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TYPE A SPACES

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Christopher Hawthorne is the architecture critic of The Times. Contact him at christopher.hawthorne@latimes.com.

One afternoon earlier this year, architect Neil Denari met me in the cloud-white lobby of his best-known Southern California design: the Endeavor talent agency in Beverly Hills, which was completed in 2004. Talent agencies typically hire architects to reinforce their reputations as places in Hollywood where careers are shaped and deals are packaged--where power is consolidated. The resulting buildings are almost always streamlined, conservative and a bit imposing: the architectural version of the agent’s neatly pressed dark suit. Endeavor, though, which was founded in 1995 by four defectors from International Creative Management--including Ari Emanuel, the model for the manic Ari Gold character on the HBO series “Entourage”--wanted something with more verve. Denari produced a series of remarkably fluid spaces, beginning with an entrance area that opens directly onto Camden Drive and is decorated with gigantic eyeballs and other oversized graphics by the New York design firm 2x4. A blood-red screening room occupies the rear. Upstairs, a third-floor reception area is wrapped in glass and connected to offices above by a dramatic staircase.

Toward the end of our tour, Denari took me over to meet Emanuel. He was sitting behind the desk in his corner office, which has seven flat-screen televisions on the concrete wall, each one tuned to a different channel. He saw the architect and jumped to his feet. He told Denari he’d heard how busy his firm was, designing buildings around the world, and claimed credit for turning him into a big name.

“I want 10% of everything!” he said.

I told Emanuel I was working on a story about the architecture of talent agencies--in particular, the new Creative Artists Agency building in Century City. He grinned.

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“I heard CAA is trying for some . . . white-leather, Gucci-style, 1970s grandeur over there,” he said, plucking a gumball from a tiny machine sitting on a nearby shelf and popping it into his mouth. “When we hired Neil, we wanted the design to be about attack mode. Attack, attack, attack! CAA is different--they want to protect, protect, protect.”

Emanuel asked if I’d seen the new CAA offices yet.

“Sort of,” I said.

About a month earlier, I’d driven to those offices to meet Gene Watanabe, a principal in the local office of Gensler. A huge global architecture firm that remains little known by the general public, Gensler had pulled off a surprising coup in this case. First, it was hired by a local developer, Trammell Crow, to design a $400-million office building on Avenue of the Stars, replacing the old ABC Entertainment Center and the Shubert Theatre.

CAA, which was looking to move out of its famous Beverly Hills headquarters for reasons of space and psychology, decided to lease about a third of the building, or 240,000 square feet, on eight floors. (Though it holds several other companies, the entire structure immediately became known as “the CAA building.”) The agency then hired Gensler’s highly successful interiors division to customize its wing, with room for about 700 employees, including 300 agents.

The result--Gensler on Gensler--is an anomaly in an age of celebrity design, when museums, real estate developers and professional sports franchises hire famous architects to give their projects extra buzz. And it turned out that was just the beginning. Gensler went on to land commissions from two of CAA’s closest competitors: ICM and the William Morris Agency. ICM joined CAA in Century City earlier this year, taking four floors in the MGM Tower. William Morris is planning a six-story headquarters in Beverly Hills, with shops and restaurants at its base, that it says should be complete in about two years.

In Hollywood circles, the news that both CAA and ICM were leaving for Century City was, from the beginning, fodder for plenty of gossip. Much of it had to do with food--in particular, where agents would eat lunch now that they couldn’t walk to The Grill or Mr. Chow. But Century City is only a mile and a half from the heart of Beverly Hills: In the sprawling geography of Southern California, the two cities might as well be on the same block. And many in Hollywood forget that CAA already had a stint in Century City, in the 1970s and ‘80s, on the 14th floor of the Tiger International Building. More fascinating is that three of the top agencies in town, agencies that are hyper-competitive with one another, all hired the same corporate architecture firm.

Watanabe met me outside the CAA building, which has a dramatic 100-foot-wide opening between its two 12-story wings and is long enough, as it stretches along Avenue of the Stars, to resemble a skyscraper tipped on its side. He took me through the soaring main lobby and into the separate CAA entry, where he pointed out the wall of white, rough-hewn Carrara marble that extends onto the sidewalk. We took a few steps into a larger atrium space, which offers views across a sloping lawn of Minoru Yamasaki’s 1974 Century Plaza Towers. Then we stopped. “I just want to let them know we’re here,” Watanabe said. Pulling out his cellphone, he excused himself. He came back a minute later. “I’m afraid this is as far as we’re going to go today,” he said.

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It would be several weeks, and dozens of e-mails and phone calls, before I’d be allowed to break through the circle of CAA gatekeepers and walk upstairs to see the offices themselves.

Whoever the architect, there are few commissions as psychologically complex, or as full of layered meaning, as a talent agency headquarters. Talent agencies are in the business of shaping perception and image, and nowhere is this more directly expressed than in their offices. An agency building has to be both a background and foreground design. It needs to look immovable as well as contemporary, suggesting both stability and forward motion. It must operate as a protector of ideas and as a generator of them. Imagine a bank crossed with the offices of a fashion magazine.

