From the Vaults

TIMES ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

Controversy is not exactly a word that makes Disney executives cackle with joy. So it's no surprise that, under the 17-year tenure of Michael Eisner, the company has become one of the country's most important patrons of a fuzzy classical architecture.

At the Burbank campus alone, there are major buildings by the Three Kings of Postmodern irony--Michael Graves, Robert Venturi and Robert A.M. Stern. Now Disney has added a fourth: a new corporate headquarters for Disney-subsidiary ABC, designed by the late Aldo Rossi and Morris Adjmi.

It would seem a perfect fit. Rossi, who died in a 1997 car accident, was Postmodernism's most nimble thinker and, for a brief time during the 1970s, a potent designer who created such memorable buildings as a floating theater in Venice, Italy. The ABC building is his only Los Angeles work and, built with a $95-million budget, one of his highest-profile commissions.

But if Disney and ABC expected a fairy-tale building, they've been duped. Unlike his American counterparts, Rossi was never interested in simply recycling historical styles. He saw his buildings as repositories for the collective memory of a city. The best of them--strong, geometric forms stripped of decorative flourishes--are marked by a remarkable beauty. The worst were cute, grown-up imitations of toy-block constructions. The ABC building lies somewhere in between. Its simple, pumped-up forms give it a haunting presence, but the ghosts the building evokes would make Mickey Mouse's knees buckle: the neoclassical Stalinist monuments that were one of the architect's most unusual inspirations.

Rossi's reputation as a major design talent began in 1979, with the gorgeous Theatro del Mondo he designed for the Venice Biennale. The theater was moored in the lagoon on a barge, and its simple, wooden form--topped with a pitched roof and gold finial--seemed to capture the essence of the watery city. Bobbing softly in the dark water, it was like a beautiful apparition from a dreamy, subconscious world.

Later works addressed similar themes more directly. At the San Cataldo Cemetery in Modena, Italy, the enormous, cube-shaped ossuary and smokestack-like cone that houses the communal graveyard recalled elements of a deserted house, as if the intent were to blur the distinction between life and death.

By the late 1980s, however, Rossi seemed to be losing his imaginative powers. Typical of his work from those years is the amphitheater he designed in Toronto in 1988, which was anchored at one end by a pastiche of faux facades and at the other by a silly red-and-white striped lighthouse tower. Similarly, in the 1991 Disney Development Co. offices in Orlando, Fla., three dull office blocks are placed around a plaza with a stumpy phallus set slightly off-center.

It may have been that Rossi's ideas became clouded by the pretentious excesses of Postmodernism in general. In 1980, the popularity of Postmodernism was at its height. By the end of the decade, the movement was fading into oblivion, increasingly identified with the ironic posturing of questionable talents like Graves.

Whatever the case, the ABC building recaptures some of Rossi's early vigor. It is not a great building, but there are enough ideas here to spark the imagination.

The building can be roughly divided into three parts that extend along Riverside Drive: The main entry cube; the building's 10-story, factory-like core; and the tower that rises along the 134 Freeway, capped by a decorative, Art Deco-inspired lantern and the ABC logo.

The best view of the building is from a car. As you approach it traveling east along the freeway, its stoic, pale facade suddenly looms over you, a monument from a dead world. Rossi was unapologetic about his admiration for the "great architecture of the Stalinist period" in Russia, and that's evident here. The building's bulky form, stepped-back facade and decorative crown vaguely recall the heroic neoclassical flourishes of L. Rudnev's designs for Moscow University, a Rossi favorite.

Other references surface. As you cruise along the side of the building, its heavy base and massive, vertical girders recall the gargantuan structures depicted in the Futurist paintings of Antonio Sant'Elia. The huge gridded panes of glass, meanwhile, are lifted from the factory sheds that were icons of early 20th century modernity.

The effect is a lingering sense of melancholy. The heavy proportions of Rossi's structure give it the look of a big, churning machine. Even the freeway--seen from that perspective--looks like a grim assembly line, with rows of identical cars spewing toxic fumes.

Not every moment seems so glum. Seen from the main entry lot off Riverside Drive, the building has a more humble scale. Narrow, truncated arcades--fragments of the covered Italian sidewalks that link Turin's historic core--frame the entry on either side. Inside, a long corridor leads to the security desk. Thick columns line the corridor on either side, with heavy beams spanning above. These faux structural elements are slightly overscaled, as if to exaggerate the tremendous force bearing down on them. (In fact, they are decorative.)

The repetition of the wood columns and the purity of their forms may bring to mind the fascist architecture of the 1930s. But Rossi's sense of proportion is too sensitive to fall into that trap. The columns relate closely to the scale of the human body, forging a visible link between the individual and the long march of history. In an instant, Rossi has given ABC both a human face and a historical past.

And that is where the architecture stops. Inside, the building is strictly conventional: cubicles and corner offices, lots of light, nice materials. But the design isn't about office space. It is about creating aura. That aura is European rather than American; it is an expression of the heaviness of history rather than the lightness of the future. Above all, it is the aura of the exhausted creative soul.

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