Dear Architecture Lovers,
When I moved to Los Angeles eight years ago, I lived in the area of Hollywood very close to West Hollywood. I remained in that neighborhood for the next seven years, until last year when I moved to Silver Lake to live in a condo overlooking the Silver Lake Reservoir with my boyfriend. Over the years I noticed West Hollywood started to explode with construction. That explosion has extended all over town, from the crazy expensive homes being built in Venice to the amazing (and insane) transformation of the Arts District downtown (which is literally nothing but bulldozers these days). Our city is transforming at an incredible speed, and I believe it’s on its way to finally being a world-class city and a worthy international destination (once we fix our terrible third-world airport).
All of this is great, but one thing I’ve been noticing over the years is how little regard city planners, developers, the general public, and even architects have for preserving any sense of the city’s rich architectural history. To drive around our city, you’d think that it was founded in the nineteen nineties (when in fact it’s officially been a city for over 160 years and obviously was populated way before that). We have a history as a city of tearing down buildings in favor of building something more contemporary. People here like “new.” And the problem with this is that it never allows our current architecture to gestate and become historic. With the danger of earthquakes present at all times here, it makes sense for people to be attracted to new construction (and thus buildings erected during stricter earthquake construction regulations), but there has to be a way to preserve buildings while renovating them to make them earthquake-safe.
To be honest, I kind of get it. My old building in Hollywood was from the nineteen fifties and I always felt like it would probably pancake me in an earthquake. Unfortunately, there is a huge incentive for the landlords that own many of the amazing mid-century apartment complexes scattered across the city to do as little as they possibly can to maintain them. To save money and do things cheaply, eventually leading the way to just tearing these buildings down and erecting something new and cheap, usually out of very inexpensive materials with a few bells and whistles (stainless steel, woohoo!) designed to trick buyers/renters into thinking the building is high end. A great example of this is the Dylan in West Hollywood, an apartment complex built from materials that are likely to age poorly in a style that was dated before construction ended.
If you ask people what their favorite cities are, most people will mention a city with a strong architectural history: Paris, San Francisco, New York, London, etcetera. I was lucky enough to visit Barcelona over the summer and the most amazing part of the whole trip was how well the city has preserved its amazing historic buildings. You can literally see history, decades and centuries, as you walk though the city and it’s an amazing feeling. It gives the city a sense of presence and importance. That people cared enough, over time, to preserve buildings and historic places. But for some reason people who love these historic cities have no problem tearing down fifty-year-old buildings in LA to make way for banal new constructions.
A great example of this disconnect comes with the new Gehry building being built on Sunset Boulevard (a block away from my old apartment):
No, they’re not building a Mickey’s Toontown next to my old apartment. But the first thing I thought of when I saw the Gehry design (on the left) was that crazy cartoon land at Disneyland. I actually really like the Gehry design but the reason I’m likening it to Mickey’s Toontown is that it is very much in the same vernacular, and that vernacular is strongly related to the architectural sensibility of the early nineties (Toontown was built in 1993, a few years before Gehry’s most famous curvaceous building was erected, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in 1997). That vernacular is dated. So basically my point is that this building quickly be dated once it’s built.
Which would be fine if developers weren’t tearing down a “dated” architectural gem to make way for the soon-to-be-dated Gehry erection. This is the building they will tear down for the Gehry development on Sunset:
I had a hard time finding a lot of current images, but the vintage images of it actually are better at showing what it would look like if it were restored:
I have a huge soft spot in my heart for zig-zag roofs (or really any distinctive architecture to be honest). So I might be a bit biased. But I believe this building is worth saving. Architectural styles can take a long time to come back, but I’m confident this building would (if allowed to stand) someday be cherished as an example of beautiful, archetypal mid-century architecture (it was built in 1960).
The site occupied by the zig-zag Chase Bank was previously the site of another lost piece of LA history, the Garden of Allah Hotel. I’m convinced if that hotel survived it would be as gorgeous as the much-treasured Chateau Marmont, which is just across the street and one of my favorite places to take out of towners to show them that, yes, Los Angeles does have some history. Maybe this site is cursed. Maybe Gehry will tear down this bank and then in twenty-five years another cocky architect will come along and tear down his Mickey’s Toontown. A better solution would be for Gehry to retool his design to include the bank (reports are they’ve already done this but haven’t released the renderings). My hope would be that in fifty years we can look at both buildings and see how they contrast with each other and showcase different periods of LA history.
Seeing the historical relevance of a building is more difficult the more recent it is. Such is the case with a building at 8500 Melrose Avenue. It’s one of the most hated buildings in LA and is one of my very favorites:
I know what you’re thinking. It’s hideous. A lot of people (most people) hate this building. It’s been maligned (in a rather bourgeois way) by Curbed and the discontent with the building can be tracked back to an early oughts LA Times Story. My theory is that it’s just too soon for people to appreciate this building. It’s too fresh in our collective memory to actually be able to see the historical importance of a building erected in 1985. But that doesn’t mean we should, as is planned, rip off its facade to turn it into something very NOW, which will be equally maligned in twenty years. This era of fast-fashion, and disposable interior design (think of all the inexpensive and, hence, disposable home decor products available at big box retailers these days) has led to an addiction to tearing down and starting over when light renovation (or even just a paint job) could be the better answer. This has deep ramifications for our environment and our cities’ architectural-cultural heritage.
