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.