OF THE three buildings that make up architect Welton Becket’s original Music Center on Bunker Hill -- the Ahmanson Theatre, the Mark Taper Forum and the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion -- it is the smallest of the group, the Taper, that can make the most credible claim to true landmark status. The decorated drum of a design, its exterior wrapped in a lacy precast relief by Jacques Overhoff, is among the most finely detailed and conceptually coherent buildings of Becket’s long and varied career, during which his firm seeded Los Angeles with a number of its most recognizable pieces of architecture: the Capitol Records tower, the Beverly Hilton, the Theme Building at LAX (with William Pereira, Charles Luckman and Paul Williams) and the Equitable tower on Wilshire Boulevard, among countless others.
A $30-million renovation of the Taper, led by the L.A. firm Rios Clementi Hale Studios and due to be unveiled this morning, confirms as well as complicates that sturdy reputation. In replacing the 41-year-old theater’s outdated mechanical systems and in helping reframe the most memorable aspects of the original design, including the curving, glinting abalone wall by Tony Duquette in the lobby, the architects have managed to make the building’s architectural value seem unimpeachable -- something that can’t be said with the same confidence about the Chandler, which awaits a renovation that won’t begin until at least 2012, or the Ahmanson, which was updated in 1995. Charles Moore may have playfully described Becket’s design for the Music Center as “Late Imperial Depression-Style cake,” but the Taper, for its part, looks as fresh and relevant as it has in years.
Regular patrons of the Center Theatre Group, which encompasses the Taper as well as the Ahmanson and the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, will notice the improvements straightaway, particularly the roomier main lobby, which was enlarged in part by shrinking the ticket booth and moving the bathrooms below ground, and the wider individual seats. The total capacity has been reduced slightly, from 745 to 739.
The theater’s spaces for pre-show and intermission mingling, which had seemed punitively small, now have substantial breathing room.
At the same time, in those areas where the architects have taken a freer rein -- notably in a new below-ground lounge decorated in a style that might be called Disco Revival, with bathrooms to match -- the gaudy results are noticeably at odds with Becket’s design vocabulary, which in his best designs was fully urbane, more Kennedys than Don Cornelius, more " Mad Men” than " Swingtown.” That clash of sensibilities raises questions about the broader effort to update the Music Center -- particularly whether it should be driven by the restrained mores of historical preservation or a desire to make the Center “contemporary,” that loaded adjective.
You may wonder, for instance, why the Music Center and CTG -- which worked in tandem to raise the money for the yearlong renovation -- would agree to parcel out valuable funds to build the swanky bomb-shelter lounge while failing to restore two of the Taper’s four plaza-level reflecting pools or to expose the gently curving lower portion of its facade where it faces the Ahmanson. The answer lies in the fact that the Taper’s interior is the domain of CTG, which can make a case that the lounge will not only please its subscribers but help its bottom line. There is no such obvious constituency for the reflecting pools.
In either case -- whether the goal here was delicate preservation or bolder update -- Rios Clementi Hale was an odd choice for the Taper commission. The firm certainly knows its way around the neighborhood: It has been working with the Music Center to study possible updates to the plaza and the center’s frontage along Grand Avenue. Last year, it won the job of designing the new Civic Park just down the hill for the Grand Avenue Committee and the developer Related Cos.
But the firm is not known for preservation work. More to the point, its practice is based on a multi-pronged, multidisciplinary approach, producing everything from master plans to dinnerware, that echoes the famed “total design” strategy of Welton Becket & Associates.
Becket’s concept of total design was a distant relative of Richard Wagner’s gesamtkunstwerk, or “total work of art,” but flattened and made salable for postwar corporate America. The one practiced by Rios Clementi Hale, while it flows from a thoughtful take on the history of L.A. architecture, is more playful; it comes together most productively in the California Endowment headquarters near Union Station, for which the firm designed a colorful campus of interconnected wings and garden.
It’s a nice coincidence of architectural history, you could argue, that Rios Clementi Hale’s design approach is as comprehensive as Becket’s. But squeezing two different “total” visions inside a single building, particularly one as cramped as the Taper, is a recipe for aesthetic overload. The task is complicated by the fact that the Taper is one of the few Becket projects that gives so much of its prime architectural real estate -- the exterior relief and the abalone wall, in particular -- over to other design visions.
Where Becket once graciously made room for Duquette, he is now also ceding ground to Rios Clementi Hale. As a result, there is metal-mesh drapery in the lobby. There are curved banquettes straining against their gold upholstery in the lounge. There are zebrawood panels flanking the stage.
Still, those cosmetic changes will matter less to most Taper regulars -- who will begin getting a look at the renovated theater on Aug. 30, date of the first preview of John Guare’s “The House of Blue Leaves” -- than the physical and technical upgrades to the building itself. They will probably pay more attention to the wider seats and bigger lobby and the fact that the entrance is now on grade with the plaza. That reconfigured front door, along with a sleek new elevator, is one of several attempts to make the Taper more easily navigable for aging or disabled patrons.
At first that effort seems at odds with the architects’ desire to infuse the theater with colorful, mirrored-glass, youthful verve. Then you realize: The same audience segment nostalgic for the nightclub culture brought to life by the new underground lounge is also just few years away from hip replacements and other ailments that will make them very glad, as the years go on, to attend a theater without an excessive number of stairs.
Baby boomers, take note: The new Mark Taper Forum is ready, comfortably in advance of your senescence.