A Partnership That’s Ripe With Collaboration

<i> Whiteson is a Los Angeles architect and author whose latest book is "The Watts Towers of Los Angeles." </i>

Scott Johnson and William Fain first came together in a professional marriage of convenience. They were partners in a struggle for control of the prestigious architectural office of Pereira Associates during the twilight years of the firm’s famous founder, William Pereira.

In the early 1980s, near the end of a 50-year career in which he created such local landmarks as the Theme Restaurant at LAX and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Pereira favored handing over the firm to the younger bloods Fain and Johnson despite the opposition of his more mature partners. Before he died in 1985, Pereira appointed Johnson the firm’s director of design and Fain its director of planning.

Pereira’s choice of Fain and Johnson for his practice’s future apparently has paid off.


In the two years since the firm’s name was changed to Johnson, Fain & Pereira Associates, the duo has settled into a stable relationship of mutual respect.

Today, they run an 85-person Wilshire Boulevard office, busy with projects ranging from a $2-billion Texas atom-smashing complex to a 1,300-acre Guam resort to a commission from the Trump Organization to design a commercial development on the controversial Ambassador Hotel site.

“Scott and I come at things from different angles,” Fain said. “He’s obsessed with details, I enjoy the big picture. He’s a very private workaholic while I’m more public and social.

“He’s a designer,” said Fain. “I’m a planner. Given these often complementary, sometimes hostile differences, I feel we’ve deepened a partnership between opposites that’s getting more and more subtle and spicy.”

The benefits of the partners’ growing collaboration is illustrated in the contrast between two Century City towers.

Fox Plaza, opened in 1988 on the corner of the Avenue of the Stars and Olympic Boulevard, is considered a brilliant but isolated act of architecture with its ambiguous connection to its surroundings. The building, some observers say, seems unable to decide whether its front door is on the street or at the back, facing the parking garage.

By contrast, the 1999 Avenue of the Stars tower, which opened in June, is fully integrated into the prominent corner it occupies on Constellation Boulevard. An arcaded sidewalk shelters pedestrians at ground level while, above, a curving skin of stone laid over glass directs the motorist’s eye to the building’s entry.

“Bill has helped me understand that major commercial buildings should not be designed as free-standing, solitary objects but as vital parts of their surroundings,” Johnson said. “His background as a planner leads him to look at the widest possible context for any kind of architecture. That has tempered and refined my concern with details and with style.”

Johnson, 39, sharpened his concern with style as chief of design in the office of Philip Johnson, the Manhattan trend-setter. “Whatever else you say about Philip, he always insists upon quality,” Johnson said. “His favorite expression is ‘I’ll never trade the details.’ ”

After graduation from UC Berkeley and Harvard, where he and Johnson were classmates, Fain, 45, concentrated more on broad urban design issues than on architectural style.

“Scott contracts, I expand,” Fain said. “He’s always seeking to narrow things down, while my urge is to push out the boundaries as widely as possible. He’s taught me to focus on the particular while I’ve helped him think about the general. That’s the essence of our collaboration.”

The men identify three distinct waves in the evolution of their collaboration. In the first wave, which produced Fox Plaza and an award-winning master plan for a “Main Street” at UC Irvine, Johnson’s architecture and Fain’s planning tended to be separate territories.

During the second wave, the partners began to integrate their work. In projects such as 1999 Avenue of the Stars and master plans for the EWA NewTown in Hawaii and for Indian Wells’ main avenue, Fain and Johnson worked together from the start.

“At this stage, Bill began to consult with me on planning issues and I’d support him in potentially architectural issues growing out of his planning effort,” Johnson explained. “We looked at the shape of the buildings and the spread of the grand design in tandem rather than as separate disciplines.”

In the current third wave--which includes such megaprojects as the Trump Organization’s Ambassador Hotel proposal, an 18-acre proposed Los Angeles Center development on the Unocal site just west of the Harbor Freeway, the Miyama Hills Resort in Guam and the Superconductor Super Collider complex in Waxahachie, Tex.--the separate disciplines are fusing into a seamless whole.

“Early on, while I am puzzling out the broad physical form of a master plan, Scott will contribute specific architectural ideas that feed back into my thinking,” Fain said.

“During this phase, we crisscross the corridors between our separate offices many times a day, swapping schemes and arguing principles, sometimes to the point of mutual irritation,” said Fain.

“We’re both strong-minded and outspoken,” Johnson said. “I think it’s that tension of opposite-but-equal that makes the whole thing work. That, and our increasing concern to create environments that enhance rather than diminish their contexts.”

Working in Los Angeles, Johnson and Fain are particularly troubled by the city’s lack of a “public commonwealth,” especially the dearth of parks and open spaces in the heart of Los Angeles. They fault the history of development in the area, which has favored piecemeal projects that take little account of the larger public good.

“Developers are only just beginning to wake up to the need to provide a humane public setting for their projects, if they are to ensure the long-term viability of their investments,” Fain said. “In designing the Los Angles Center, for example, we needed to consider the whole of the west side of the Harbor Freeway in terms of traffic and parks and other public amenities.”

What happens beyond a development’s boundaries must affect its internal organization, the partners believe. The proposed Los Angeles Center would give almost a third of its expensive acreage to open space, creating a pleasant scale for the high-rise cluster.

Beyond that, the plan attempts to continue the existing street patterns within the project, to fit its large dimensions into the mixed low- to mid-rise commercial and residential character of the neighborhood.

“In the current development climate, in which projects get larger and larger and the public agencies grow daily more timid and leaderless, “ said Fain, “the responsibility for creating livable urban environments falls increasingly upon the shoulders of private entrepreneurs and their designers. In urban design, the private sector is now leading the game by default.”

Not all Johnson, Fain & Pereira Associates projects are megamonsters. The practice leavens its larger commissions with a variety of smaller scale designs that include the Opus One Winery for Robert Mondavi in Napa Valley, an expansion of the Otis/Parsons School of Design campus near MacArthur Park, the Wayne Gallery in Santa Monica and the punk Polynesian Paradise Restaurant in Torrance.

“The smaller projects allow me to be an architect, pure and simple,” said Johnson. “They give license to my urge to create perfect microcosms, definitive acts of art that refer only to their own design logic.

“The practice of architecture is nowadays so complex a collaboration with partners, multiple clients and a host of public agencies and community spokespeople, it’s a relief from time to time just to please a particular client . . . and oneself.”