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Towering Ambitions : City’s Search for an Image Is Looking Up

Times Urban Affairs Writer

A downtown in search of a more fashionable face can look out at the world with a new hauteur today, as the sleek, pale contours of a new and conspicuously different skyscraper rise in cool contrast to the city’s bulky skyline.

This horizontal city, where buildings over 13 stories were prohibited until 1957, has become home to the tallest building on the West Coast.

The 73-story tower is the work of I.M. Pei & Partners and is one of a score of giant office buildings being shaped for Los Angeles by well-known architects, including Michael Graves, Cesar Pelli, Arthur Erickson, Helmut Jahn and others.

The new crop of designer skyscrapers is part of a bid for visual distinction that has long eluded downtown Los Angeles. Flush with foreign money and eager for the world’s approval, the city is anxious to shed any traces of provincialism. At the same time, the city is hoping to create a landscape in which a lot more people will want to live. With less than 2% of the people who work downtown living there, habitability has become a major issue.

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Take care of the problem, and local leaders believe they can realize their goal of a downtown with nearly twice its current working population of 276,000 and twice the commercial space of downtown San Francisco. (Los Angeles now has slightly less than San Francisco.) With office growth averaging about 1 million square feet a year and the occupancy rate running about 80%, the boosters’ dream of a skyline that stretches from Union Station to USC may not be all that fanciful.

In the works for nearly 10 years, the tower points to the city’s growing preoccupation with its image and its confusion over what the image ought to be.

On one side are those who say the city needs a majestic skyline, like New York or Chicago, if it is going to be recognized as a world capital. California historian Kevin Starr said recently that one reason Los Angeles has not been taken as seriously as other cities its size is because its large buildings are not especially impressive. Starr suggested that a city better known for zany architecture--the original Brown Derby restaurant shaped like a hat, Grauman’s Chinese Theater, the Tail of the Pup hot dog stand--could do with a make-over.

Some Dubiousness

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But there are also people who say that the rush to build modish skyscrapers, like Pei’s tower, will superimpose an anonymous big-city look on a town famous for the personality of its smaller buildings. Critics wonder why a Western city with a long legacy of original architecture should look eastward for its inspiration.

Pei’s architects said that as they worked on plans for the new tower, they looked east and west, at buildings rich in classical ornamentation and at those with very little detailing. The architects said they hung up pictures of the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building. But they said they also paid close attention to the Central Library--"a strong, spare building, very authoritative and very Western,” in the words of Henry N. Cobb, the architect in Pei’s firm most responsible for designing the tower.

Cobb and his colleagues said they wanted to put up a building that was both showy and self-effacing.

“We wanted to make a building that was more spirited than many big buildings downtown, but one that did not threaten the primacy of the library,” Cobb said.

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In other words, Cobb set out to build the tallest building west of Houston, a $350-million skyscraper standing a fifth of a mile high, that would not overshadow the three-story structure across the street.

Cobb has reason to be sensitive about the library. Few buildings in Los Angeles have so endeared themselves to the public. The preservation of the library has been a cause celebre for at least 25 years. Moreover, its fate and that of the tower are closely linked. Approval of the tower was contingent on a commitment by the developer, Maguire Thomas Partners, to underwrite $110 million of the cost of preserving and expanding the library.

Focus on the Ground

As the tower has risen to its full height, it has become clear that its success will be gauged as much by the way it meets the ground around it as how it greets the sky.

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“The building is going to be judged on how it enhances the environment around it as opposed to how it shows off at the top. The top 60 feet belongs to a few people. The bottom 60 feet belongs to everyone,” said Richard Weinstein, dean of the UCLA School of Architecture and Urban Design.

“It’s at the bottom that the building will achieve its uniqueness, if it is going to, in its response to the weather, to the street-scape, to the library . . . to those things that are distinctly Los Angeles,” Weinstein said.

When completed, the tower and a 54-story neighbor that also is a Maguire Thomas project will bring 8,000 to 10,000 people, about 2,000 cars, and more than 3 million square feet of development to the three-block neighborhood now known as Library Square. Most of the people who will work there are part of the city’s expanding financial service sector.

There will be no public viewing deck at the top of the tower. The bottom is where the developers will try to please the public. There, they have taken on the daunting challenge of trying to provide downtown Los Angeles with a popular outdoor gathering place.

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Creating a colorful street-scape where people of all walks of life mix easily and often, where there is a little fun in the air, has proved to be one of the more elusive goals for planners and developers who want to make the downtown an enjoyable place to work and live.

In Weinstein’s words, the downtown badly needs “an extraordinary public place.”

Picking a Location

If one can be created, Library Square would be an appropriate spot.

