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Scott Johnson’s Main Chance : The Vitality of Downtown L.A. and the Reputation of a Brash Architect Are Riding on a Sweeping Plan to Add Five Skyscrapers to the City’s Core

<i> Douglas Frantz is a Times reporter in Washington. This article is adapted from "From the Ground Up: The Business of Building in an Age of Money," published by Henry Holt and Co</i>

IN THE SPRING OF 1978, SCOTT JOHNSON WAS a young architect in the San Francisco office of the preeminent firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. He was one of about 60 designers who sat at identical desks arrayed in straight rows in a long, rectangular room on the 16th floor of the Alcoa Building. This was Skidmore’s design studio, an assembly line of creativity, in which each phase of a project was planned and executed with numbing precision.

One day that March, Johnson watched as a noisy group of his colleagues examined a New York Times clipping about Philip Johnson’s design for a new AT&T; headquarters in New York. The daring structure rose 37 stories, topped by an immense broken pediment reminiscent of a Chippendale highboy. The young architects were shocked by the radical design and decided that Philip Johnson had finally and unequivocally gone off the deep end.

Scott Johnson’s reaction was different. “I thought it was pretty interesting,” he recalls. “It was conceptually interesting. And I was bothered by the consensus among my colleagues at SOM. It was not clear to me that this design was terrible. I was left with the vague sense of its rightness at the time, its energy and the facility of its designer. There was much I didn’t understand about it, but it provoked me to want to know more.”

After the commotion subsided, Johnson confronted his bosses. He was unhappy. He wanted a new challenge. So, the 27-year-old architect gave notice on the spot and marched off shortly afterward to New York in search of a new job. It was the kind of daredevil, contrarian step that Johnson would find irresistible throughout his career. Since quitting a better job than most architects ever get, Johnson has risen steadily in a profession in which only a select number reach the top, and far fewer ascend to real greatness and sweeping influence. For nearly a decade, he has been back in California. After a long struggle, he and partner William Fain Jr. have collaborated to rebuild the crippled firm founded by William L. Pereira, an icon of California architecture for three decades before his death, the planner of Irvine Ranch and the designer of such landmarks as the Transamerica Pyramid in San Francisco.

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With Johnson as design chief and Fain handling the master planning, the firm is prospering at a time when many rivals are struggling. It has expanded far beyond Los Angeles, and Johnson is known to jet off to Tokyo with sketches for his latest resort project or to Italy to select marble for the lobby of a Century City tower.

Johnson, articulate, tall and slender with swept-back blond hair, is married to his high school sweetheart, physician Meg Bates. He is the father of two children, owner of two Mercedes-Benzes and a house in Hancock Park filled with furniture he has designed. He seems unacquainted with self-doubt or failure. His impeccable grooming and easy discourse on art and architecture irritate some, even in his profession. Architect Ken Tardy, who worked with Johnson on a major project in San Francisco, responded to this glamour by dubbing Johnson “the Miami Vice of architecture.”

At 40, Scott Johnson has amassed an impressive array of work. Yet he remains a notch below the uppermost rung of architects. Much the same can be said about public architecture and planning in Los Angeles itself: It seems to be a collection of good, and even great, buildings, but it is one that lacks the definitive power and grandeur of those of Chicago and New York. As the architect and the city are joined just shy of the top, so are they united on a project that may determine much of their joint future. It is called Los Angeles Center--a massive effort by developers Hillman Properties, of Pittsburgh and Newport Beach, and the L.A. firm of Smith & Hricik--designed to include boulevards and skyscrapers, on the west side of the Harbor Freeway. Even greater public attention will be focused on the project, because, with the city facing a glut of office space in a stagnant economy, Los Angeles Center is expected to be the only project breaking ground for a downtown skyscraper in 1992. It will be pivotal to the development of downtown Los Angeles far into the next century and will go a long way in determining Scott Johnson’s place in the hierarchy of architecture.

FLUSH FROM HIS RESIGNATION AT SOM, JOHNSON arrived in New York in the summer of 1978. For decades, the city had been a mecca for architects, and such masters as Philip Johnson, I. M. Pei and Kevin Roche were pushing beyond modernism to test design philosophies rooted in abstraction. These men were destined to redefine the relationship between big buildings and places, and New York was their exciting laboratory. That was then.

