Looking north up Hope Street, you can see a radical change in the skyline of downtown Los Angeles.
One of Los Angeles' major urban vistas, once crowned by the charming tower and tiled pyramid of Bertram Goodhue's 1920s Central Library, is now dominated by the slim white cylinder of the 73-story First Interstate World Center.
Now the tallest building on the West Coast, the 1,017-foot First Interstate tower looms over the Central Library, which is now undergoing a $150-million renovation and expansion.
Designed by a team of New York City architects--Pei, Cobb, Freed & Partners in association with Harold Fredenburgh--the tower stands out on the downtown skyline as a graceful beacon visible for miles, marking the center of the city.
From close up, however, the tower is less elegant than it seems from a distance. The soaring shaft's faceted circular volume, narrowing toward the top, is too blandly detailed to hold the viewer's interest.
And a sharp drop in level between Hope and 5th streets at the tower's base, marked by an outdoor grand stairway, adds to the feeling that the 1.3-million-square-foot building, squeezed onto a small site, is a little too big for its boots.
The building's developer, Maguire Thomas Partners, believes that the distinctive white tower is Los Angeles' "signature" skyscraper, the city's architectural climax. But the building is an act of architecture only secondarily.
The primary art form expressed in the shape and character of the First Interstate World Center is not architecture, but a dizzying, seven-year exercise in deal making.
The complex deals and trade-offs that made the tower possible limited the size of its site, added 20 floors to its height and determined the upper-level setbacks, which shaped its silhouette.
After this, the architects' options were confined to finessing the tower's profile, detailing its skin and attempting to design a humanely scaled street-level presence for the massive shaft.
This situation is analogous to having a painting's size, shape and composition negotiated by art dealers, then hiring an artist to fill in the colors and elaborate the picture frame.
The artful deal making made concrete in the First Interstate tower was founded on a brilliant scheme to help pay for the Central Library's ambitious renovation and expansion without--at that time--spending a penny of public money.
The plan involved an agreement by the city to sell the potential development rights presumed to exist in the air over the library to Maguire Thomas Partners.
Shunted across 5th Street, this chunk of unbuilt air added the 20 extra stories to the height the First Interstate tower would normally have been permitted under current downtown zoning laws.
To finesse the deal, Maguire Thomas Partners then sold half the building's equity to Pacific Enterprises and negotiated a further agreement with the Community Redevelopment Agency to build another 52-story office high-rise on 5th Street across Grand Avenue.
This is a bare-bones outline of a financial and political process that involved numerous city agencies and elected officials, First Interstate Bank, the major law firm of Latham & Watkins, broker and developer John C. Cushman III and a host of other players.
Pacific Enterprises President James R. Ukropina is reported to have said in a moment of exhaustion that the complex wheeling and dealing "pushed people to the edge of insanity."
But developer Robert F. Maguire III views the process differently. He says the extra height added to the First Interstate tower was simply the result of a need to raise extra funds for the ever-increasing expense of the Central Library's expansion and renovation.
"Originally, we had envisioned no more than a 50-story building," Maguire said. "However, as the CRA and library staff plans for the library grew, costs went up."
The library's budget increased so much, Maguire said, that the CRA proposed that he build the second building across Grand Avenue to provide additional funding.
"We were never comfortable with having the tallest building in the city," Maguire insisted. "We are emphatically opposed to that kind of symbolism--it is not in our culture."
But now that the 73-story tower is a reality, Maguire feels it's "substantially superior to the earlier versions of 50 stories, that looked like a stuffed Polish sausage."
After the deals were done, the architects were left to make what they could of the tower shape they were handed--a challenge complicated by the awkward change of levels at the shaft's base.
"Granting primacy at street level to Goodhue's great library was a major concern," designer Henry Cobb said.
To emphasize this primacy, a dramatic "water garden" stairway, designed by noted landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, will lead pedestrians down from upper Hope Street to a point opposite the library's main entrance.
This grand staircase, to be topped by a walk-in pavilion resembling a giant golden metal snake crafted by Frank Gehry, is intended as a "choreographed experience that captures the life and vitality of the city," according to Halprin.
