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CRITIQUE : Directors Guild Design Marches to Its Own Drum

<i> Whiteson is a Los Angeles free-lancer who writes on architectural topics. </i>

From a distance, the new Directors Guild of America building looks like a stack of huge bronze pennies dropped on the crazy quilt of the Sunset Strip. Up close, the six-story, circular DGA tower seems more like a pile of monster film cans dumped on the boulevard.

Designed by architects Rochlin Baran & Balbona Inc., the new $13-million DGA national headquarters sets out to be noticed amid its low-rise neighbors. The architecture is eager to knock your eyes out.

“The DGA told us they wanted a drop-dead building,” explained RBB partner Ephraim Baran. “Gil Cates (former DGA president) said the board demanded that their new headquarters should dominate the Strip and be seen for miles around.”

To satisfy his clients, Baran devised a “dramatic geometry.” He chose a circular shape to sharply differentiate the new building from its neighbors, including the old red-brick DGA headquarters across the way on Hayworth Avenue.

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The fat-drum shape is sliced in two, and the semicircular halves are slid off axis. In the split between the displaced semicircles, the architects interposed a slot of dark-green glass to mirror the surrounding curves in a filmic shadow play of reflection and counter-reflection.

The DGA building’s glossy bronzed skin further distances the tower from the established stucco style of the community in which it has come to roost. Bands of mauve granite, polished to a high shine, alternate with strips of burgundy granite and rose-tinted reflective glass.

The split drum sits on a concrete podium over the parking garage, set back from the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Hayworth Avenue in a half-hearted mini-plaza paved with mauve granite.

At ground level the drama of the design is confused. One of the three theaters inside the building thrusts a long and awkward arm out of the drum toward Sunset Boulevard.

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Above the entry, three floors of the drum are chopped back in steps, creating a kind of architectural overbite. This overbite is propped on a row of exposed columns that look like long teeth with roots exposed by gum disease. The dental imagery continues in the steel space frame over the front doors that resembles a giant orthodontic brace.

At the center of the vast lobby, intended to host large receptions and displays, is a reception desk whose design, if seen on a plan, mimics the split-drum configuration of the building itself. Above the desk is a drum-shaped chandelier with dripping Lucite tendrils.

The lobby leads into the movie theaters--one with 600 seats, another with 150 and a third with 50 seats for video shows. The theaters are pleasant spaces, comfortable and unpretentious, finished in sober gray and black with crimson velour seats and matching proscenium curtains. Sightlines are good and the lighting is gentle.

Above ground level are five floors of offices, mostly intended for rental to DGA members and independent producers.

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The Directors Guild occupies the two top floors. The curving DGA boardroom windows provide a wraparound panorama of the Hollywood Hills, with long vistas east and west down Sunset Boulevard.

The new Directors Guild of America headquarters is a design failure--not only because it rudely sets out to be a prime example of a building that sticks out like a sore thumb. Its true failure is its lack of conviction as a would-be masterpiece of the sore-thumb style.

Uncertain Metaphor

The building’s geometry is not dramatic enough, and its details are clunky. Worst of all, its architectural metaphor is uncertain--is it a stack of film cans or not?

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Yet, the design’s failure is instructive. A bad building can sometimes reveal more about the way architecture works than a good building, which may be too clever to reveal its secrets.

Compare the Directors Guild of America design to that of another highly visible circular Hollywood building--the landmark Capitol Records tower.

A 14-story stack of mock records topped by a giant stylus, the 1954 Capitol Records design by Welton Becket & Associates is an uninhibited metaphor carried out with total conviction.

By contrast, the Directors Guild design seems to lack faith in its own dramatic geometry.

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If the intention was to create a metaphor of piled film cans, the design draws back at the last moment, faltered by a wrong-headed sense of good taste. The concept is unsure, wobbling between a cloudy film-can metaphor and a polite but uncertain aspiration toward formal architecture.

Another famous nearby example of sore-thumb architecture with the courage of its convictions is the Pacific Design Center on Melrose Ave.

The “Blue Whale,” as it is fondly known, recently joined by a green whale calf, is a skillful act of architectural arrogance. Its bold design faces down objections to its unneighborly scale and style.

Like the Design Center, the DGA building is “non-contextural.” That is, it makes no attempt to fit into its surroundings.

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The current emphasis on a building’s architectural context is a reaction to the previous decades of modern design in which each project attempted to make its own ego statement, with no reference to its neighbors. The result, many people feel, was a cacophony of unrelated designs that jangled the eye.

Baran argues that the architectural context of the DGA headquarters is already jangled. He points to the odd Moderne Kitsch manner of the 1960s Far West Savings building across the boulevard and the concrete bunker of the Sunset Carwash down the road.

The Strip’s Character

But the Strip has its own distinctive character. It offers a lively mixture of two- and three-story low-rise buildings whose quirky style covers a wide spectrum of taste from the trashy to the sleek, under the keen eye of the Marlboro Man on the billboard beside the Chateau Marmont hotel.

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The quiet West Hollywood avenues to the south of Sunset host a mix of Spanish Colonial- and Norman-style apartment complexes that create a coherent urban street scene rare in Los Angeles. These red-tiled and shingled roofs are now overshadowed by the DGA’s intrusive bulk.

The DGA headquarters is not so much an ugly building as a failed act of architecture. Its shape, surfaces and style, though deliberately at odds with its surroundings, lack conviction and singularly fail to carry off an attempted singularity.

What the DGA building reveals is that a bold act of architecture must be clear in its intentions and skillful in the manner in which these intentions are realized in physical form, down to the last detail. Lacking such clarity, a drop-dead design is in danger of seeming inept and utterly out of place.


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