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Today New York is yesterday’s city in so many ways. The go-go years on Wall Street are over; municipal finances are a disaster. Putting up a building means enduring years of red tape and millions of dollars in delays and hassles.

So where does today’s ambitious young architect search for that creative energy, that sense of endless possibilities? What about Los Angeles? Is this city, with its tradition of great individual buildings and laissez-faire civic planning, the most exciting place in the world for architecture and design, the equivalent of Bauhaus in Germany in the 1920s, Chicago in the ‘60s, New York in the ‘70s?

Look at the new profiles on the downtown skyline. The striking First Interstate World Center, by I. M. Pei’s office, with its lighthouse-like coronet, stands in radical partnership with the neighboring Gas Company Tower, which resembles nothing less than a ship sailing toward a lighthouse. A few blocks away is Cesar Pelli’s elegant, creamy-white, metal-paneled tower at 777 Figueroa St. Still to come is Frank Gehry’s dramatic design for the Disney Concert Hall at the Music Center.

“I feel very central here, like I used to feel in Chicago, like the middle of a wheel,” says Richard Keating, whose Gas Company Tower established him as one of the city’s brightest young architects. “The new energies in architecture are in Los Angeles and Paris.”

Others are not so sure that assessment is merited--yet. Robert S. Harris, dean of the School of Architecture at USC, wants to wait before rendering judgment. “Architects from all over the world are here in Los Angeles,” he says. Until recently, the economy had been strong, but all the evidence to support the notion of L.A.'s architectural significance still isn’t in place. After all, Harris says, Los Angeles still feels obliged to foist big corporate logos atop even its most distinctive skyscrapers, such as First Interstate Bank’s appendage atop the tallest building in the West, a structure many believe should still be called the Library Tower.

No single project can confirm whether Los Angeles is the center for architectural innovation and quality. However, the ambitious blueprint for a second downtown on the west side of the Harbor Freeway offers a gigantic practical test of the maturity and sophistication of urban design in Los Angeles today.

Land preparation for the first building, a 43-story tower for Unocal, is under way. Plans call for erecting five major skyscrapers and a hotel on 17.4 acres around the site of the existing Unocal building over the next 15 years at a cost exceeding $1 billion. A huge scale model of the development depicts a mini-metropolis of broad boulevards and sculpted high-rise towers moving west from the freeway’s edge, leveling blocks of shabby rental houses, vacant lots, ultimately the existing Unocal building and, some say, a genuine neighborhood. The completed project will be far larger than New York’s Rockefeller Center, with extensive new transportation links to the Hollywood and Glendale freeways and nearly six acres of open space. This is, in effect, a second chance at building the elusive cosmopolitan downtown that has never quite materialized in Los Angeles.

At the same time, this seminal project will measure the vision and talents of Scott Johnson and his partner, Bill Fain, who were hired to plan and design the entire center. The assignment marks Johnson’s entry into what should be his most productive and creative professional period.

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From what is now called Johnson Fain and Pereira, on Wilshire Boulevard near Fairfax, the inheritors of Pereira’s legacy are designing and planning distinctive buildings and communities around the world. In a recession that finds many rival firms handing out pink slips, Johnson and Fain are winning new commissions and, if not expanding, keeping the revenue flowing steadily.

Yet, in a profession where name recognition is vital, Johnson remains on the edge of the city’s renaissance, not as widely known as Gehry, Keating or even the late Pereira. Despite commercial successes such as the gleaming towers of Fox Plaza and 1999 Avenue of the Stars in Century City and the elegant Carnation world headquarters (now Nestle USA headquarters) in Glendale, Johnson has never designed a downtown-L.A. building. “For some reason, I’ve had trouble getting hired by people in Los Angeles,” he conceded one recent afternoon.

