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Sam Hall Kaplan

Fox Plaza: Nice Style, Poor Design

September 20, 1987

The recently completed Fox Plaza office tower in Century City already has become an architectural focal point on the Westside.

What makes the building at the southwest corner of the Avenue of the Stars and Olympic Boulevard stand out in addition to its not immodest 34 stories is its distinctive form and style.

Not another boxy, boring building in the severe International style, the Fox Plaza is clad in pink-toned granite and gray tinted glass and tilted and angled at the upper floors to subtly reflect light.

The building, styled by R. Scott Johnson of Pereira Associates in a updated Moderne fashion, looks good, especially at a distance and when compared to most of the other office towers in the area. Even the garage with its banded concrete block and arched entry is distinctive looking.

But looking good doesn't necessarily mean being good.

The closer I looked at Fox Plaza on a tour there recently the less impressed I was, and it illustrated for me the increasingly misunderstood difference in architecture between style and design; style generally being how something is expressed--the look of it--and design generally being the plan for a function--how it works.

Most disappointing was the entry. The two central sections of the broad stairs off the Avenue of the Stars lead directly into a bulky column; not a particularly gracious gesture in front of the entrance of a public building, or any building. The entry off the court, where most people pass through, also has a column dividing it.

And while the lobby is tastefully detailed in granite and Moderne-styled light fixtures, the columns blocking the natural light cast a pall over the space and makes it feel oddly claustrophobic. The unattractive facade of the Merrill Lynch office in the lobby does not help.

Disappointing also was the landscaping, which on the street side with its lawn, looked more appropriate to a suburban split-level house than an office tower aspiring to be urbane. The rear motor court has a view, but little else. The offices being private and of varying functions were not toured.

In planning a building, one of the first things to be considered is the circulation system--how people enter, move through and leave a structure. It is the key to the functioning of a building, and often the key to the building's design. Then comes the styling, which might express the design, hide it or ignore it.

That is the usual order of the architectural process. But in these days when some architects, and critics, consider the look of the building--its so-called statement--more important than its function, that process can become convoluted.

As for Fox Plaza, it gets high marks for style and low marks for the design of the public areas. The architecture was a grandstand play that didn't quite make it.

A more egregious example of the gap between design and style, and what might be called architectural grandstanding, is the California Aerospace Museum in Exposition Park. I selected the museum because it is a public building that has received considerable publicity and praise.

As styled by Frank Gehry, the museum is a sculptural collision of forms and materials: a plain stucco box with a metal-clad polygon, separated by a glazed wall and topped by a windowed prism and a metal sphere. An F-104 Starfighter jet is a nice touch of advertising to the billboard building.

Gehry being a master of architectural showmanship, there is much in the styling to catch the eye and generate interest.

The design of the museum is another matter. To see the problem, you only have to stand to the south and watch people searching for an entry trek up long, raw exit ramps or cluster at the service entrance beneath the jet--and bang on doors.

Eventually they wander, with difficulty, around the structure to a small entryway that has been tucked between the museum and the old armory to the north, usually to be confronted there by hordes of children exiting. The space does not read well and is at best awkward. The interior circulation is not much better.

We have been told that museum officials wanted the entrance there, as a logical connection between the museum and the neighboring armory, the latter eventually to be renovated for additional exhibition space. That, no doubt, created a perplexing planning and architecture problem.

Solving such a problem by designing the building to both work and read well is what makes great architecture; succumbing to the problem to play with forms and materials to make a statement about style does not.

The style of the museum may say something about the building and its setting, as Gehry contends in his writings, but it won't help the teacher with 20 or so 9-year-olds in tow that I observed recently trying to keep order while searching in the hot sun for the entrance.

Prompting more thoughts about the difference between style and design was a conference of the American Institute of Graphic Arts held earlier this month in San Francisco.

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