ARCHITECTURE : Westwood Tower Plays the Office Game With a Twist

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES, Aaron Betsky teaches and writes about architecture

Twisting and turning itself as if to shed the ranks of gridded boxes that imprison Wilshire Boulevard, one small green-and-yellow office building in Westwood rises up with a kind of contorted grace to become a beacon stranded in the middle of a sea of commercial anonymity. Though it can never quite escape its identity as just another commercial office building, it creates a great deal of visual excitement just by trying.

The Tower, as 10940 Wilshire Blvd. grandly calls itself, is the first Los Angeles design by Chicago architect Helmut Jahn. Jahn has kept the tradition of making buildings that express advanced technology by jazzing up the usual steel-and-glass format with wild colors, skewed shapes, and imagery that integrates this expressiveness into the texture of the city.

The Tower is no exception. If you look at the building objectively, it is just a box around a centralized core, controlled by the demands of office floors, covered with glass and with stone hung like a thick veneer. But simply by making use of the skewed site (the side street, Midvale Avenue, hits Wilshire at a rather acute angle), Jahn gets a little composition going.

The center of the building is oriented along Midvale, so that it seems to thrust out at Wilshire. This energy is enhanced by the sloping sides of the main body, which lean the building away from the lower condominiums on the back and toward the higher scale of the boulevard. The corners have then been rounded, giving the front the impression of a tower (and providing more corner office-like spaces inside)--an impression heightened by adding a crown of stone to the top.

The skin then continues the games: On the curved "tower," glass and cream-colored Kasota stone create a vertical emphasis, while on the side the same materials are lined up with the horizontal office slabs. Around the bottom, a strong grid is strengthened with a few accent pieces of granite to give the base a sense of solidity. It is all a question of a quarter of an inch, of course, since all these materials are paper-thin pieces of applique.

The only other innovation of the Tower is in the way it works at the base. For once, parking and pedestrian entrances are given equal weight. Two exterior octagonal spaces are carved out of the bottom of the curved pieces. The one in the front shelters a fountain to welcome pedestrians, while the rear portico acts as an arrival point and turn-around for those who valet-park their cars. A narrow lobby, pretentiously outfitted with a surfeit of expensive stone and dramatic lighting, connects the two. Retail spaces meant to buffer all this corporate grandeur have not yet been leased.

The overall design of the Tower is not that different from your average speculative office building, but the cumulative effect of all these slight variations is enough to make the Tower comment on how little it takes to save even the most banal of projects from becoming another part of an oppressive absence of character. All it takes is understanding the site, the nature of office building construction, and the ritual of the building's use. Jahn knows all three, and his interpretation should be a beacon of architecture to those who will finish turning Wilshire in Westwood into the corporate canyon that is its destiny.

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