Many yardsticks will be applied in measuring the final success of Los Angeles Center, but Johnson’s primary one will be how well the megaproject leads downtown into the future. “As downtown marches out across the Harbor Freeway, we step into a far more inherently mixed-use environment that presents social, cultural and physical challenges,” Johnson explains. “Buildings have to meet and marry properly with the existing scale and grain of the neighborhood. We are building a set of buildings that are a window out to the community but also an invitation to the community to come in.”

Kurt Meyer, former chief of the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency, says Los Angeles Center will indeed make Johnson’s mark. “These are 100-year buildings, and it is an enormous challenge,” Meyer says. “Scott and Bill have a chance to prove themselves. You live or die with a project like this. One building does not make an architect. But one project of this size and importance can.”

WHEN SCOTT JOHNSON WAS BORN IN 1951, HIS PARENTS LIVED IN Spreckels, Calif., a company town founded by Claus Spreckels, the sugar beet king. Johnson’s father was a plant geneticist who supervised the efforts of the Spreckels Sugar Co. to coax more sugar out of the beets. As a child, Johnson was not interested in the science of his father’s job but rather in the visual imagery, the geometry of agriculture: the greenhouses, with row after row of flats containing beets, the quality of light that filtered through the limed-glass windows, the flatness of the fields spread across the Salinas Valley.

When Johnson was 5 years old, the family moved to Salinas, and later, when his father became director of research for the company, they moved to Hillsborough, a wealthy San Francisco suburb. From his earliest memories, Johnson was interested in art. When he got into trouble for drawing on a wall at home, he began to sketch his cowboys and Indians on the undersides of chairs and tables so that they would go undetected.

He began college at Stanford University and spent his sophomore year in Italy. There, he developed a love for classical design that would influence his later work. When he returned, he transferred to UC Berkeley in search of an architecture program that he believed was more serious. He plowed through his junior and senior terms there in about a year. In the fall of 1973, he entered the Harvard Graduate School of Design. The school offered a master’s degree in three years, but Johnson persuaded the faculty to let him finish in 18 months.

The project on which his early graduation hinged was the design of a beach house. At the end of the 10-week session, with everyone’s work hanging on the walls, Johnson’s was the final project up for critiquing by the professor, Urs Gauchat. The professor studied it carefully before urging the class to study the project as the best of the student works.

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In 1975, Johnson came to Los Angeles, master’s degree in hand, and married his high school co-valedictorian, Bates, who was finishing medical school. He felt like an outsider: a Northern Californian in Los Angeles, a Berkeley and Harvard graduate in a town dominated by architects from USC and UCLA. After interviews with several big firms, he wound up working for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. The huge Chicago-based firm had a large office in San Francisco, but California’s economic center was already shifting to Los Angeles, and the firm wanted to grab a share. Dick Ciceri, a senior partner in San Francisco, had been sent south to open a new practice. He hired Johnson to help him. None of their proposals were built, and it was a frustrating year for the young architect. “They were interesting lessons in how to get told no,” Johnson says. At the end of a year, he asked to move to SOM’s San Francisco office. This time, Johnson’s frustration had a new focus: The world seemed too ordered, too compartmentalized.

As author Witold Rybczynski has noted: Watch a child play with blocks and you understand the appeal of architecture for most architects. Design is fun, and each project is a new challenge, which explains a good deal about why architects are willing to work long hours at less than top pay in insecure jobs. If the fun and the challenge are missing, so is much of the job’s appeal for many architects. Eighteen months later, Johnson fled the uniformity of SOM for a different world entirely.

After a round of interviews in New York, Johnson wound up working for Philip Johnson, whose AT&T; design had led to the younger architect’s departure from San Francisco in the first place. At the time, Philip Johnson was the leading proponent of postmodernism, but he was also renowned for his rapier-sharp wit and reputation as an enfant terrible , albeit an aging one.

In the shop of Philip Johnson and his longtime partner, John Burgee, Scott Johnson found no corporate memos and certainly no assembly lines of designers. He soon realized that the office operated this way by design: It allowed Philip Johnson to intervene on any project he chose, at any stage of the progress.

On his first day, Scott was handed a sheaf of papers--the conceptual drawings for the giant Dade County Cultural Center in Miami--by Philip Johnson. Execute it, Scott was told. Walking away, Philip Johnson casually added, “Oh yes, by the way, the local AIA (American Institute of Architects) is suing us.”

