L.A. Cleaning Up a Trashy Design Image
When Columbia Savings and Loan commissioned architect John Aleksich to design a row of shops in Beverly Hills, the program called for a “sophisticated identity for a new generation of architecture on the typical L.A. commercial strip.”
“The client was aware that Los Angeles was evolving beyond its shaggy image as a build-any-junk kind of town,” Aleksich said. “The trashy Angeleno retail strip, mostly undesigned, has begun to give way to a considered architectural idiom that’s more graceful and less of an eyesore.”
Several recent projects by Aleksich and other local designers typify this trend toward a more “sophisticated identity” for the one- and two-story small retail and office buildings that make up the bulk of L.A.'s commercial architecture.
The Columbia Savings and Loan project on the corner of Little Santa Monica Boulevard and Camden Drive enlivens an elegant gray brick frontage with a profile of dramatic semi-circular skylights above the cornice line. Curved metal awnings and a palette of muted rust and blue paint add a gloss of class. These touches give each unit its own character without destroying the unity of the total design.
Another project on a narrow slot of land along the Santa Monica Freeway, Aleksich’s award-winning design for a three-story speculative office building on Arlington uses strong cylindrical and oblong shapes. Colored in olive greens and vivid yellows, this bold design distinguishes the structure from a visually confused context of scruffy commercial structures and rundown houses.
“The Beverly Hills strip and the Arlington office project share the same fate--to be seen mainly by people driving by,"Aleksich said. “That’s how most Angelenos experience their architecture--through the windscreen in a blur.”
To register their presence, L.A. commercial buildings have to be highly and swiftly readable, he said. “That’s why you find so many of them dominated by their billboard or shop signs, or shaped like the things they sell-- hot dogs, say, and doughnuts. I’m trying to create the same swift readability with a strong yet subtle architecture.”
Even mini-malls, those small “community shopping centers,” a designation their developers prefer, are showing signs of transformation.
The first crop of mini-malls, built mainly by the La Mancha Co. in the early ‘80s, were considered by many to be social and architectural eyesores. Resentment against them became intense, leading to zoning restrictions and development moratoriums that somewhat eclipsed their growth.
In response to this general outcry, the second wave of mini-malls now appearing are more graceful. Talented architects have been commissioned to design the one- and two-story clusters of convenience stores that offer an accessible local alternative to major shopping centers.
“There is nothing inherently ugly in the mini-mall type as such,” said architect Stephen Kanner, designer of several Westside mini-malls. “A skillful designer can work within the restrictions of the mini-mall market formula and still create a building that enhances the urban landscape.”
Kanner, in partnership with his father Charles, designed the much-admired Olympic Square mall on Olympic Boulevard in Beverly Hills. The firm also recently completed a sophisticated mini-mall on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood, and has designs for a high-tech commercial complex on Montana Avenue in Santa Monica.
Kanner designs recognize shopkeeper and consumer needs for convenient front-apron parking and vigorous street signage. Olympic Square and the West Hollywood mall provide both these amenities, but control them with skillful landscaping and a variation in detail.
“There’s no reason why the traditional character of the typical L.A. commercial strip can’t be evolved into a more urbane and responsible architectural idiom,” Kanner said. “Good design doesn’t need to be bad for business.”
For the first 100 years of its life, Los Angeles has been a “first-growth city,” architect Jon Jerde said. “That means that most of the buildings you see in the typical L.A. commercial strip are the original structures erected on vacant lots. For many decades the city spread over the horizon in an unconscious rash. The stock of land seemed endless and any built trash could happen.
“Now we’ve run out of empty lots and face the need to create a second growth of urban Angeleno architecture,” he continued. “We have to start to think about the street character of the city and how we want to make it look and work better. We need to begin to design.”
Frank Gehry’s Edgemar project on Main Street in Santa Monica is a “second growth” of commercial design that builds upon Los Angeles’ often trashy inheritance of commercial architecture to create a fresh urban idiom.
Developed on the site of a former egg-packing warehouse, that in turn replaced a 1908 ice-making plant, the Edgemar project now incorporates the Santa Monica Museum of Art and a collection of galleries, restaurants, boutiques and a second-floor level of offices grouped around an internal courtyard.
“Frank (Gehry) built upon the old Art Deco character of the strip’s street frontage,” Edgemar developer Abby Sher said. “At the same time, the architect retained the rough structural quality of the old brick warehouse at the back to house the museum. He fused the rough and the smooth with a mixture of sheet-metal facings and glossy green tiles.
Mixture of Trash, Sleek
The result, in Sher’s opinion, “is a sophisticated comment on the Main Street style, which has always been a mixture of trash and sleek.”
Many architects now feel that mixture is an apt description of Los Angeles’ commercial character reflected in its street architecture.
“We don’t want to mummify L.A. with the kind of phony politeness that characterizes Santa Barbara’s Spanish Revival commercial architecture,” Jerde emphasized. “Los Angeles has more guts than that. Our streets must remain vigorous and varied in their architecture, but also more urbane. And always playful.”