One of the things that can make working with design clients difficult is that I often see what something could be, not what it is and explaining that can be challenging. So I’ll propose a tattered vintage sofa, knowing that I’ll get it recovered in sumptuous indigo velvet. And the client will see a tattered sofa. I, however, have the burden of seeing the sumptuous indigo velvet sofa and the responsibility to show the client what that would look like. The end result is always way better than if we’d just gone to a big box store and bought a ready-made, run-of-the-mill indigo sofa. I feel the same way about 8500 Melrose Avenue. When I look at this INSANE black-and-white building, I don’t see a building with faded red window frames, clunky typography on the signage, and a hideous entrance. I see what it could be. I see this:
This is a render I made showing simple, quick edits that could be done to this building to preserve its eighties character while making it less offensive to our today-eyes. What I love about this building is that it is distinctive and that it uses a classic pattern in a way we never see. I love black-and-white stripes. How often do you see them used on architecture? It would save so much labor, material, and natural resources to do minor edits on this building. The upside is that in 50 years, when we’ve had the space to truly appreciate eighties design, we’ll have something to remember it (and our city’s history) by.
Like with the Gehry complex, I actually like the design of the planned overhaul for this building. I do think, however, that it screams NOW and will thus be hated in twenty years. This type of boxy architecture has roots in high-end architecture, but has unfortunately been coopted by the mansionizing that has run rampant all over the city, but most pervasively in West Hollywood.
This type of building is relatively cheap because of the materials involved and it doesn’t age well (over time stucco sags and cracks and unlike other materials that can look better with age, this really only looks good brand new). Also, because it’s become so readily-available and widespread, it’s destined to become something that is commonly hated for its ubiquity. Thus, it’s my belief that in twenty years, the public is going to look at the renovated 8500 Melrose and scream, yet again, for it to be torn down.
Another soon-to-be lost space in Los Angeles is the Ricardo Legorreta-designed Pershing Square, which has already chosen French architecture firm Agence Ter for an overhaul. I can see why people hate this park. Firstly, there aren’t plants and there’s little shade. Second, the actual design of the space, with its purple tower and nineties geometry, is very challenging to the contemporary brain. It’s too soon to see the coolness in this park’s retro design. The park opened in 1994.
When I see the current design of Pershing Square, I don’t see a dated place. I see the type of Magritte-inspired surrealism that had a popular moment in the nineties, typified in the colorful (and insane) Robin Williams movie Toys:
This was a wonderful, playful time for architecture that gave us architecture stars like Michael Graves (who I think is totally under appreciated and whose buildings for The Disney Company I love). Here, are some GIFs that show the playful aesthetic of Toys:
I’m sure Legorretta’s Pershing Square felt very contemporary when it opened, but now it feels dated. And dated in a way that’s too close for us to actually appreciate.
The main issue with this park is that it’s not green enough and there’s not enough shade. Ideally, they’d just rip out a lot of that stone and put some green space for people to relax. Additionally, the colors of the spire and surrounding architecture could be updated pretty easily (people forget the wonders of paint!) to reflect current color trends (primary and secondary colors were all the rage in 1994). Maybe the city could save some of the $50 million estimated budget for the overhaul and dedicate it to services for the homeless, whose presence in the park is the number one detractor for people who want to go there and hang out. I’ve been to the park numerous times and the design of the space has never bothered me. Being harassed and pestered by panhandlers while I’m trying to relax has. I know that sounds a bit insensitive, but seems weird to be spending so much money on a park makeover when the real issue with the area has to do with the fact that so many Angelenos don’t have anywhere to live and congregate in parks like this. It’s not comfortable to have a picnic in a place that is, essentially, somebody’s home. It is my belief that most of the current structures could be allowed to stand and they could be updated and greened up to make the park a much more lush, comfortable place to be.
The design of Pershing Square is kooky, but it’s not unsaveable.
I guess my main overarching point here is that appreciating design and architecture from previous generations can be a challenge, but it’s worth the effort to create a city that will feel more dynamic and atmospheric. You have to separate yourself from so many parts of your own personal history to be able to truly see the beauty and history behind an old building or object. I’ve seen this even in dealing with my parents, who are much less interested in anything mid-century than I am because it reminds them of the stuff their parents thought was cool. Their relationship to that period of design is completely different than mine.
But that also shows that even a difference of 30 years can change someone’s perspective on a certain building, piece of furniture, etc. So instead of defaulting to tearing down buildings and replacing them with ones that feel “contemporary” and “now,” I’d advocate for always erring on the side of giving buildings a chance to become classics. To restoring rather than ripping down. You might not understand the beauty and importance of a more-recent older building, but in 30 years you may regret living in a city that continuously tears down its history, a city that did nothing preserve buildings from the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s because they didn’t seem historic at the time. In 50 years they could be a window into our history.
We seem to be in a cycle of mediocrity, where older buildings are being town down to build cheap new buildings that will not stand the test of time or durability. All this is doing is erasing any possibility we have of being a city with any sense of architectural history. Los Angeles, stop tearing down your history to erect buildings to erect buildings that will be torn down.
If you’d like to learn more about preservation in Los Angeles, check out the Los Angeles Conservancy, which has a listing of current historic buildings in danger and ways you can help.