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Corporate Image-Making Leads to Enhanced L. A. Skyline

April 06, 1986|SAM HALL KAPLAN | Times Design Critic

Corporations no longer seem content with just a building to house their employees.

They want a building that will enhance their image; a towering logo of sorts for all the world to see, or at least those driving along a nearby freeway.

As result, the downtown Los Angeles skyline, for years an undistinguished collection of mostly modest structures, is beginning to take on a new and more exciting shape as a variety of corporate towers are completed and plans revealed for others.

If the tens of thousands of new employees who will be working in the new office towers will not slow traffic on the freeways, perhaps the total of the designs of the towers will.

Energetic Urban Facade

Seen from a distance, they form an energetic urban facade, dueling for attention in a sort of architectural beauty contest. Once awkward when they stood by themselves, such towers as Security Pacific's, designed by the William Pereira firm, Interstate's, by the Charles Luckman firm, and Arco Plaza, by the Albert Martin firm, viewed with the new projects as a group, seem more substantial, their design flaws less conspicuous.

The most recently completed corporate project of note downtown is the 42-story Citicorp building at 7th and Figueroa streets. Designed by the Chicago office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, it is a bulky, banded mass, marked by square windows and topped with a corporate logo that makes the total look something like a giant computer punch card. It is a powerful, though not particularly gracious structure.

Other recently completed projects include California Plaza, the first of three office towers planned for Bunker Hill by Canadian designer Arthur Erickson, this year's winner of the prestigious gold medal of the American Institute of Architects. With its light, curving reflective glass skin, the 42-story tower at times appears quite ethereal, looking as if at any moment it might float off its granite base.

Also recently completed on Bunker Hill were the twin towers of Crocker Center, designed by the San Francisco office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. Clad in polished red granite, marked by light-toned, semi-reflective glass windows, the smooth, prow-shaped 45- and 55-story structures glisten warmly in the sun, a hypnotic sculptural set piece of exquisite quality.

On Drawing Boards

In construction, and promising to lend some verve to downtown, despite some proposed signage, is the Coast Savings building at 1000 Wilshire Blvd. Designed by New York-based Kohn, Pedersen and Fox, the 21-story tower will be a decidely Post-Modern concoction that only will be able to reveal its qualities upon completion.

Among the more impressive corporate projects on the drawing boards are two towers planned for Library Square, at 5th Street and Grand Avenue. One, designed by Harry Cobb, of the firm of I.M. Pei, is scheduled to rise 73 stories, the other, designed by Philip Johnson and John Burgee, will be 65 stories.

Considerably more modest, but also promising to lend the skyline interest, is the 24-story Biltmore Tower now under construction at Grand Avenue and 5th Street. Designed by the Landau Partnership, the tower will be part of the expanded and renovated Biltmore Hotel complex.

Though the architecture of each differs, from the smooth towers of Cobb and Erickson to the promised detailing and pediments preferred by the Kohn, Pedersen and Fox, and Johnson and Burgee firms, what they all have in common is that they have been planned by seasoned architects with international reputations for distinctive office buildings.

The desire by corporations to seek out architectural firms of note to develop distinctive designs was unleashed a few years ago, when the severe International style of monolithic, glass-box structures began giving way to more expressive, so-called Late- and Post-Modern styles.

Though a few singular office towers rose in the 1960s and 1970s, such as the Transamerica pyramid in San Francisco, it was the design of the AT&T building in New York City by the firm of Johnson and Burgee that touched off the latest trend.

The architects gave the staid corporation a polished pink-granite tower with an arcaded Romanesque base and a Chippendale-shaped top. The design generated considerable publicity, including the cover of Time magazine, and gave the corporation a desired contemporary image.

Developers have been finding that in addition to satisfying the edifice complex of corporations, distinctive design, if not quality design, tends to attract tenants and to command higher rents, even in today's overbuilt office market.

It also makes for more interesting viewing, even if it might slow traffic on the freeways.

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