Closing a Decade of Design: Some Hits and Misses

Given the day and date, an assessment of the last 10 years of architecture and design in Southern California is in order, along with a listing of the best, and worst, projects of the decade.

Looking back, we see a decade marked by a rising design consciousness that made the styling of buildings a common topic, turned some architects into superstars and lent an intense and welcome focus to the debate over how communities should be planned and shaped.

Despite this heightened awareness, as the decade ends, Southern California, in general, and Los Angeles, in particular, appear to be in worse shape than ever, scarred by discordant designs, soulless streets, abused parks and beaches, increasing homelessness, and a jobs-housing imbalance that exacerbates already exasperating traffic, and alarming air pollution.

These problems in large part cannot be blamed on the design profession, for when all is said and done, design is simply a reflection of a society and its values, or more accurately, its lack of values and leadership.

Not helping in the ‘80s were the distorted priorities of the Reagan-Bush administrations that stripped our social, environmental and housing programs to feed a bloated defense budget and milk our treasury.


Still, one might have expected more from the design community, if only because of its repeated claim of being sensitive to environmental and social issues, as well as aesthetics.

Instead, with a few exceptions, most designers in the ‘80s retreated into an egocentric preoccupation with fads and fashions marked by a waxing and waning of a succession of “isms.” Communities, neighbors and even clients appeared to have been sacrificed in the scramble by some designers to create signature projects.

At times it seemed architecture was not being practiced as a social art aesthetically serving a human need (a definition of the craft I prefer) but as a linguistic experiment, a market-driven assignment, an egotistical exercise or, more ignobly, a photo opportunity.

So-called free-style architecture turned out to not be particularly free or stylish. Rather it tended to be pricey, crude and, for most people, irrelevant.

But to be sure, along with these nefarious efforts there also were some singular, user- and site-sensitive designs expressed in a refreshing, coherent and articulate architectural language. These we celebrate, for they remind us of the potential in buildings for service and joy.

With this in mind, the following is a selection of the 10 most engaging and the 10 most egregious architectural projects of the ‘80s, submitted in no particular order of preference and, of course, with prejudice. Noted where appropriate are the principals responsible.

The Best

Tillman Water Reclamation Plant (Anthony Lumsden, of DMJM), in the Sepulveda Basin, an honest, expressive high-tech complex, its critical function softened by imaginative landscaping.

Cedars-Sinai Comprehensive Cancer Center (Morphosis Architects/ Gruen Associates), a dramatic and different health-care facility made diverting and personal.

First Interstate World Center (Pei Cobb Freed & Partners), downtown’s newest, tallest and best office structure, with the indication that its distinctive cylindrical tower will be matched at the street level by an equally distinctive landscaping focused on the Bunker Hill steps (Larry Halprin) now being completed.

Museum of Contemporary Art (Arata Isozaki, aided by Fred Nicholas and Ed Helfeld), a well-chiseled gem in the rather banal California Plaza.

Ocean Park scattered site housing cooperative (Appleton Mechur & Associates) and Vista Montoya (Kamnitzer & Cotton), two affordable housing projects, in Santa Monica and Pico Union respectively, that in different, attractive styles demonstrate a respect for both residents and neighbors.

Loyola Law School (Frank Gehry) a witty, playful collection of fragmented structures forming a singular in-town campus.

Wiltern Theatre restoration (Levin & Associates, inspired by Wayne Ratkovich), a sensitive restoration of the Mid-Wilshire Art Deco landmark.

Florence Hotel renovation (UCLA’s Urban Innovations Group, working with Andy Raubeson), one of a number of single-room residences that were upgraded in a laudable effort to provide decent housing on Skid Row.

XXIII Olympiad (Jerde Partnership/ Sussman Prejza & Co.) an inventive styling of a so-called kit-of-parts that gave spirit and identity to the scattered permanent and temporary facilities used to hold the Games.

The Worst

Mini-malls, the generic and ubiquitous convenience shopping centers. With too few exceptions, they created eyesores, aggravated traffic, sliced up sidewalks and destroyed scale and massing of streetscapes.

Pershing Square. Millions of dollars were spent, but unfortunately, most on a competition, consultants, junkets, receptions and salaries, while the forlorn park continued to deteriorate.

Beaudry Center (Collier-Deutsch) and the W.C.T. tower (World Chinese Trust), the Mutt and Jeff of office structures defacing the west bank of the Harbor Freeway. The WCT building is also known as the “twisted tower.”

First United Methodist Church demolition downtown and the Pan Pacific Auditorium burning in the Fairfax District. The landmark church was cleared to make way for a new Southern California Gas Co. headquarters that was never built and the beloved Pan destroyed while politicians procrastinated over plans for its recycling.

Home Savings Bank (Tim Vreeland of A.C. Martin) downtown, and overdesigned inside and out. May not be one of the worst but it’s one of silliest.

Melrose Avenue street widening, resulted in the narrowing of the sidewalk of one of L.A.'s most pedestrian-active streets, making it hard to window-shop and enjoy the passing crowds. Imagine what it would be like if the sidewalk was widened for cafes, benches and shade trees.

Edgemar (Frank Gehry), the mixed-use project in Santa Monica that, despite all the stated good intentions, feels less like the center of a Tuscan hill town it is described as in the various awards it has received, and more like a minimum-security prison.

Gehry was without peer the local emperor of architecture of the ‘80s. At times his clothes were just right for the occasion, as they were for the Loyola Law School. Other times, such as Edgemar, they seemed to be in need of some radical tailoring to fit. When you are the emperor everyone notices.

Aaron Spelling residence, which at 56,500 square feet, should be considered a congregate living facility and not a single-family home, and therefore in violation of Holmby Hills zoning.

What Spelling’s folly is, of course, is a sad commentary on the distorted values that have taken the architectural form of monster mansions at a time when tens of thousands of persons are homeless.

From my perspective, homelessness was architecture’s worst “project” of the ‘80s and a national shame.

In the next decade, may the best flourish.