If nothing else, the debate over the fate of the Century Plaza hotel is a reminder that there is no preservation controversy quite like a preservation controversy in Los Angeles.
In most American cities, examples of postwar modernism like the Century Plaza, designed by World Trade Center architect Minoru Yamasaki and completed in 1966, have trouble mustering support from the public when threatened by new development. They tend to be seen as products of an architectural era that had little respect for the past and replaced active street life with deserted, wind-swept plazas. Working to save them from the march of history can appear to be a contradictory or even paradoxical exercise.
In Los Angeles, though, more than a few modernist buildings are part of their neighborhood’s original architectural fabric. Nowhere is this more true than in the heart of Century City, a landscape of crisp, well-tailored office blocks and broad avenues laid out by Welton Becket and a talented group of collaborators in the early 1960s. The new district didn’t replace a tight-knit group of Victorians or apartment houses. It rose on 176 acres that had been part of 20th Century Fox’s sprawling back lot.
In that sense, the Century Plaza, a 19-story, 726-room hotel that traces a graceful arc along Avenue of the Stars, has a connection to place, context and planning history rare among buildings of its relatively young age. In its architecture as well as the way it takes advantage of the Century City plan, it is an unusually effective example of the attitude -- more optimistic than utopian, more Camelot than Stanley Kubrick -- that marked so much 1960s development in Los Angeles.
That is not the only reason the hotel is worth saving from a plan by developer Michael Rosenfeld to replace it with a $2-billion, mixed-use project designed by Harry Cobb, of the firm Pei Cobb Freed, and landscape architect Ken Smith. But it might be the most powerful.
It also gives a twist to the broader questions that attend any preservation debate, raising the complicated issue of whether it ever makes sense to protect not just discrete buildings but the planning values they embody.
In recent years, the Los Angeles City Planning Department -- spurred by requests from local property owners and City Councilman Jack Weiss, who represents Century City -- has been working to make Century City more walkable, chipping away at the original Becket plan’s monumentality and insistence on separating car traffic from pedestrians. In 2007, Bob Hale of the architecture and landscape firm Rios Clementi Hale Studios produced a new planning blueprint for the area called “The Greening of Century City.” Its streetscape elements have already been approved by the Planning Commission.
Rosenfeld, backed by the D.E. Shaw Group hedge fund, bought the hotel last year, paying $366.5 million. He unveiled the proposed design in December. In the months since, he has worked hard to make the case that the development, which would include not just a pair of slender, 50-story towers but extensive new landscaped areas open to the public at ground level, would accelerate the adoption of the “Greening” plan. In echoing those arguments, Cobb suggests that he and Ken Smith are producing what will instantly qualify as one of the signature open spaces in all of Southern California.
The goal, Cobb told me, “is a space that nobody coming to visit Los Angeles would want to miss. That’s the big idea here.”
In addition, Rosenfeld has been adamant that by hiring Cobb -- who designed the U.S. Bank Tower downtown and whose former partner, I.M. Pei, worked with Becket on the original Century City plan -- he has ensured that the new development will match the architectural achievement of the hotel. “We’re building a landmark for the future,” he said.
The debate over the Century Plaza, which the National Trust for Historic Preservation included last month in its annual list of the 11 “most endangered” buildings in the country, is hardly black and white. In fact, it layers gray area upon gray area, as the tangled relationships connecting Cobb, Pei and Becket suggest.
But on this pair of claims Rosenfeld and his architect have clearly overreached. The development’s open space, while ambitious, is not going to rival the beach, the Huntington Gardens or the view from the Griffith Observatory. Cobb’s new towers are likely be competent, unexciting presences in the skyline and little more.
More to the point, they would join other new towers along the West side of Avenue of the Stars in pushing Century City toward a more conventional future. In many ways that evolution is clearly positive. It is making Century City more accessible for pedestrians and cyclists. It is preparing the neighborhood for a growing residential population and for the potential arrival of a subway stop.
In other ways, however, what these recent developments add up to is the dismantling -- however well intentioned -- of Century City’s vivid appeal as an urban artifact. Detractors often call Century City placeless, but in truth it is among the purest representations of 1960s Los Angeles planning and architectural philosophy we have left. Any plan to prettify its outdoor spaces and break down its scale risks creating a muddle that is the worst of both worlds, particularly while we wait for the subway line to be extended: a district still largely unwalkable but newly unremarkable.
To be sure, Becket’s master plan hasn’t been fully intact in years. Nor has the smaller plan-within-a-plan that Yamasaki laid out in the center of Century City, connecting the crescent of his hotel to the pair of 44-story wedge-shaped office towers he designed directly to the east.
The ABC Entertainment Center, which once stood between the two Yamasaki sites, was torn down in 2002. It was later replaced by a horizontal office block designed by Gensler that holds offices for the Creative Artists talent agency, among other companies. The Gensler building is not a great piece of architecture, but it understands and responds to its peculiar context in ways that the “Greening” plan, with its agreeable, soft-focus aesthetic, the Rosenfeld-Cobb proposal and nearby new towers do not.
In the end, this is hardly a straightforward case of a developer seeking to replace a cold example of postwar modernism with thoughtful, pedestrian-friendly architecture. Yamasaki was far from a doctrinaire modernist, and by the time he designed the Century Plaza he had begun an effort to incorporate rounded forms and the hints of figuration that also found expression in the lower floors of the World Trade Center towers. Cobb’s proposal, to complicate matters further, is in some ways a descendant of the same towers-in-the-park formula -- first produced by Le Corbusier and other orthodox Modernists -- that helped inspire Becket’s Century City layout.
The National Trust, in consultation with the Los Angeles Conservancy, was right to go to bat for the Century Plaza. But the conversation should go a good deal further than the fate of one building. It should also include a broad discussion of the relative merits of Becket’s original plan for Century City and the new “Greening” proposal -- and whether, as we continue the tricky task of retrofitting the postwar Los Angeles landscape, they can be made more compatible.