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Neighborhood’s Participation Beneficial to Design of Center West, Says Architect

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Neighborhood participation was valuable in the design of the Center West project in Westwood Village, acknowledged New York architect Romaldo Guirgola.

Fresh from his triumph as the designer of Australia’s new Parliament House in Canberra--described by Progressive Architecture magazine as “one of the greatest government structures of the 20th Century"--Guirgola was in Los Angeles to supervise construction of the 22-story, $40-million Westwood office and retail project.

Since 1982, Center West’s design has been subject to searching scrutiny by local homeowner groups and the city Planning Department. The demolition of Ships coffee shop was felt as a real blow to the character of Westwood by many residents.

“I feel that the participation of the neighborhood people was beneficial to the design process,” Guirgola said in an interview, speaking in the soft accents of his native Rome. “To me, good architecture is always a confluence of forces, not the expression of one man’s ego.

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‘Gateway to Westwood’

“In the Australian Parliament House design, for instance, the whole nation of 17 million people was my client. And believe me, they made sure I knew it. The result is that all Australians may identify with the architecture of their capital.”

Center West, due for completion in the fall of 1989, is described as “The gateway to Westwood” by developer Kambiz Hekmat. Guirgola’s design for the red granite-faced complex, located on the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Glendon Avenue (formerly occupied by Ships), was the result of a limited competition held in 1982.

The site spans two zoning areas, a high development parcel on Wilshire Boulevard and a much lower section facing Westwood Village. This complex configuration dictated the high-rise tower’s location on the boulevard frontage, sitting on a low-rise podium that wraps around three sides of the lot.

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Guirgola’s concern for a humane and participatory architecture has distinguished Guirgola’s career. Awarded the American Institute of Architects Gold Medal (its highest award) in 1982, Guirgola, 67, has been in practice with his partner Ehrman Mitchell since 1958.

He was chairman of the department of architecture at New York’s Columbia University from 1966-71, and still teaches at Columbia for a period every year. Mitchell/Guirgola Architects has won several major design competitions in the past three decades.

Los Angeles appeals to Guirgola for its “multiplicity of separate but overlapping orders.” By separate orders he means the metropolitan region’s residential streets, its urban villages, its freeway systems, its linking boulevards and natural features.

“To me, L.A. demonstrates better than any other city I know how all these orders may be reconciled one with another. How abrupt changes of scale might be skillfully managed, allowing an urban density that is nowhere near as oppressive as New York’s, say.”

Guirgola does not find the abrupt change of scale between the high- and low-rise sections of his Center West design oppressive.

Main Entry on Wilshire

“The original design, that won the 1982 competition, was different from the present scheme,” he explained. “We had the main entry to the tower on the corner. We had an internal mall opening onto Lindbrook Drive at the rear of the property.

“Now the main entry is squarely on Wilshire, where it should be. And the retail outlets open directly onto the side streets. I think this makes a better block altogether.”

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Guirgola declared that “as an architect, I believe it’s my job to scrutinize my actions closely. Sometimes a designer gets extremely irritated with the many obstacles he must face before his building gets built but that’s the way it’s got to be.

“We have a special responsibility for enhancing the man-made order. To my mind, the architecture is often less important than the city, or the smaller urban cluster, as a whole.”

On the subject of design competitions, Guirgola, like most architects, believes that a client should back his judgment directly, and not hedge his bets by turning over responsibility for the selection to a hand-picked jury.

“Where a large, national or civic project like the Australian Parliament House is concerned, it’s understandable that the selection process has to be thrown open to a wider field,” he said. “But in a commercial development like Center West, a competition often raises more problems than it solves.

“Worst of all, the architect has no client he can argue with while working out his basic design. All he has is the cold, written brief, that every competitor is given. This often leads to very stilted results.”

Guirgola’s practice is still rooted in New York, where he lives with his wife and daughter, despite the increasingly international range of his projects. He described Manhattan as “one giant room, just like Rome, very intense and visually unvaried.”

Still an Optimist

Los Angeles, by contrast, he finds “a great variety of smaller spaces, a fine texture of parts clustered together.”

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In the end, Guirgola said, “an architect has to be an optimist, even in these highly transitional times, when everything seems to be in flux. Architecture is a mixture of aspiration and inspiration, of hope and excitement.”

Giving an expressive Roman shrug, Guirgola cocked his gray head and smiled as he declared, “Even after almost 40 years as a designer, I’m still an optimist.”


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