Century City a Towering Example of Self-Contained Urban Center

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Aaron Betsky, a resident of West Hollywood, teaches and writes extensively about architecture

Century City is the perfect image of what Los Angeles once thought it would be. Developed as a node in L.A. City Planner Cal Hamilton’s “Centers Concept,” which envisioned Southern California as an endless carpet of activity focused around a few dense, urbane hubs of office buildings, shopping malls and multiunit housing, it has gone in 20 years from an empty movie studio back lot to the second largest downtown in Los Angeles.

In Century City, everything is perfect, from the steel-and-glass grids to the absence of cars cluttering the roadway. Office buildings, a shopping mall, hotels and condominiums each occupy their own zone, each secure and successful. At the heart of it all rise the twin triangles of the Century Plaza Towers, 44-story obelisks that mark the presence of this grand corporate precinct.

When you see the Century Plaza Towers from afar, they stand out in the rolling green landscape as immaculate white reference points, telling you exactly where Century City is located. The contrast with the carpet of homes and the hills rising in the background was even stronger until the recent completion of several skyscrapers that rival the twin towers in height. But none of the newer buildings can match the clean lines and massive bulk of the originals. Designed by Minoru Yamasaki in 1969, they are Los Angeles’ answer to New York’s World Trade Towers, twin skyscrapers that were designed by the same architect. Their metallic skin, abstract shape and even their duplication turns them into objects so strange and alien that you cannot immediately figure out how they fit into their surroundings, or even recognize them as office buildings. Instead, they become urban sculpture recomposing the world all around them.


Up close, that same alien quality becomes overwhelming. Yamasaki designed the twin towers to stand at the end of a promenade leading between rows of shops and the two theaters of the ABC Entertainment Center to the curved form of the Century Plaza Hotel. These large buildings were composed as large blocks sitting on top of what was once the largest underground parking garage in the world. They had no relationship to the outside, and no particular human scale.

Yamasaki and the planners, Welton Becket and Associates, had played God on 20th Century Fox’s old back lot. We mere mortals can only follow the rigid paths prescribed by their formal games, and cower before the majesty of 500 feet of glass and steel rising above us.

Standing at the base of the corner of either of the two office buildings, as it rises from its barren plaza, is an overwhelming experience. The whole building seems to be sitting on only its three corners, while the lobby hovers underneath its outstretched form. The steel plates zoom above your head into the sky without interruption.

The Century Plaza Towers show us the power of architecture, both in its ability to create strong forms to stand against the seeming chaos of the city, and in its brute force, imposing form and scale on our lives.

The towers are beautiful, but it is a cold, distant kind of beauty that perhaps well represents the corporate world the buildings house.