The pressure that this complexity produces for an architect is substantial, and it extends to even the most seemingly banal parts of the design. An architect hired to design the interior of a law firm, say, can arrange a few rows of cubicles outside the lawyers’ offices and move on. Legal secretaries, after all, don’t become partners. Neither do paralegals. The hierarchy there is fixed. But in the agency world, assistants become agents. Actually, in a progression that has become a sort of entertainment industry stations of the cross, it starts well before that: Mailroom clerks become agents’ assistants, who become agents, who become industry power brokers. Not unlike the military, the agency business relies on its reputation as a punishing meritocracy, a place where rank and opportunity manage a tense but productive coexistence.

That means the architectural divisions between the agency’s various job levels must be clearly separate but also fluid, at least symbolically. When you’re sitting at a desk as an assistant, making an endless number of phone calls every day, each one reinforcing your place in the pecking order, it makes a crucial difference if you have some generous visual or physical connection to the spacious realm of the agent that you hope to occupy someday. Of course, agents themselves like to have their assistants close by so they can easily bark orders at them or signal them to politely usher out a visitor who has overstayed his welcome. The result almost always is a perversely close relationship between big, private office and small, exposed desk or cubicle.

For nearly 20 years, I.M. Pei’s CAA headquarters, at the corner of Wilshire and Santa Monica boulevards in Beverly Hills, was the singular icon of that approach to agency architecture. The building is one of the few centers of Hollywood power that is also an architectural landmark. Commissioned by CAA Chairman Michael Ovitz in the mid-’80s designed by Pei at the height of the architect’s fame and influence, it features a soaring atrium dominated by a giant Roy Lichtenstein painting and lined with enough marble to make a mausoleum envious. In its scale and material palette, and in the layout of its individual offices, the building was designed to attach importance and stature to the firm’s clients through a kind of architectural osmosis.

While I waited for permission to return to CAA, I visited a few of its competitors. I spent a couple of hours one sunny afternoon at Paradigm, which occupies the old MCA building in Beverly Hills, a handsome neoclassical prewar design by Paul Williams. A few weeks later, I went to see the new Gensler-designed ICM offices in Century City’s MGM Tower. Like CAA, ICM has a dedicated reception area at ground level: A large, Vegas-style foyer leads in one direction to the elevators and a pair of screening rooms, and in the other to a private patio where ICM can hold evening events. I met ICM Chairman Jeff Berg in his ninth-floor office, where he told me that he found little appeal in using the offices to make a bold architectural statement. “I think at a certain point you become too self-referential. You run into yourself. We were more interested in using the design to change the dynamic of the work environment here. We wanted more openness, more sunlight. In our old offices, the assistants were out of range. Here we have a whole new sense of teamwork.”

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William Morris, for its part, is planning its move to a striking new building by Gensler in the heart of Beverly Hills. It will be a showcase for green architecture, with recycled materials and energy-efficient water and lighting systems. (Full disclosure: I am represented by a literary agent in William Morris’ New York office.) Jim Wiatt, the agency’s chief executive, told me in a phone interview that although he, too, hadn’t yet been inside the new CAA building, “ours will have a different feel. The interiors will not be trendy. We wanted to do something--well, if it’s cutting edge, it’s going to be environmentally cutting edge. We want to make a statement not only that we’re a good corporate citizen, but also that this is an important thing to do.”

Of course, the move toward green also is a strategic one for Wiatt, whose wife, Elizabeth, sits on the board of the Natural Resources Defense Council. There is a whole group of highly talented and bankable young actors in Hollywood--among them Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt and Orlando Bloom--with a dedicated interest in environmentalism and green architecture.

CAA makes a rather showy point of keeping itself at arm’s length from the press. Its top executives deal with magazine and newspaper reporters all the time, but they prefer to work behind the scenes to package coverage in the same way they package movie deals. When they are approached cold by a journalist they don’t know, as in my case, they almost always decline to cooperate. The idea, as with the Vatican, is to conflate absolute secrecy with absolute power. But finally, after weeks of back and forth, the word came from the agency’s PR offices: Bryan Lourd, one of the agency’s managing partners, would give me a full tour.

We met in the lobby of the new building and then walked outside to have a look from the sidewalk. “We didn’t want our new space to be too grand in some futuristic way,” Lourd said. “We’re actually pretty simple in our tastes. More than anything, our clients look to us to be a rock.”

By rock, he meant something reliably solid, obviously--something unyielding. But the shimmering piece of architecture looming above us suggested another fairly obvious interpretation: rock in the diamond ring sense, a shiny, chiseled object of desire. As he led the way inside, I asked Lourd, who joined CAA in 1988, about working in the I.M. Pei offices.

“That building was designed to intimidate,” he said. “And they”--meaning Michael Ovitz and his CAA partners, Ron Meyer and Bill Haber--”were proud that it made people uncomfortable. But for me, as a young agent, as somebody who was just joining the company, it freaked me out.”

