Few architectural stories are as torturous as that of the former William Morris Agency headquarters in Beverly Hills. But that hasn’t stopped a good but compromised piece of architecture from rising in a prime location amid the Golden Triangle’s jumble of luxury, kitsch, and craziness.
Encouraged by the city of Beverly Hills, which was terrified of losing one of its most prized businesses, the prestigious Hollywood agency hired Gensler in the boom times of 2005 to design their ambitious new operating base. As was common in those faraway days, no expense was spared. The unrealized project was full of ambitious elements including an open, multi-story lobby and floating walkways. It was meant to scream to the world that William Morris meant business and—more to the point—could compete with rival CAA’s building in Century City, also designed by Gensler.
But a few years later the agency merged with entertainment giant Endeavor, and all bets were off. The agency first fired Gensler as the interior designer and started talking to Neil Denari. Then the infamous Ari Emmanuel—brother of Rahm and inspiration for Jeremy Piven’s character Ari Gold on the television show Entourage—decided he wanted nothing to do with a building that was designed for his former adversary. Today, the building is rented by penny-conscious MGM.
Out of the Darwinian rubble, Gensler has managed to create an urban intervention that is still worth talking about. The project is a 6-story, 192,000-square-foot building fronted by glass curtain walls. Of all the architectural moves, the most effective is the firm’s treatment of the envelope. To ensure that the massive building fit in with its smaller neighbors, Gensler decided to shift its top floors thirty feet south on Beverly Drive. The move opened up an effective new rooftop space to the north and a large overhang to the south (its underside clad with elegant Ipé). This maneuver not only solved the problem of scale, but it also gave the building a stronger identity among a sea of boring glass and stucco-clad buildings.
The courtyard, raised a story behind the building, is another highlight. Tables there have great views of the city and the mountains beyond, and the connection to the café inside is seamless. A thick lawn is in just the right place where it contrasts effectively with a wall of cleft-faced basalt—a great counterpoint to the glossiness of the main facade above.
To further identify the building and break down its mass, the architects effectively utilized a series of vertical metallic fins, while a series of colored glass windows are slightly less successful. The colored glass lends rhythm and a touch of splash, as with the firm’s JW Marriott-Ritz Carlton building at L.A. Live. Here however, Gensler gets a little carried away with the alternating blue and gray patterns. Emphasizing the innovative shifts in the envelope would be enough excitement. Nevertheless the building sits very well within its context. For its size it manages to blend seamlessly into its neighborhood of Jimmy Choo and Prada boutiques, not easy for an office building. The addition of retail on the first floor along the street, at some future point, will be another vital urban element.
Inside the results are a little more mixed. The lobby is scaled down significantly from the original design but still double height, which feels appropriate if less awesome. A grand staircase from the courtyard provides the all-important Hollywood entrance. A long, thin ramp without any handrails is another dramatic entry point from the street. But silver laminated wood feels a little too clinical, like an airport. Still the splashes of dark wood are elegant and welcome.
Inside, IA Interior Architects created a patchwork of cubicles for a space that feels luxurious but not groundbreaking. The one exception is the open glass stair on the northern end of the building, one of the remnants from the original design. The pebble and bamboo garden to the west provides some natural relief.
Gensler architect Li Wen described the strategic use of Ipé throughout, including the exterior, as an effort to introduce “warmth and sophistication.” It works. In fact, in spite of the obstacles and the problems, Gensler has created a strong building. It’s not the showpiece that William Morris once envisioned, but it’s a welcome addition in a city where notable architecture is in very short supply.