On the busy corner in Beverly Hills where Little Santa Monica and Wilshire boulevards intersect, the sleek new headquarters for the Creative Artists Agency poses like a dapper executive waiting for his chauffeur to bring the limo around.
The three-story building stands supremely self-assured on the western edge of Beverly Hills, exuding more sheer class than any other structure in the city. Draped in honeyed travertine marble, tinted glass and crisp white steel, CAA's urbanely elegant curves were tailored by a master.
The master tailor is New York architect I. M. Pei. His client, CAA President Michael Ovitz, who heads the most powerful talent agency in Hollywood--that is, the world--asked for an architecture that was "very simple and very classic."
"I did a lot of research, and decided I. M. was my man," Ovitz explained. "I love the style of the classic period of modernism, especially the 1930's German Bauhaus, and I feel Pei is the purest inheritor of that tradition.
"The last thing I wanted for this agency was a trendy L.A.-style building that would date in a decade. I wanted an I. M. Pei signature design straight from his own hands, and I got exactly what I was after."
The CAA building, within the limits of its mainstream modernist style, bears a mantle of inevitability, as if this were the only way such a building could be done. Its artful geometries and urbane dress are all of a piece, perfect in every detail.
But is its splendidly sleek style appropriate to Los Angeles?
The building doesn't seem to fit where it is placed, in the midst of a host of pleasantly low-key, thoroughly ordinary commercial and residential buildings. It has the air of a man from Manhattan who, hailing a cab on Park Avenue, to his astonishment, ends up at this odd corner of Beverly Hills.
Outside architects seem often to carry a baggage of assumptions about Los Angeles, one of them being that the city has no distinctive architectural character in its commercial buildings.
Pei, who admits he seldom visits here, should have taken the time to absorb the look of Beverly Hills' "Golden Triangle" commercial district. He might have discovered the delightful mix of Spanish Colonial, Art Deco and Italianate architecture that make the city's shopping streets so pleasant to roam.
He might have let his hair down a little and responded with a touch of playfulness that would have made his masterpiece less of a stranger in our midst.
Although Pei heads one of the largest and most prestigious architectural firms in the United States, he only puts his personal designs on a few select projects. These include the new pyramid in the courtyard of the Louvre in Paris, the Dallas Symphony Center, and earlier designs for the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art in Washington and the Kennedy Library in Boston.
Most Pei projects, such as the expansion of the Los Angeles Convention Center and the 72-story First Interstate World Center now rising beside the downtown Central Library, are handled by Pei's partners.
The CAA building is the first signature design by Pei on the West Coast. Noted for its superb simplicity and crisp precision, Pei's personal architecture stands or falls by the quality of its cut and the excellence of its execution.
Pei said a major reason why he waited so long to accept a signature commission in Southern California was his fear that he might not be able to find here the high level of craftsmanship that his designs demand.
The excellent craftsmanship evident in every detail of the CAA building proves that Pei's fears were unfounded.
CAA's curves and counter-curves, culminating in a spacious semicircular glazed atrium that rises through three stories to a conical skyline, are refined to perfection. Stone, steel and glass mesh like gears in a Porsche transmission.
"I'm very impressed by the quality of the workmanship in this building," Pei said. "I was afraid that, as things seem so transient in Los Angeles, I wouldn't find local subcontractors who could measure up to my standards.
"Tremendous credit is due to those craftsmen who created the stone, steel and glass elements, and to the general contractor, and especially to Bill McGregor, the developer who managed the construction contract."
Pei feels that the CAA design shows that Los Angeles can play host to an architecture that is deeply sophisticated and finely finished, up to the highest standards.
"The dynamism of this city, which I've long admired, is reaching for a level of expression to match its developing self-confidence as one of the world's great metropolises," he said. "Local architects should take courage from this, and reach for unabashed excellence."
Pei's architect son Sandi, who worked with his father on the CAA design and played a major role in supervising its construction, said, "This is a building of great ambition.
"We studied every detail, every junction between stone and glass and steel, every quality of finish. For example, my father insisted on using solid blocks of travertine selected from the Poggi quarries in Tivoli, Italy, rather than risk the cheaper practice of using thin slabs of stone as facing panels. This gives the building a feeling of solidity, even to the casual glance."
Like all fine tailoring, the deceptive simplicity of CAA's appearance conceals the expense of its creation. At a reported cost of $25 million, the building's 75,000-square-foot bulk, plus three underground parking levels, is roughly twice as expensive as a standard corporate office structure.
CAA's main entry off Little Santa Monica Boulevard divides the exterior facade in two. The northern half, oriented toward the commercial character of the "Golden Triangle" shopping district, is sheathed in tinted glass set in a frame of travertine.
The southern half, sympathetic to the residential streets behind the building, is solid stone with house-like windows punched in regular rows. A fourth-floor parapet hides the building's rooftop plant rooms.
The sunlit atrium, dominated by a huge and vivid painting by artist Roy Lichtenstein, is the heart of Pei's concept.
Designed as a connection between the north and south wings of the building, the atrium, in Pei's words, "encourages the relaxed interaction that characterizes this agency, where around 200 creative people engaged in the collective enterprise of making movies and television programs can casually gather here, or cross the overhead bridges that link the two halves of the building."
Spectacular, cantilevered steel ring beams support the atrium's giant skylight. Rods of silvered aluminum bars under the glass create a fan of barred shadows on the Lichtenstein mural. The mural, inspired by a small 1920's sketch by Bauhaus artist Oskar Schlemmer, knocks your eye out with its hard yellows, blues and busy dots.
The mural captures the visitor's attention as he enters the atrium from the street or from the elevator leading up from the underground parking.
Upper-level atrium balconies afford busy workers a moment to pause and watch colleagues crisscrossing the wide marble floor below. From there, a sharp observer may note a revealing contrast between the style of the building and the mode of the people who work in it.
While the fashion of the architecture may be mature, most of the young agents and secretaries who scurry across the atrium, attired in hip outfits from Esprit and the Gap, seem barely post-pubescent.
Whatever CAA's architectural pretensions to mature politesse, the Hollywood industry is powered by an insatiable appetite for youthful energy.
CAA President Ovitz's office, which overlooks Santa Monica Boulevard and the park-like stretch of residential streets beyond, is modest in size and subdued in style.
Following the curve of the facade, the presidential suite is divided into a section for informal conferences and an area with a semi-circular desk, designed by Kitty Hawks, that echoes the shape of the atrium.
The tones of carpeting and cabinetry are subtle gray and beige, in tune with the muted palette of Pei's travertine and glass.
Other private offices are less discreet. Each executive was free to hire his own designer, and the results range from homey Southwestern pueblo to paneled Louis Quatorze fit for an agent aristocrat.
Whiteson is a Los Angeles free-lancer who writes on architectural topics.