Beyond Buildings


Just Another Edge City

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Century City is so last century. The latest plans to add to one of this country’s great real estate mirages-turned-urban center will add two mercifully recessive, but all too bland, towers to the rear of the Century Plaza hotel, once a center of glitz and glamor. Century City in Los Angeles gets ever denser, and may even start to resemble something like a real city someday, but it is sinking into visual and planning mediocrity.

century plaza
Photo: Ken Hively, Los Angeles Times


I spent a weekend at the Plaza several years ago over an Easter weekend, and to my surprise even the adjacent shopping mall was closed. A large Jewish wedding took over most of the pool area, as if in defiance of the Christian limbo that had descended on the city. I wandered around the hotel’s desolate corridors and then the empty streets of Century City, feeling as if I was in a time warp, or in a Hollywood version of one. This was, after all, once Twentieth Century-Fox’s backlot, until New York real estate czar William Zeckendorf developed it in 1963 as a mixed-use development centered on Welton Becket’s twin triangular towers—the slimmed down and symmetrically paired West Coast answer to the overgrown and shapeless Twin Towers that rose in New York a few years later. The Plaza’s curved façade (designed by Minoru Yamasaki, who designed those New York Twin Towers—maybe that’s where he got the idea) cupped the axis that led from the towers past low-rise structures.  What was once the world’s largest parking garage kept people out of sight, leaving the whole Century City as an abstract vision of urban design.

twin towers

Over the years, the almost 200 acres of Century City have filled in, on the whole with office towers and apartment buildings best forgotten, but also with several notable structures. The best of these remains, in my opinion, the Die Hard building, Scott Johnson’s Fox Plaza, which gained fame as the setting for the aforementioned greatest movie of Bruce Willis. It is a perfectly composed spire and, if you are going to do isolated office structures, they might as well look like this.

fox plaza

Developer Michael Rosenfeld had originally wanted to tear down the Century Plaza, which has lost much of the allure it had when Ronald Reagan and his palls made it their West Coast headquarters. It is difficult to argue that the building is of great importance, though local preservationists and homeowners managed to do that. The hotel’s connection to the triangular landmarks was long ago interrupted with slab buildings, and the structure, though elegant, is not very efficient or notable in its spaces, composition, or details. Only that majestic curve still impresses.

Photo: Curbed L.A.


Now Rosenfeld has given in and proposed two 46-story skyscrapers that will flank the hotel’s rear, sitting on the back 40 with all the elegance and respect of a subway reader trying to read the L.A. Times. Harry Cobb, who oversaw the design for Pei Cobb Freed, calls the design “quiet,” which is a good spin. The reality is that these are the inner blobs coming out of the original towers’ corsets, doubling and aping what was once a singular, sculptural composition that would help you orient yourself as far away as the 405 or 10 freeways (on a clear day).

The good news is that Century City is growing up into a messy and dense collection of buildings, just as a real city should. The bad news along the way is that the clarity and grandeur that the name implies has disappeared. Now it is just another Edge City, jostling for attention and resources with its brethren in the Valley and points beyond.

Coda: I would have love to have heard what John Chase would have said about these towers. Acerbic, witty, and passionate about design, John would have noted the power-plays and the sexual innuendos implicit in these limpid towers. Sadly, John passed away, much to soon and suddenly, last week. L.A. will miss his irreverent brilliance.




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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.