When Richard Keating took over the Los Angeles office of Skidmore Owings & Merrill 18 months ago, he found that a drastic restructuring was needed to bring the local branch up to the general level of excellence upon which SOM has earned its national and international architectural reputation.
Moving here from Houston, where he had opened a new and highly successful SOM branch office, Keating purged the L.A. operation. Forty members of the previous 100-person Los Angeles staff resigned; they were replaced by 20 associates Keating brought with him from Texas.
"As a member of SOM's national design committee, that keeps tabs on all our branches, I was aware that our L.A. operation simply wasn't up to snuff," Keating said. "The design ideas, the quality of the detailing, the calibre of the management were all below the levels we demand, if we are to maintain our status as one of the U.S.'s leading large-scale architectural organizations."
Change in Architects
Dramatic evidence of SOM L.A.'s new verve is the recent announcement by developer Robert Maguire that SOM will replace New York City-based John Burgee Architects as designers of downtown's 52-story Grand Place Tower. Grand Place Tower is the second office tower, along with Library Square Tower currently under construction, in Maguire Thomas Partners' major development across 5th Street from the Central Library.
"Keating has expanded upon the Johnson/Burgee masterplan for the site with an exciting concept," Maguire said. Keating said that his design for Grand Place Tower "is totally new."
In addition to Grand Place Tower, Keating has landed several other major commissions in his short time in Los Angeles. Among these are four projects for Columbia Savings along Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills; a 34-story office tower and 500-room hotel for Pacific Atlas, a Japanese development company, on a downtown block bounded by 7th, 8th and Olive streets and Grand Avenue and the interior design of nine floors of Library Square Tower for lawyers Latham & Watkins.
"I'm particularly excited by the Columbia Savings commissions," Keating said. "Working with an enlightened client like (Columbia CEO) Tom Spiegel on a unique series of related commercial buildings gives us a chance to really show our paces. We have tried to play off against the established Wilshire Boulevard style in Beverly Hills while honoring the street character of this great Angeleno thoroughfare."
Japanese clients are less committed than local patrons to evolving a locally sensitive design character, Keating claimed. "The men from Tokyo are tough, bottom-line customers," he said. "For them it's the money, not the place, that counts. Like it or not, we have to come to terms with this brutal attitude, if L.A. is to fulfill its ambition and its potential as the eastern capital of the Pacific Rim."
SOM L.A. is situated at the heart of the action in downtown's Citicorp Plaza. The revamped staff is young and keen. Many are graduates of the nation's top architectural schools; a number have spent time in some of the city's most avant-garde offices.
"Frank Gehry and Michael Rotondi of Morphosis accuse me of poaching their people," Keating said, with a smile. "My experience is that nowadays many of the best young designers are dying to get their teeth into the kind of meaty projects we can handle."
The atmosphere of the SOM office seems relaxed. Hierarchies and status seem to matter less than talent and energy. All the associates and assistants are free to offer ideas on any of the projects pinned to the boards, or up on the computer-aided design screens.
Keating's own style is boyish, as befits a former whiz kid. A scant 8 years after graduating from UC Berkeley in 1968, Keating moved from SOM's Chicago office to head up the new Houston branch. In his 10 years in Texas, Keating was responsible for planning more than 40 million square feet of commercial projects, including Dallas' spectacular Texas Commerce Tower and LTV (now Trammell Crow) Center.
Both Texas Commerce and Trammell Crow exemplify SOM's current late-modernist design style. The clean lines, strong geometries, crisp detailing and glittering glass surfaces of mainstream modernism remain as elements of the firm's idiom. What has been added is a certain playfulness that, in Texas Commerce, punches a see-through hole in the tower's top floors and elaborates the shaft's base and cap with eccentric shapes.
Richard and Deanie Keating live in a house they have recently renovated in Hancock Park's Fremont Place. They are about to have twins, "creating an instant family," Keating said.
Keating finds Los Angeles "remarkably parochial compared to Houston, but that's the challenge. Of all major U.S. cities, L.A. has the most potential, because it's so relatively unsophisticated in the design of its commercial complexes. Downtown Los Angeles is far below its deserved level architecturally. That's why I insisted on keeping the office in Citicorp Plaza. You can look out the window and see the opportunities.
"We want a big piece of that action."