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ARCHITECTURE : It’s Big, Chic and Famous, but Beverly Center’s Not a Pretty Site

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; West Hollywood-based Aaron Betsky teaches and writes about architecture

The Beverly Center is not a pretty building. It’s big, it’s brown, and it’s a blob. Inside, it’s a maze of glittery, tacky material whose smooth finishes defer to the merchandise.

The only way to appreciate this overwhelming building is to use it: the labyrinth of parking that forms the base of this behemoth; the escalators that reveal Los Angeles to you as you move up each floor, or the glass elevators that lift you out of the depths of the base into the shining shopping nirvana. Then you realize what the Beverly Center really is: the Acropolis of shopping, dedicated to our national religion, consumption.

As befits a temple on a hill, the Beverly Center is the biggest thing in its neighborhood. It used to loom in isolated splendor over the confluence of Los Angeles, Beverly Hills and West Hollywood. But its very success attracted foothills of hotels to the north and south and smaller shopping malls massing up, from the corner malls to the more substantial Beverly Connection across La Cienega Boulevard.

The center is re-creating the geography of western Los Angeles. Like a mountain, but unlike a temple, the Beverly Center is the result of forces beyond its control. It is where it is exactly because the site between La Cienega and San Vincente boulevards had been a leftover corner at the edge of residential and commercial developments dating to the days of the ranchos. Its shape is a direct extrusion of the triangular lot, with a giant chunk carved out of the back to allow a highly profitable oil well to remain on the site.

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The unstable soil and the economics of development resulted in the stacking of the five floors of parking and three floors of shopping. The needs of merchandising made this ungainly accumulation of negative development decisions windowless.

The original design by architect Lou Nardorf of Welton Becket Associates tried to turn these circumstances into architecture by using the bulk of the building as scaffolding for Times Square-like neon signs, opening the heart of the shopping area up to the futuristic sweep of garage ramps below and topping the whole wedding cake with housing.

But the developer just wanted the most efficient shopping mall possible, and slowly the design was stripped down to the minimalist monster that now confronts you. Even the color was changed from a graded blue to brown because retail experts believed that women wouldn’t shop in a blue building.

Inside, retail lore rules as well: Anchor stores stop up the ends, snaking corridors maximize store display areas while seducing you around each offset corner, and the architecture is so neutral that you have a hard time defining the walls, the floors and the ceilings. The Beverly Center is also a mess of contradictions. Its rites and rituals are all about motion and selling beautiful things, and yet it is an ugly, heavy mass. It is big, but it is strangely undefinable and formless. And, of course, the inside and the outside of the building have nothing to do with each other. The Beverly Center is a strange monument for western Los Angeles, an enigma at the heart of an urban agglomeration without a soul.

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