Pleasing Undulations Where Standard Box Is the Norm


With a sweep and a curve, the Manufacturers Bank in Beverly Hills catches the complicated forms of downtown Beverly Hills in its soft undulations, smoothes them and envelops them in curvaceous lines. Rising from a narrow, triangular site, it billows, furls and turns its corner with all the grace of a ballerina. It's too bad that it is not an ethereal entity, but a black-clad office building.

Everything that is right about the Manufacturers Bank exists at the level of the city. Architect Tony Lumsden, who designed this 13-story building for the firm of Daniel, Mann, Johnson, and Mendenhall, responded with great subtlety to the confusion that occurs where the curves of Beverly Hills meet the energy of Wilshire Boulevard. He could have built a box as a bulwark against the resulting clash of forms (as Craig Ellwood did for Security Pacific Bank just down the street), or broken the situation down to a block that filled out the site, leaving an abstract object to rise, free and pure, from that base. Instead, he let his building merely absorb all the angles and smooth them out into waves of black glass.

There is only one curve that is repeated on two sides of the triangular building, but it looks different from every angle. Seen from Roxbury Drive, the waves of glass seem to gather strength until they rise up into a final surge that turns out to be a tower announcing the building up and down Wilshire Boulevard. The glass curves then slowly revert to their undulations, thus providing the busy boulevard with a moment of elegant rhythm. From afar, the curves collapse into a wavy, strangely alluring sign that has none of the specificity and harshness of most of its neighbors.

These associations rise up out of the abstract shapes as if Lumsden were waving his baton over the site. The design works in this way because Lumsden and the other "silvers" of the 1970s (this building was finished in 1973) stayed away from both historical forms (no columns or capitals on this bank) and modern absolutes. Instead, they offered enigmatic monuments to modern technology that posed a question of scale, texture and color. High-tech and yet tied to some unseen rhythm, buildings such as the Pacific Design Center (which Lumsden's former associate Cesar Pelli designed at the same time) were big and beautiful, even if you never knew exactly why.

The question of what this thing really is becomes troublesome. Walk by the Manufacturers Bank, and all you get is chocolate-colored, semitransparent sheets rising up from the street on which only a lonely little triangle of peonies dares grow. This Darth Vader-like solemnity is reinforced by the lack of entrances, the exaggerated profiles of the mullions, and the dark louvers on the first few floors that reveal the reality of five floors of parking lurking behind this glass ball gown.

The worst parts of the Manufacturers Bank are

the points where the bravura gesture of the building has to confront the reality of human scale, as when the curves flatten out on Roxbury to contain the parking entrance in a banal grid of glass panels, or when the mechanical systems pop out as a little bustle suspended over the loading dock.

I would try to drive by this building as fast as Beverly Hills traffic allows you--not to avoid it, but to get the full effect. The secret of silver architecture, I suspect, is that you see it in and as motion, as a sign of something more solid that just happens to be anchored to the rather prosaic task of being a bank building. If pigs could fly and buildings could be free, this would be a truly great building.

* Manufacturers Bank Building: Wilshire Boulevard and Roxbury Drive, Beverly Hills

* Architect: Tony Lumsden

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