeles—is an ongoing exercise that definitvely demonstrates the profound soul-lessness of modernism, it hardly matters which side wins in this showdown. Cobb promises "a lively, eventful and memorable urban experience." We'll see.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

San Francisco for lunch and back

President Obama today announced his support for high-speed rail projects in the United States, with an initiative to draw on $8 billion in new stimulus money for these projects through 2012. The important project of the California High-Speed Rail Authority would naturally be a major beneficiary.

Amazingly, many people I've spoken to recently do not realize that such an essential and long-overdue project is afoot in California. For those who are still living in the Amtrak age, there are several informational videos available on YouTube that elucidate the project with nifty computer animations, including this one:

This project will not only generate thousands of jobs, but will provide much-needed alternative transport between Los Angeles and California's other major metropolitan areas. Or, perhaps, planes and cars will eventually be thought of as the "alternative" methods of travel between cities.

Here's hoping that within the decade we Angelenos will be able to travel to San Francisco for lunch (say, sand dabs at the Tadich Grill) and return to L.A. in time for the evening rush hour.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Easter thoughts

I'm not a Christian, but what better day than Easter to examine one of the essential "patterns" of church architecture: openness.

The benchmark for openness in the realm of ecclesiastic building must surely be Bernini's colonnade design for the Piazza San Pietro in Rome. The two wings of the colonnade extend from the portico of the great basilica like a pair of welcoming arms, embracing all of humanity.

The antithesis of openness can be seen, if not quite believed, in the frightfully ugly Hollywood Seventh Day Adventist church at the intersection of Hollywood Boulevard and Van Ness Avenue, referred to euphemistically by locals as the Purple Church for its covering of small lavender tiles.

Hollywood Seventh Day Adventist Church

The building was designed by architects Burman + Rasmussen in 1961 in a style that can grudgingly be called optimistic brutalism. In all fairness to Burman and Rasmussen, I'm not sure to what extent their original plans have been altered in the intervening decades, but it's clear that the original church was vaguely "inspired" (I'm groping for words here) by Le Corbusier's Nôtre Dame du Haut in Ronchamps, built just a few years earlier. The mast on top (for channeling alien frequencies?) pays tribute to the phonograph needle atop the Capitol Records Building, just down the boulevard, and to the bristling antennae of the CBS Building, not far away on Sunset.

Ronchamps run aground

In contrast to Le Corbusier's soaring prow of a ship on its way to heaven, the execution of the derivative church in Hollywood is clumsy and earthbound, like an ark converted to a detention facility. The entrance, from the parking lot on Van Ness Avenue, is not a façade but a set of institutional aluminum doors and windows better befitting a satellite office of the DMV than a house of God, should He or She exist.

Façade or charade?

On the south side, the fenestration of the apse takes the form of defensive slit-like loopholes of the sort originally intended to shoot arrows from in medieval fortifications.

Defensive and offensive

The presence of the noisy Hollywood Freeway right next door is also problematic. (Interestingly, the new cathedral of Los Angeles is also shunted right up against the Hollywood Freeway, instead of marking the center of town, as a European cathedral would.)

The most disturbing aspect of the entire Seventh Day Adventist property is that the church building is enclosed in a walled compound that bunkers worshippers inside like branch Davidians and intimidates casual passers-by outside with a 20-foot-high expanse of concrete block, itself protected on the Hollywood Freeway side by cyclone fencing and on the east and north sides by a thick black steel palisade.

This is possibly the least inviting design for a church ever conceived. Oh, and Happy Easter.