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ARCHITECTURE : Fox Plaza: It’s a Piece of Grandeur on the L.A. Skyline

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

It is hard to imagine that a speculative office tower could actually be a good building, but Fox Plaza is an exception.

This 34-story-high stack of lawyers’ offices and film company suites is one of the strongest, best-sited and most successfully proportioned buildings on the Los Angeles skyline. Standing slightly apart from the man-made mesa of Century City, orienting itself to the long western stretch of Olympic Boulevard and rising from a solid base to a shining crown, it is what a skyscraper should be, a 21st-Century version of a church spire standing out against the sky.

This is, of course, no religious building, nor is it transcendental architecture. It is an office building that happens to work in the landscape of the city.

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In many ways, architect Scott Johnson got lucky with this commission. He was given a site at the edge of Century City, on top of the bluff that becomes Cheviot Hills farther south. Here Olympic Boulevard deviates from its straight march east from West Los Angeles, curves and climbs the hill, giving the site a great deal of prominence.

Moreover, Johnson found himself in a situation in which his neighbors were undefined, as in the case of what has become the Marriott Hotel to the south, or were turned completely inward, such as the pricey condominiums to the east. Finally, his client wanted a signature building, a recognizable object that would also deliver the greatest number of corner offices possible.

Johnson’s solution was to make a symmetrical shaft, sheathed in alternating bands of glass and polished red granite. He then set the building back from its five-story base and split it in the middle of each face, inserting two diagonal bays.

At the top of the shaft, the building seems to defer to these sharp incisions. There, the facade splays apart to allow the knife-edged bays to rise higher, where they attach themselves to a crown of glass. This glimmering top is made smaller by setting it back on all sides, creating a faceted form that moves up to the building’s full height.

These moves are actually not as involved as they sound because they don’t really affect the overall mass of what is essentially a square building. But the skin games do manage to give the impression of a complicated geometry that emphasizes the verticality of the tower and dissolves it from a strong base to a light top.

The setbacks, combined with bands of granite that have been left unpolished, catch the light, creating strong shadows and contrast. They also make lots of corner offices.

It is as a singular object in the city that Fox Plaza works best. The building is placed on axis with the middle of Olympic Boulevard, so that it become a giant obelisk or column at the end of a grand avenue. The parking garage is tucked into the hill, giving you the impression of a kind of rampart protecting Century City.

Up close, Johnson’s penchant for grandeur gets the best of him, what with a circular motor court lined with palm trees and a lobby that looks like a pharaoh’s tomb.

But on the scale of the city (and by now, thanks to the movie “Die Hard,” on the scale of our cultural identity), Fox Plaza is a wonderful abstract object, a self-conscious piece of grandeur rising up out of the mediocrity of the built environment around it.


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