Scott Johnson soon discovered that he had been dropped into the middle of a political maelstrom, with the local AIA chapter claiming that the postmodern design for the cultural center mocked Miami’s native architecture. It was precisely the type of controversy that followed his boss everywhere he built in those days.

During the next five years, Scott Johnson worked on skyline-defining buildings such as Republic Bank Center in Houston, International Place in Boston and the Lipstick Building in Manhattan. It was satisfying work and deceptively simple. Every time a problem arose with a client, the matter was referred to Philip Johnson, who resolved it through the force of his personality and reputation.

Then, in the summer of 1983, Scott Johnson got a phone call from William Pereira in Los Angeles. Pereira was in the twilight of a grand career. His master plan for Irvine Ranch had landed him on the cover of Time magazine 20 years before. He had designed the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and dozens of other buildings around the world. But the firm, built around his own charisma and talent, was faltering as his health failed and his vision became dated. When the addition to the county art museum was proposed, Pereira was not even invited to submit a design. He was in search of new talent to keep the firm alive. So Pereira asked whether Johnson would be interested in the top design job.

If he accepted, Johnson knew he would be leaving a growing reputation and a secure spot with a top firm to start over. He viewed the growth of Los Angeles as nothing short of cancerous and worried about the city’s historical failure to support innovative architecture on a grand scale. He did not even admire many of Pereira’s buildings. Further, one of his Harvard classmates, Fain, had joined Pereira as a planner two years earlier and had cautioned Johnson that the firm was old and tired.

But here was an opportunity to escape from the shadow of Philip Johnson and strike out on his own. So, with the promise of control over the design process and a partnership in the near future, he took the chance.

Johnson was 32 when he arrived for work at Pereira Associates in 1983. He had barely unpacked when he confronted the two elements that would occupy him for the coming months: The good news was that a month earlier the firm had won the commission to design a skyscraper in Century City for wealthy oilman Marvin Davis, then the owner of 20th Century Fox. The bad news was that the firm seemed to be sinking faster than Johnson had been told. He was not sure the firm would stay in business long enough to finish Fox Plaza for Davis.

WILLIAM L. PEREIRA DIED ON NOV. 13, 1985. FOR MONTHS BEFORE, the firm had been in turmoil, partly centered on Pereira’s insistence that Johnson and Fain be made partners. The existing seven partners were reluctant to share control of the firm and the dwindling financial pie but recognized that the two newcomers had brought in most of the business that was keeping the firm alive.

When the partners finally and begrudgingly asked Johnson and Fain to join them, they got a surprising answer. Instead of swift yeses, the two young architects set a list of conditions. Half-facetiously, the young Turks dubbed the list “the 10 commandments.” Some of the demands were straightforward: An annual business plan should be instituted. Regional offices would be closed and all design done out of the central office. Preparations would be made to move into more affordable quarters. Most dramatically, benefits for all partners would be cut in half immediately and remain there until business improved.

Others were designed to concentrate power in the hands of Johnson and Fain. Johnson was already director of design, and Fain would be elevated to director of planning. All contacts with prospective clients would be handled through them.

Two of the seven partners resigned in a matter of weeks, and others fell by the wayside over the next two years. In private conversations, some former partners still complain about what they view as essentially a hostile takeover. Ruthless is a word that comes up.

Still, troubles remained. At one point, the firm came within days of insolvency. Another time, it allowed its errors-and-omissions insurance, akin to a doctor’s malpractice insurance, to slip to $2 million, despite contractual demands that it remain higher.

Yet, by the time Johnson’s Fox Plaza opened to acclaim in the fall of 1987, the firm had a string of major projects lined up: Rincon Center, an $85-million mixed-use project on San Francisco’s Embarcadero; the 20-story headquarters in Glendale for Carnation; a state-of-the-art winery in the Napa Valley for Robert Mondavi; planning for a major new community near Honolulu; designs for a new Otis Art Institute at L.A.'s MacArthur Park, and a skyscraper at 1999 Avenue of the Stars in Century City.

