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Founder's Legacy : Pereira Focus Is Still on the Extraordinary

November 04, 1987|NANCY RIVERA BROOKS | Times Staff Writer

As years go, 1985 was a tough one for the Pereira Associates architectural firm.

That was the year William L. Pereira, the Los Angeles company's founder and an architect who left his mark all over Southern California, died at age 76. That was the year local skeptics were wondering if Pereira Associates could survive without its charismatic chief.

The answer, eventually, was yes. Indeed, Pereira Associates has become one of the area's up-and-coming architectural and design firms at a time when overbuilding and slow-growth initiatives have made life difficult for many in the cyclical business.

But the firm's partners admit that there were some anxious moments before the applause.

"I would say the statistics for this type of thing are probably not high . . . particularly for a firm that has become known as the work of one person," said R. Scott Johnson, the 36-year-old design partner of Pereira Associates.

"There was a risk associated with this thing," added William H. Fain Jr., the 40-year-old managing partner who is also the urban designer.

The transformation that has occurred at Pereira Associates is similar to what has happened at some other architectural firms built by big names.

"Pereira was one of the last of the charismatic architects," said Cyril Chern, president of HCT Inc., a Hollywood-based real estate development company.

Now, "most of the large practices are like any large conglomerate or corporation--more of a corporate image than a flamboyant image," said Chern, who is president of the Los Angeles chapter of the American Institute of Architects. "You don't have that figurehead to lead the charge up the hill. It's more of a group activity."

Bill Pereira was a high-profile designer and planner who, with a handful of other architects, created the Los Angeles look.

Pereira's projects, designed alone and with his one-time partner Charles Luckman, make up a catalogue of some of the area's most livable structures, although they did not please every eye.

Some of Pereira's major works include the Malibu campus of Pepperdine University, Los Angeles International Airport and CBS Television City. Then there is the controversial Transamerica Corp. pyramid in San Francisco. Pereira also did several large planning projects, such as the master plan for the 93,000-acre Irvine Ranch.

For Pereira Associates, the transition from the time of Bill Pereira was made smoother by Pereira's determination that the firm continue after he was gone.

Pereira conducted an exhaustive search for a director of design. After interviewing 50 candidates, he hired Johnson in September, 1983.

Pereira also reorganized the firm into a partnership and sold it to seven partners. The only remaining member is Alistair A. Laws, partner in charge of corporate affairs based in the international office in Qatar. (Another of the seven, Roy G. Schmidt, retired earlier this year.)

"He maintained a presence in the office, mainly as a guiding force," Johnson said.

Establishing the succession so clearly is unusual among architectural firms, said Norman Kaderlan, an Irvine-based management consultant who recently surveyed architects to determine how they define and measure success.

"Architects are like any artist--they have big egos, and sometimes they think they're always going to be there, and they don't think about what will happen when they're gone," Kaderlan said.

"In any organization, whenever you lose the top guy you have all sorts of problems," he said. "Unfortunately, a lot of (firms) have a hard time."

Despite all the planning, when Pereira died two years ago a void was created in the minds of potential clients who weren't sure what to expect from the firm and its young partners.

"Naturally, there were people coming to us in the interim period saying, 'Who are we coming to and what are we getting?' " Johnson said. "To some extent it still exists. It's residual."

A turning point, Fain said, was Fox Plaza, a 34-story building that recently opened in Century City. Fox Plaza, which is 85% leased and recently won an award from the Los Angeles West Chamber of Commerce for the best new commercial project, established the firm's reputation all over again, he said.

The building, designed in the contemporary Moderne style, sports a multi-angled crown that reflects the changing light of the sun.

"From a business standpoint, the Fox building really made a change for us," Fain said. "It provided entree to a number of commissions."

Seeks the Extraordinary

Billings this year will fall between $6 million and $9 million, he said. The company, which has a staff of about 65, ranks among Los Angeles' top 25 architectural firms.

"Last year was definitely a low one, and the year before was low," he said. "The amount of business we have right now is very healthy."

The type of business the company is looking for is not always a large office building like Fox Plaza, especially since overbuilding has left high vacancy rates in cities across the country, Johnson said.

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