Grab Bag: The Pacific Design Center—L.A. Revealed

I love the Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles but, generally speaking, I think it’s pretty underappreciated. Sure, people know it. They recognize it, it’s generated it’s share  of buzz (let’s be honest, mostly not very positive). It has won the hearts of post-modernists and ironic architecture-appreciating hipsters during its various oscillations on the so-wacky-it’s-cool spectrum. But I think where it really earns the most points is in its sheer lack of apology or regret.

In April of 2006, initial renderings were released of Cesar Pelli’s third installment of the Pacific Design Center. The bright red building, which resembles a Star Wars ship going into hyperspace in freeze frame (or a 21st century Titanic ready to fight the icebergs back), will complete construction in 2009 and follows its equally brilliant predecessors with as much eyebrow-raising and eye-catching gusto, which is no small feat.

3qd_grabbag_pdc01The first iteration of the Pacific Design Center was completed in 1975. It was, and remains, enormous at 245 feet wide by 530 feet long with over 750,000 square feet over seven stories. There are bigger buildings out there, certainly, but few in Los Angeles and certainly fewer in West Hollywood. The building wears a skin of ultra-reflective royal blue glass—most of which lets little light into the interior—and its shape has been described as a blow-up of an architectural molding. Given its scale, shape, color, and context, the building elicited its share of derision from local citizens, critics, and vocal enthusiasts alike. Los Angeles Times critic John Pastier—a figure most notable for getting fired after a series of columns criticized development in which the paper had political and financial interest—equated the building with a whale, a nickname which it has since held.

While perhaps not the most graceful or popular building on the block, the design center held its ground and stayed with little apology. So little, in fact, that in 1988 a second building called “Center Green” opened. Though smaller, at 450,000 square feet, the new building was equally noteworthy for its bold and colorful design—this time a deep forest green and dotted with pixel-like square windows of transparent glass. Its general aesthetic was in keeping with the original but its form and structure indicated a significant evolution of Pelli’s own work and reflecting his departure from Gruen Associates, where he left in 1976 to form his eponymous firm. Center Green blends the corporate orthogonality and rigid geometries of his world financial center (completed 1988) with the vocabulary of the earlier building.

3qd_grabbag_pdc02Twenty-one years after the second the third should be completed. Given its site in L.A., one would imagine that this is the final leg of the trilogy. And like genre films, the Pacific Design Center has provided a fantastic allegory of architecture’s own development over the past three decades. By working in the same “style” of bright colors and loud geometric expressions (all three buildings don’t stray far from the exclamation point as their preferred punctuation) but with significant variation in design, Pelli has, with tremendous success, given us a history to experience physically and a narrative to hold on to.

And that’s no small feat in architecture, a profession plagued by apologies and regret. Rather than celebrating the brutalism of the 1960s or the corporatism of the 1970s and 80s, we are apologizing and trying to erase them. Boston’s City Hall, finished in 1968 by Kallmann, McKinnell and Knowles and one of my favorite buildings, is under threat because it doesn’t project the right image of what we want city hall to look like. We shouldn’t be allowed to revise history and ignore that there was a moment during which this is what our perception of city hall was.

The Pacific Design Center stayed against many odds, however. It was never hidden and never apologized for. It was instead expanded. Twice. It not only represents a moment in history—and its place in L.A.’s urban design history is important as it represented, against the wishes of Tom Bradley’s coalition for Downtown development, the continued economic success of the West side business district—but three distinct moments interwoven in a story that centers on one architect, and one vision spread over both his and his profession’s shifting ideologies.