Merger Boosts Firm's Size, Status and Creative Energies

When he was a young architect in the early 1950s, Lou Naidorf of Welton Becket Associates was given the chance to design the Capitol Records Tower, today one of Hollywood's boldest landmarks.

The world's first completely circular office building, Capitol Records was shaped to resemble a stack of 45-r.p.m. platters topped by a symbolic stylus.

The tower's simple metaphor was deliberately designed to create an instant presence. Its direct, if unsubtle, style was typical of the firm that created several major Los Angeles landmarks from the 1930s to the 1980s, including the Pan Pacific Auditorium, the Music Center and the Beverly Center.

But in the mid-1980s, after 50 years of practice, Welton Becket Associates principals feared the firm was beginning to suffer "an architectural hardening of the arteries."

"We were getting a little geriatric in our attitudes," said Naidorf. "We needed new blood to get the creative juices flowing again."

In March, 1988, Welton Becket Associates, with its 300 employees making it the 11th largest architecture and engineering practice in the United States, formally merged with Minneapolis/St. Paul-based Ellerbe Inc., the eighth largest.

Today, with about 1,000 employees, Ellerbe Becket Inc. is the No. 3 design firm in the country, responsible for $1 billion in construction a year.

The merger has elevated the firm to a national and international status from which it can compete in an increasingly global economy.

For longtime Welton Becket principal Robert Nasraway, the merger has energized the 57-year-old practice in many ways.

"Besides improving the firm's competitiveness, the increase in size has enabled us to bring in fresh talent at every level," said Nasraway, division director of the 125-person L.A. office in Santa Monica's Colorado Place.

"The incipient hardening of the arteries Lou (Naidorf) mentioned has given way to a new burst of creativity that has already won several major design awards."

With offices in New York City, Washington, St. Louis and Kansas City, as well as Los Angeles and Minneapolis/St. Paul, Ellerbe Becket's organization includes engineers, landscape architects, marketing professionals, interior designers and computer-graphics specialists, in addition to 260 architects.

Ellerbe Becket's roster includes established designers with national reputations, such as New Yorker Harry Wolf, a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects, and gifted young professionals, such as Harvard-educated Mehrdad Yazdani, who served his apprenticeship in Postmodernist Michael Graves' Princeton, N.J., office.

"I chose to join Ellerbe Becket for the enormous opportunities and range of projects it offered," Wolf said. "I chose the Los Angeles office because I was attracted by the region's energy and potential as a major force on the Pacific Rim."

But Los Angeles faces major urban challenges, Wolf believes, especially in its urgent need to upgrade the quality of its neglected public architecture.

"There's a huge imbalance between the superb quality and variety of the private, residential spaces in Los Angeles and the relatively poor character of much of our public buildings and urban spaces, both civic and commercial," he said.

"We have to create a public realm that is architecturally and socially sophisticated, to match our ambitions to be a 'world-class city,' and to provide a setting in which the diverse races and classes of Angelenos might be encouraged to mingle."

Several current Ellerbe Becket projects suggest a concern for the public realm.

The Wilshire-Westlake project, designed around the new Westlake Metro Rail station opposite MacArthur Park, creates an open-air street lined with shops and cafes that will market the Central American arts, crafts and cuisine native to the Latino immigrants who populate the area.

"Affordable-rent apartments" over the shops will add to the urban character of the internal street that roofs over the subway line below. Offices and chain stores will complete the mixture of uses on the development.

At UC Irvine, an Ellerbe Becket-designed office complex is broken down into modestly sized units to honor the pedestrian scale of the campus environment.

"By fragmenting the architecture, we want to emphasize the public areas between the buildings which are as important as the interior spaces," said Nasraway.

Among the more innovative Los Angeles projects to come off Ellerbe Becket's drawing boards is a trio of small maintenance and equipment storage buildings for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Here, the firm demonstrates how such humble facilities as work sheds may become assets to the cityscape in the hands of skillful designers.

Using an industrial vocabulary of materials such as concrete block and galvanized steel, designer Yazdani has shaped buildings with arched and gabled roofs to develop energetic compositions that make no attempt to hide or prettify the vital yet unglamorous functions these structures serve.

The Cultural Affairs Commission, which reviews the design of all public buildings, has praised Yazdani for his urbane inventiveness in raising the standards of the DWP's architecture.

"Until designers of the caliber of Yazdani came along, most of the DWP designs submitted to us were, frankly, either boring or phony," said commission president Merry Norris. "They either treated these often prominently sited buildings as basic sheds or tried to disguise them with fake mansard roofs and the like. Compared to that approach, Ellerbe Becket's designs are a real tonic."

Naidorf, the design principal who supervises the DWP projects, said he may not always agree with Yazdani's style but is happy to give the young architect his head.

"It's a mistake to second-guess a gifted designer," Naidorf said, "even though his work may startle you. At Ellerbe Becket we understand that creativity cannot be engendered by committee, though a consensus approach is often mandatory on larger projects."

Ellerbe Becket's larger projects include several prominent downtown L.A. buildings, such as the Ronald Reagan State Office Building on Spring Street nearing completion, and the massive Metropolitan Detention Center whose off-white, slit-windowed silhouette looms over the 101 Freeway.

The public arena in the State Office Building is provided by a central, glass-roofed atrium that links the complex's high-rise towers. The scale of the development is attuned on the west frontage to the commercial character of Spring Street and on the east to the lower buildings on Main Street.

The relative freedom given to individual designers tends to leave Ellerbe Becket without a distinctive design "signature" that would immediately identify its architecture.

Yet, this lack of signature is deliberate, Nasraway said.

"We want to allow diversity among our designers and, at the same time, be willing to vary our response to different clients, sites and programs. I'll admit it's a tightrope at times, balancing the individual architect's need for freedom of expression with a responsibility to the client and the context."

Nasraway calls this balancing act a form of "creative tension," but architect David von Oeyen, a senior Ellerbe Becket designer, describes it as a typical posture for a large traditional Los Angeles office.

"Classically in L.A., the big firms have always done every kind of architecture, from soup to nuts," he said. "Ellerbe Becket is only continuing this tradition by mixing huge projects of a rather standardized character with smaller buildings that are more personal in style.

"To my mind, this kind of eclecticism of expression is a sign of our vigor and our very Angeleno lack of snobbery."

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