A water wall cascading over terraces and along channels running down the middle of the steps will form the backdrop for outdoor cafes and flower vendors. In this "urban theater" it is hoped that mimes and musicians will entertain lunchtime office workers.
Once the configuration of the tower's base was determined, the main cylinder of the high-rise was designed.
To shape the tall shaft's floor plans, and give the tower visual interest as it soared upward, principal designer Harold Fredenburgh played with variations of a circle laid over a square.
"The aim was to enhance the tower's verticality and emphasize the skyward perspective," Fredenburgh said.
The faceted circular surface that resulted from this circle-in-a-square design fills out the tower's lower 45 stories. Above the 45th floor the shaft narrows down through a series of setbacks, emerging as a pure drum shape in the top five floors.
First Interstate World Center is a striking obelisk when viewed from a distance through the windshield of a car approaching downtown along one of the freeways that circle the central city. But as one comes close, the detailing of the tower's faceted pale-gray Sardinian granite with beige accents and flush-tinted windows, lack sufficient subtlety to interest the eye.
Seen from below, the shaft's complex geometries are hard to decipher. And its horizontal banding seems at odds with Fredenburgh's aim to enhance a vertical character.
The main lobby off 5th Street opposite the library is confusing. The tower's columns, sheathed in illuminated glass cases, block the front doors. The lobby's connection to the Hope Street entry four floors above is poorly thought out, and the auto drop-off for visitors seems like an afterthought slotted in at the back of the building.
Not even the vast and vivid lobby mural commissioned from artist David Hockney will succeed in giving the space a visual coherence.
In the tower's interior the eccentric floor plans generated by the squared-circle shape allow offices of a variety of configurations, from wedges to octagons.
The relative smallness of the floors compared to most modern office high-rises guarantees that few workers are far from a window. The top five circular levels offer panoramic views--on smogless days--from the San Gabriel Mountains to Newport Beach.
Structurally, the tower is designed to withstand an 8.3 earthquake--Los Angeles' "Big One," predicted to strike within the next 30 years. The tower's massively reinforced central core and lighter perimeter columns form a framework flexible enough to resist violent side-to-side shaking, the architects and engineers believe.
Looking back over the blood, sweat and tears of the past seven years, developer Nelson Rising of Maguire Thomas Partners declares that he is "thrilled with this beautiful building."
The venture has been, Rising said, "profitable and significant for Los Angeles in the creation of a signature tower for the city."
If the First Interstate tower is indeed our urban signature, it can only be said that our identity is smudged.
Given that the art was in the deal not the architecture, the First Interstate World Center could still have been the landmark that crowned Bunker Hill and redeemed the architectural mediocrity of most of our downtown towers.
It could have been our equivalent of Manhattan's Chrysler Building, with a superb profile silhouetted against the sky and urbane proportions detailed to delight the eye from near and far.
But the tower's designers and their patrons haven't quite risen to the occasion. They haven't come together to create a tower whose verve and grace might have made us forget the profits and the politics.
A major factor in this failure is that the First Interstate World Center development, despite its present identification with a big bank, began its complex life as a speculative commercial high-rise venture, not a corporate headquarters meant to symbolize the pride of a major enterprise.
What this means can be seen by comparing First Interstate with another Maguire Thomas Partners development on Bunker Hill--the Wells Fargo Center, originally the Crocker Center.
Wells Fargo/Crocker Center, designed as a corporate symbol, is a much more graceful and urbane project. The towers are planned to create a pleasant plaza at street level for people to sit and stroll and shop. Seen against the downtown skyline, the eccentrically shaped shafts make an intriguingly composed counterpoint.
In this achievement the architect's role was clearly central, not peripheral.
Here the designer was not called upon simply to do a cosmetic job on a done deal, but to shape the project from the start, create it from the ground up. This fact alone makes Wells Fargo Center a much better act of urban architecture than First Interstate.
The fact that hectic horse trading, not architecture or urban design, is the primary interest powering many speculative commercial high-rises--by far the large majority of our new towers--explains why our proud new downtown has so few buildings of distinction.
When even a respected and progressive developer like Maguire Thomas Partners reduces its architects to a relatively minor role in the game of make-me-a-city, what hope have we for an urban core that is more than a boring collection of built deals?