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ARCHITECTURE

Sunset Plaza Is Best Measured by a Single Criterion: It Works

June 17, 1993|AARON BETSKY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There is a big difference between buildings that work and buildings that are good. Buildings that work are comfortable, convenient and, more often than not, unnoticeable. They give no offense, but also add little to the city.

Good buildings answer to certain aesthetic or moral criteria about making a better city. Sunset Plaza, the much-beloved string of commercial structures that brings a bit of Beverly Hills to the middle of the Sunset Strip, displays few attributes of good architecture, but it sure keeps the crowds coming.

Sunset Plaza, just west of La Cienega Boulevard on Sunset Boulevard, pleases because it gives shopping and dining a European sheen that is glossy enough to hide the fact that this is, in reality, no more than a strip mall. Yet, it is not so strong as to create the Disneyesque sense of plastic recreation that many of our recent malls display.

The Plaza works because of some very basic organizational facts. It is a complex of buildings, not a singular block, and thus has a relatively gentle scale. The parking is behind the buildings, the sidewalks are narrow, the stores are small and varied, and the location is precisely between the money to the west and the theatricality to the east. The unified (more or less) architecture of the half-dozen buildings that make up the complex acts as a billboard on the road, but cars remain hidden in the rear. Narrow, slightly mysterious alleys lead you from the parking area to the street.

Don't stop and look too closely at the architecture, or you might be disappointed. The Plaza was designed in 1934 by Charles Selkirk, whose stylistic allegiances were mixed: His other famous building is the Alex Theater in Glendale, a Greek temple topped by a Streamline Moderne beacon. Here, Selkirk used a watered-down version of the residential vernacular of Beverly Hills: Stucco forms that ramble along the street, their edges picked out with white-painted trim and their importance noted by the addition of various pediments, columns, pilasters and balustrades.

Selkirk housed most of the stores in six low-slung structures, each with a slightly different set of details, but all with similar configuration. They are formal in that their centers are slightly higher than their sides. Yet their proportions are stretched beyond anything believable, and their various ornamental details are so oddly matched and so strangely placed that they lose all sense of that connection between foundation and demeanor that would have justified their use.

Most of Sunset Plaza simply disappears into its function: shopping. The buildings are completely overwhelmed by the breadth of Sunset as it sweeps up to the east, by the hills rising to the north, and by the taller buildings all around it. The precious bits of architectural interest disappear behind show windows that have become larger over the years, and behind awnings that stand in for the signs the management doesn't allow.

Even worse, the rears of the buildings are as plain as the back of a movie lot, and their ever-growing parking lots have eaten up much of the hillside. There is one nice aspect of this last feature: You can turn your back on all the pretenses of Sunset Plaza and look out from the highest of the lots on the south side. You will be rewarded with a sweeping view of the Westside. This might not make up for the fact that Sunset Plaza is not a very good building, either aesthetically or as anything but an incoherent commercial structure, but at least it adds a little to our urban experience.

Aaron Betsky teaches and writes about architecture.

* Sunset Plaza: 8578-8623 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood

* Architect: Charles Selkirk, in 1934.

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