The second Century City commission reflected the strengths and nagging weaknesses at the firm. The developer, JMB Realty of Chicago, had watched Fox Plaza go up nearby and loved the design. But JMB was uncertain that the firm had the technical staff to handle all the details. “We were concerned about the firm’s ability to execute the design and do the management of the project,” says Steven Meixner, the JMB executive who oversaw the project. “So we put an unusual clause in the contract.”

JMB kept the option of taking the project to another architectural firm if Pereira Associates failed to make the critical transition from design documents to working documents. Meixner said it proved to be an unwarranted concern, and the project came off without a hitch.

The design feature that captured Meixner’s attention was Fox Plaza’s multifaceted skin, which seems to capture sunlight from various angles and makes the tower gleam. A couple other reviews were mixed. Critic Leon Whiteson complained in The Times that the building is “a brilliant but isolated act of architecture, with its ambiguous connection to its surroundings.” Whiteson found 1999 Avenue of the Stars a far better example of a building that’s integrated with its neighborhood.

Both skyscrapers are commercial successes. Fox Plaza, where former President Ronald Reagan has his office, has been sold by its developers for the highest per-square-foot price of any building in Los Angeles.

Since then, Johnson and Fain have beat out four other big firms to land a commission to design a $2-billion resort being carved from jungle on the island of Guam. The project, for a Japanese housing-development firm, involves 75 buildings and 2,000 housing units, requiring a blending of Johnson’s design skills with Fain’s master-planning expertise.

That combination recently landed a commission for another resort on Saipan. Those two projects alone will keep architects and planners in the office busy for five years. Indeed, the firm’s office hums with activity, despite an economic downturn that is mothballing developments of all types. About 75 architects and planners work amid the cubicles and computers, with drawings of a dozen projects tacked to the walls and foam study models sitting on tables and cabinets.

Atop one table are four possible models for the Ambassador Hotel site on Wilshire Boulevard, a controversial proposal by Donald Trump that is shrinking as his troubles expand. Elsewhere, a tabletop model of Warner Center shows Fain’s plans for developing three huge parcels of land in the emerging business center in the San Fernando Valley.

“Every Friday, Bill and I sit down and go through all the manpower and projections,” Johnson said recently as he sat behind the modern black desk in his corner office. “We keep thinking that six months out, there is going to be a falloff, but it hasn’t happened.”

On one side of Johnson’s neat desk is a stack of books about a number of architects, among them Frank Lloyd Wright, Johnson’s first architectural hero. Like Wright, Johnson is an enormously facile drawer. But the sketches that flow smoothly from his pen bear no resemblance to the late master’s clean-lined residences or the sweeping curves of his Guggenheim Museum in New York.

Rather, Johnson’s style is rooted in the classical architecture of Rome and the baroque geometries of beaux-arts . Johnson strives for monumentality and formality in his public buildings. And he will talk at length, nonstop and in perfect paragraphs, about the confluence of art, music and architecture.

Among his other heroes, Philip Johnson is perhaps predictable, though their buildings do not speak the same language. Less expected is Gehry, of whom Johnson says: “I admire his force of personality and his persistence. He wanted to turn the things we look at with our eyes on their ear.”

The private side of Johnson reflects his passion for art and his eclectic taste. When he and his wife were house hunting a few years ago, the criteria were tall ceilings, good light and lots of room for a still-growing collection of artworks by young California artists. The couple settled on a 1920s-era Spanish-style bungalow in Hancock Park, and Johnson has been altering its interior ever since. “It’s sort of an experimental place for me, and fortunately Meg puts up with it,” says Johnson about the airy house, which is filled with the toys of their two young children and furniture that Johnson designed.

While he is at ease discussing complex architectural problems or the latest chic restaurant, Johnson is more reticent talking about some aspects of his personal life. His family had been Mormons for generations, but he left the church in college and, because of that, did not speak to his father for several years. The break with Mormonism has contributed to Johnson’s sense of himself as an outsider, as did his years as a Californian at Harvard and in New York, and as a San Franciscan in Los Angeles.