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Fronting on 5th Street between Flower and Grand, the new tower perches on a 50-foot rise that symbolizes a cultural divide between the granite and glass canyons of the Bunker Hill Financial District and the lower downtown, a seedier if livelier place, that stretches north from the apparel and jewelry marts to Broadway, Skid Row and City Hall.

The challenge to Maguire Thomas and their architects is to create a link between the two sectors.

The developers have responded with the kind of exotic gesture one might have expected of Los Angeles in an earlier time, when the city dreamed of itself as a Mediterranean oasis, created its own Venice and built houses to look like Moorish palaces.

Library Square looks to Rome for its inspiration. A lavish outdoor stairway meant to recall Rome’s Spanish Steps will wend its way 50 feet down from the top of the hill, around the curved base of the tower to 5th Street and a walkway leading to the library’s west lawn. According to designer Lawrence Halprin, cafes and kiosks will border one side of the stairway, which will be broken into a series of terraces with places to sit and eat.

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The steps, which won’t be finished for several months, are based on one of the most striking architectural elements in Rome and one of that city’s most romantic settings. In Los Angeles, unlike Rome, the steps will be notched between two giant buildings, the new tower and an existing high-rise office building next door. This being a modern city, the steps will be flanked by escalators. And, here, the steps will end rather abruptly against a busy thoroughfare, something that the Spanish Steps, descending into a long piazza, don’t have to contend with.

Halprin’s plan has generated excitement downtown and a bit of grumbling.

“Too baroque, too grandiose, too voluptuous, entirely too much going on,” said Merry Norris, who chairs the city’s Cultural Affairs Commission.

Topping It Off

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As Pei’s staff prepares to complete the new tower with its illuminated crown, they too say the bottom of the building is the most important part of the project.

“The base will be considered the most notable aspect of the building when the whole thing is done,” Cobb said.

He was referring not just to the steps but to his own efforts at the foot of the tower. Cobb said he wanted to get away from the fortress facades typical of many big buildings downtown and to avoid “a confrontational stance” toward the library.

“We wanted a building that came to the street facing several directions, and not staring stiffly in a flat-faced way that would challenge the primacy of the library,” Cobb said. At the same time, he said, he did not want a round building. “Round buildings are self-centered. We were not interested in being the center of everything. We were trying to make a welcoming gesture.”

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The shape that evolved is an interlocking series of planes and curves. From its glass crown, the building steps down, its competing geometries facing off at corners, terraces and ledges. At the base, the tower’s granite finish gives way to colonnades of glass that Cobb hopes will create a feeling of transparency and openness.

As critics and other architects watch the tower take shape, they say the business community is getting what it wanted, a thoughtfully conceived, sleekly tailored contemporary skyscraper with an aura of the past about it.

“It’s a late-modern office tower that recalls the romantic era of American skyscraper building,” said John Kaliski, principal architect for the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency.

Fulfilling Hopes

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The building may also turn out to be the pacesetter that people hoped it would be.

The sculpted facades and classical allusions evident in the plans of a dozen or more office buildings, now in the works, suggest that the skyline will be more varied than ever before.

“There is no doubt at all that the design stakes have been raised,” Kaliski said. “L.A. is going to have a skyline as up to date as anywhere in the U.S.”

But there is also the sense that the tower would fit in comfortably elsewhere, and that despite Cobb’s sensitivity to the library he did not root his building in the culture of Los Angeles.

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“It is very much a modern American office building that could exist in many other cities,” said Richard Keating, a Los Angeles architect who is designing the second building for Maguire Thomas at Library Square. The building will front on 5th Street just east of the new tower. Keating said his building will complement the tower. “We’re not breaking new ground either,” he said.

The tower is a serious building. There are no exotic allusions, nothing to suggest the freewheeling, fanciful style of many buildings here. Even the 63-year-old library, with its Egyptian ornamentation and Beaux Art details, reflects a bit of the exuberance of Los Angeles in the 1920s.

“This (the tower) is a very sober building, one that avoids any element of the irony you see in a lot of buildings these days,” Kaliski said.

A Matter of Taste

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“Cobb is an architect in a gray flannel suit. You don’t expect his buildings to scream out at you. What you can expect is elegant, tasteful and careful design,” Keating said.

It can be argued that Los Angeles’ best architecture is mostly low-lying, in homes, stores and public buildings that aren’t good models for designing skyscrapers. Moreover, Los Angeles has no high-rise base to build on. There is very little variety to big buildings downtown partly because of a fear of earthquakes that had led to the ban on tall buildings. (An exception was made for City Hall.)

The tower at Library Square marks only the second generation of tall buildings here, perhaps a little early to be demanding originality.

“We’re just beginning,” Keating said.

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