The uneasy alliance of architecture and urbanism is put to the test near the corner of San Vicente Boulevard and Melrose Avenue in West Hollywood. The looming presence of the Pacific Design Center (PDC) has long monopolized attention, still more so with the addition of the nearly completed Red Building, which completes the trio of sleek glass forms that Cesar Pelli first conceived more than 40 years ago. Directly opposite is West Hollywood Park, a civic venture masterplanned by Johnson Favaro, whose new library opened last year. The goal is to enlarge the park to five acres by relocating the adjacent pool and gym to a site behind the library. The Red Building—and the PDC at large— steals the limelight with its bold and expressive architecture. But from an urban perspective, the PDC is as unwelcoming as any corporate complex, and its landscaped plaza sees little public use. Even the satellite gallery of MOCA is sparsely attended. In contrast, the modestly scaled buildings across the street are intensively used and better respond to the needs of the community.
This juxtaposition of private and public, overwhelming and reticent, is a textbook case of how and how not to embed a development in a community. PDC was conceived as a glamorous and important alternative to the wholesale design showrooms of other cities, which were located in warehouses on the wrong side of the tracks. It was to do for design what the Music Center downtown was to do for the arts: create a detached temple for initiates. The Blue Whale, which opened in 1975, is a hermetically sealed, windowless glass container for showrooms, accessible only to the trade. Within, it feels labyrinthine and claustrophobic, cut off from natural light and fresh air, and from the bustle of the streets. Once a year it comes alive for Westweek; at other times it appears deserted.
The Green Building was added in 1988, by which time the original program was exhausting its appeal. Herman Miller, Knoll, Vitra, Steelcase, and other contract firms moved to stand-alone showrooms. The Green Building was later converted to offices. The long-delayed Red Building was rethought by Pelli and Gruen Associates. They narrowed the section, incorporated bands of clear glass into the sleek facade, located parking in the lower stories, and placed offices in two elliptical wedges to either side of an elevated courtyard. But the building doesn’t help connect the complex to its community. Cars are ushered deep into the complex, never to be seen again. Still, in contrast to its siblings, the Red Building’s interiors are infused with light and command sweeping views, and the structure’s tapered prow and daring cantilever minimize its bulk and make its fifteen stories a more acceptable neighbor for the two-story houses and shops beyond. It’s also a triumph of engineering and glass fabrication.
Across La Cienega Boulevard, in designing a replacement for the cramped 1960s library that previously occupied the park, Johnson Favaro were challenged to provide greatly expanded facilities on a small footprint and to establish a dialogue with the street and the PDC. “This is an important civic building that will last a long time and we didn’t want it to be dwarfed by the gigantic furniture store across the street,” said Johnson Favaro principal James Favaro. “There’s a cacophony of styles in this community, so we decided that the exterior should be understated and confident. In a noisy room, you can stand out by being quiet.”
To achieve that goal, the facade is expressed as a horizontal composition of glass and white stucco ribbons that undulate and peel away. Each of the three levels is clearly expressed, and the wraparound stretch of glass that lights the third-floor reading room has a projecting frame. A coffee shop and an expansive lobby open onto the sidewalk, an arch leads to the ground-floor city council chamber and the parking structure behind, and steps wind up the north side to the second floor. The contrast with the seamless, scale-less Blue Whale could not be greater.
Inside, too, the building reaches out to its neighbors. Unbroken floorplates at the second and third levels generate a sense of openness and allow for flexible divisions of space. A skylit staircase leads to the open reading room and stacks on the third floor. The ribbon window of the reading room frames a panoramic view of the Hollywood Hills and the PDC, and the wood ceiling, boldly carved with wooden flowers and leaves, evokes nature and the coffered vaults of the great public libraries of Boston and New York. Rarely has a new LA library displayed such erudite exuberance, despite the tight site and budget.
The City of West Hollywood shares the credit for commissioning so ambitious a plan and seeking to complete the second phase, comprising a new gym and pool, then demolishing the old and enlarging the park for a community that has too little green space. Of course the library and the upcoming park are inherently public buildings. But even a private development like the PDC can work harder to engage with the street, with public amenities, larger entrances, and welcoming landscaping that have become commonplace since the PDC was first envisioned.
Elsewhere the city is working to do just that, with plans to improve the public rights of way on the sections of Melrose, Beverly, and Robertson they’ve christened the Avenues of Art and Design, in a similar fashion to the upgraded stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard. To the east of Fairfax, efforts continue to revitalize a depressed area, as private developers are encouraged to hire talented architects for new apartment and mixed-use blocks. At least West Hollywood’s more recent initiatives combine to make this 25-year-old city a beacon of good design and humane urbanism. When completed, the park and its amenities should be a model of such urbanism—in contrast to the PDC, which, despite a huge and well-intentioned investment, has failed to engage the public.