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Critic's Notebook: Hollywood landmark at a crossroads

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When it opened in 1956, the Capitol Records building was surrounded mostly by surface parking lots, making it easy to spot from the nearby — and brand-new — Hollywood Freeway. The cylindrical design for the building, by Welton Becket and a young architect in Becket's office, Louis Naidorf, played beautifully to its mobile audience and that wide-open urban landscape. The result was a 13-story tower with the confidence and allure of a major skyscraper.

Hollywood has changed a great deal in the intervening years: Along with a stretch of subway and a more crowded skyline, it has acquired a freshly scrubbed civic reputation. But Becket's tower, on Vine Street just north of Hollywood Boulevard, relates to its peculiar context pretty much as it always has. Many of its immediate neighbors are still surface parking lots, and when you see the building from the freeway you get the same instant sense that you've arrived in Hollywood. Viewed from the south, meanwhile, Capitol Records is even more prominent, framed against a postcard-ready backdrop of the freeway, the hills and the Hollywood sign.

Even in Los Angeles, though, open space is not eternal. Neither are parking lots, however hardy some of them have proved as urban specimens in this city. As if to symbolize all the ways that L.A. is changing as it grows denser, slowly and haphazardly filling in its empty urban pockets, this month a pair of New York developers, Millennium Partners and Argent Ventures, announced they are reviving a proposal to surround the Capitol Records building with a mixed-use project covering roughly 1 million square feet. The plan had been slowed but not completely derailed by the recession.

Working with New York architect Gary Handel and L.A. architect William Roschen, the developers hope to create something of an urban village on both sides of Vine. Becket's tower would be the centerpiece of the 4.5-acre project, which may also include a boutique hotel, rental apartments, condos, office space and a substantial amount of retail.

The proposed development, called Millennium Hollywood, features a number of thoughtful elements, particularly in its street-level design. A founder of Millennium Partners, Philip Aarons, is chairman of Friends of the High Line, the group that helped develop the terrific High Line elevated park on the west side of Manhattan. Now spending an increasing amount of time on this coast, he is also chairman of an organization hoping to raise money to cover a sunken section of the Hollywood Freeway to the east of Capitol Records with a 24-acre park.

Aarons has pushed his architects to think carefully about how the new development will work at sidewalk level — and in particular how to link it to a Metro subway stop at Hollywood and Vine. Plans for Millennium Hollywood also suggest that he may be willing to help develop — and help pay for — a greenway threading east from the development to the site of the freeway park.

Roschen, a partner in Roschen Van Cleve Architects and chairman of the city's planning commission, has for his part tried to make sure that the development will maintain significant open space around the base of Becket's tower. Plans include a plaza directly across Vine from Capitol Records — an open-air space designed to be an outdoor public room in the tradition of Grauman's Chinese and Egyptian theaters.

In other ways the Millennium Hollywood plan remains very much a work in progress, sketchy even as preliminary proposals go. Given the unfinished state of the architecture, most of which has been overseen by Handel, and the still-shaky condition of the real-estate market, I'm frankly surprised that Aarons and his partners didn't wait a bit longer before sending this version into public view. The pair of towers that will dominate the development — the taller of which is planned to rise 48 stories — remain particularly underdeveloped, especially when you consider the important role they'll play in framing (or blocking) views of Capitol Records and in changing the Hollywood skyline.

Handel, whose firm designed the Four Seasons tower in San Francisco, among other skyscraper projects, would prefer to make the towers tall and slender, with relatively small footprints; the strategy, borrowed from cities like Vancouver, makes sense in terms of the open space it will free up at ground level. But the precise shape and silhouette of the towers will make a crucial difference. At this point they remain placeholders — ciphers, even.

The plan needs sharper landscape architecture as well. For all the focus Aarons is putting on the ground-level features, this remains a weak point. Given the amount of territory the proposed development would cover at street level, an investment in ambitious landscape architecture could pay unusually high dividends.

There is sure to be anxiety in Hollywood about the extent to which the project — and others that could crop up on nearby parcels — might dwarf Capitol Records and in a larger sense alter the generally midrise feel of the neighborhood. To be fair to Aarons and his group, if there is a part of Los Angeles where it makes sense to try this kind of approach, pairing slender skyscrapers with generous open space, Hollywood is it.

Rising density has in recent years helped rather than threatened the neighborhood's character. Thanks to the subway, the Walk of Fame and timely investments by the Community Redevelopment Agency and private developers, the sidewalks along Hollywood Boulevard and others stretching south toward Sunset rank among the busiest in the city. The area around the Space 15-Twenty retail complex on Cahuenga is especially vital, and the whole neighborhood has opened itself to bikes and pedestrians in ways that would have been tough to envision even five years ago.

As made clear by the example of the restored 1963 Cinerama Dome, another design by Becket's prolific office, there is also a history in this neighborhood of adding to historical landmarks without overshadowing them.

The new architecture in the area, on the other hand, has not kept pace with these signs of renewed street life, nor with those preservation success stories. For all the energy it has added to the sidewalks along Hollywood Boulevard, for example, the giant new W Hotel complex is a confused piece of architecture, with nothing of the clarity or light touch of the design by Becket and Naidorf for Capitol Records. And the less said about the Hollywood and Highland complex the better.

The challenge now for Aarons and his team is to take Hollywood's new sidewalk-level vitality and draw it north onto this stretch of Vine as well to flesh out and improve the design of the towers. Sharpening the proposal could have symbolic and illustrative benefits that reach well beyond Hollywood. Los Angeles is full of landmarks that stand dramatically aloof from the city around them. Adding to these buildings — figuring out how to bring them into some kind of dialogue with the rest of the city — can be a challenge. The local firm Johnson Fain learned that in proposing additions (still unbuilt) to Dodger Stadium — our classic stand-alone landmark — as did Boston's Machado Silvetti Architects in their smart but mannered reworking of the Getty Villa in Malibu.

The best of these landmarks — a group that also includes more recent buildings such as Walt Disney Concert Hall — don't just acknowledge their detachment from the urban fabric; they exploit it. As the current shortcomings of the Millennium Hollywood plan make clear, building near these pieces of architecture, or simply figuring out how to deal with them as they age, can present something of a paradox. It is a question, essentially, of providing context for buildings originally designed to float proudly free of it.

christopher.hawthorne@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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