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By that point, Lourd and I had reached the middle of the lobby, the spot where Gene Watanabe had paused to make that cellphone call. To the right, I noticed again that a dramatic marble staircase rises beneath a circular skylight. The composition appears to be a riff on the lobby Pei designed for Ovitz and his partners, which also is bathed in light from a huge skylight directly above. The reference struck me as impossible to miss, but Lourd claimed that the inspiration was more personal.

“I’m from the South, and I love the old federal buildings,” he said. “They always have a grand stair like that.”

Above the lobby lies a large, open lounge where agents can meet clients for an espresso in the morning or a drink at the end of the day. From there, they can step onto a broad terrace or walk toward an open vertical core, the architectural heart of the office. Seven stories high, it has an open staircase on one side, set against a dramatic wall of light panels that change color, with elevators on the other.

Though Lourd said the office layout was the result of intense research, the sense of hierarchy is as architecturally clear at CAA as in any of its rivals. Agents’ offices line the exterior, with junior agents relegated to windowless spaces toward the building’s center.

The assistants’ workstations have sleek storage areas to hang coats and tuck away bags and purses. The overriding aesthetic sense is one of creativity neatly and expensively packaged. The materials are luxurious: granite and marble in the lobby, mohair upholstery in the screening room and, yes, white leather on the chairs that are grouped together on each office-floor landing, creating informal, impromptu meeting areas.

CAA also has an impressive array of artwork on display--about 300 pieces in all--occupying the same slot on each floor. The paintings are not allowed to stray from their places. “We think of the building as a museum,” Lourd told me. “And our clients’ ideas are the art.”

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If you were looking for a Hollywood comparison, you might call Gensler the Ron Howard of architecture firms. It is supremely well-established, reliable and happy to stay out of the headlines. Gensler designed the hotel and condo tower now under construction at L.A. Live, in downtown Los Angeles, and often works in tandem on large projects with famous high-design architects, content to take second billing on a lucrative commission.

Agents spend a substantial portion of their time accommodating the whims and desires of their clients. It’s hardly surprising that when it comes to picking architects they tend to prefer those willing to take direction. And in a number of ways the present moment in Hollywood is perfectly suited to Gensler. For the most part, agencies have hired innovative or famous architects when they want to change the rules of the business. That was true for CAA when it chose Pei and Endeavor when it picked Denari, as different as those designs turned out to be.

Right now it’s hard to find any agency that wants to change the rules of the business. The rules are changing quite well on their own, and faster than most people in Hollywood would like. The transition to digital entertainment is not only the root cause of this year’s writers strike but arguably the biggest shift the entertainment world has had to negotiate since the end of vaudeville and the beginning of movies. All the big agencies are moving aggressively outside of Hollywood to court athletes and other talent, which has been a source of growth but also further destabilization.

In the last decade or so, there also has been a remarkable consolidation in the architecture profession. The most famous and the most progressive architects in the world are now, for the most part, one and the same. The group includes Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, the Swiss duo Herzog and de Meuron, Thom Mayne, Rem Koolhaas and Daniel Libeskind. All enjoy global celebrity, and all practice architecture that is dynamic and expressionistic, sometimes thrillingly so. Although there are exceptions to this rule--Renzo Piano, say, or certain Japanese stars--a decision to hire an architect as famous today as Pei was two decades ago usually means embracing a style that is fragmented or shape-shifting or looks deliberately unstable.

Even in flush, optimistic eras, talent agencies are not keen to brand themselves as any of those things. Every Hollywood agent can trace his or her lineage back to William Morris himself and the men who extended the brand of the Morris office in the early part of the 20th century. Men such as Abe Lastfogel, the Morris stalwart who, as Frank Rose writes in his book “The Agency,” thought agents should follow one rule: “Stay in the background [and] let the client draw the spotlight.”

It could be Gensler’s motto as well.

Of course, as Bryan Lourd’s comments about the new CAA building make clear, things are never that simple. The most talented and ambitious agents, especially in the post-Ovitz era, make a great fuss of moving their clients into the spotlight while actually positioning themselves there. The architecture of agencies, as a result, will always reflect deep ambivalence about change and self-promotion. If Gehry-style instability isn’t an appropriate architectural theme for a top agency, neither is a sense of calm or repose.

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And although they practice a kind of knives-out competitiveness, agencies are competitive within an exceedingly narrow range. Indeed, the new CAA building, a spec office project by a corporate firm, essentially is a generic--if bigger and shinier--version of the old CAA building, a bespoke design by a world-famous architect. Inside and out, it suggests every bit of the imperious cool that Pei’s principal client was always known for.

Oedipal metaphors have long attached themselves to the agency business; they seem particularly appropriate in the case of CAA’s architectural transition. The firm’s attempts to bury its connections to the Ovitz era suggest that while you can kill your own father, as you get older you’re probably going to wind up looking and acting just like him anyway. You get rid of him to make room for the new version: You.

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