ARCHITECTURE IS NOT for the faint of ego. But an architect who wants to build skyscrapers these days must learn to adapt to the needs of developers and the demands of public bodies. The days when the architect could simply hand down a design from a lofty studio have vanished.

Design-review boards are popping up across the country, and governments have finally come to understand that they can extract concessions from developers in exchange for granting them the right to earn megaprofits. Cities are demanding funds to improve mass transit, provide day care, replace destroyed housing and renovate landmarks.

“Twenty years ago, it was, ‘What can you do to get somebody to build downtown?’ ” recalls William G. Luddy, former president of the Los Angeles Planning Commission. “Now it’s, ‘What are you going to contribute to make it a great downtown?’ ” He worries that Los Angeles and other cities have gone too far in setting design standards. “I can tell you that you have got to wear a jacket and tie when you come to dinner,” he says. “I shouldn’t be able to pick the jacket and tie.”

Others say it’s high time that there were such controls, that the developers have run amok for too long and the city has been irresponsible in not corralling them. Monumental buildings were once the province of government and corporations seeking high-minded images. During the 1980s, these traditional patrons were replaced by real estate developers. Some of these new Medicis, such as Rob Maguire of Los Angeles and Houston’s Gerald Hines, are enlightened admirers of grand architecture. Others are interested only in what translates as the bottom line.

“Gerald Hines said good architecture is meaningful,” explains Rick Keating, who has worked with both Hines and Maguire. “Everybody else had to compete with him, and they learned that they have to ante up in terms of design and quality of materials to compete in the marketplace.”

During the same period, the concept of good design itself has evolved in a way that hems in the freewheeling nature of architects. No longer is the epitome of good taste the tall, narrow tower plunked down without relation to its neigh- borhood. In Los Angeles and elsewhere, there is a growing sense that architecture must be measured in broader terms.

According to USC’s Robert Harris, “There are really three ways to judge architecture: What objects look like, how they link with objects around them, and the inside of the places themselves--what they are like to work and live in.”

For example, while the Arco Center in downtown Los Angeles is an elegant example of late-modern architecture, it fails miserably when Harris’ second condition is applied. The twin buildings were designed to be self-supporting, purposely cut off from their neighbors. In much the same way, the development of Bunker Hill has been criticized as antisocial because it separates the wealthy residents at the top of the hill from the rest of downtown.

Better examples of linking buildings are the recent Citicorp Center, which ties in with the Seventh Market Place to enliven the surrounding area, and the intriguing ship-lighthouse relationship between the First Interstate World Center and the Gas Company building.

“The execution of architecture at the highest level, the most serious level, is no longer a solo performance,” Johnson says. “It is choreographic. It is an orchestral performance.”

These complexities were evident in the debate over the Los Angeles Center. Community activists expressed worry at a series of heated hearings about the destruction of residential neighborhoods. But Mayor Tom Bradley backed the project as a way of invigorating the west side of the freeway.

All of this means that Scott Johnson’s current job is much more complex than when he was designing pieces of big projects at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill or executing the concepts of Philip Johnson. To Scott Johnson, the Los Angeles Center project is a way for the private sector to accomplish what the public sector has failed to do in downtown Los Angeles. “We must not just enhance the site for the office workers and hotel guests but also draw the community into the site,” he says. “The goal is that everyone is better for it.”

If this is not the architecture of conscience or rebellion that prevailed in the 1960s, it is nevertheless a far cry from the anything-goes philosophies of the ‘70s and ‘80s, best exemplified by architectural projects in Houston, or perhaps those of downtown Los Angeles and parts of Manhattan. Architects and developers alike are learning that they have a stake in the quality of life where they are building.

In 12th-Century France, a convergence of cultural and political factors produced the Gothic cathedrals, magnificent symbols of a new prosperity. Whether we like it or not, today’s cathedrals are the soaring towers of glass and granite and concrete that are transforming the public spaces of America’s great cities. They, too, are the result of a convergence of culture and politics. If they are less monumental than Chartres, they are no less a window on the priorities of the age in which we live, no less a comment on the kind of city and life we want.

“There is no work of art in our culture that comes close to the potentiality of a building,” says Scott Johnson.


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