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Municipal Design Revolution : Gritty Elegance

July 04, 1993|LEON WHITESON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Whiteson writes on architecture for The Times

During the 1930s and into the early 1940s, Los Angeles' public agencies generated a splendid style of architecture. Known generically as "PWA Moderne," after the Depression-era Public Works Administration, the style was noted for its muscular honesty and graceful, uncluttered details.

PWA Moderne, a fusion of streamlined Art Deco and early Modernism, produced a host of Department of Water and Power substations, schools and firehouses whose designs are still celebrated by architectural historians. Examples include the Venice police and fire station, built in 1930, and Manual Arts High School on South Vermont Avenue, built in 1935, plus a host of modest but lively DWP facilities that dot our neighborhoods.

After World War II, the quality of much of Los Angeles's public architecture lapsed into mediocrity. No one seemed to be paying attention as the DWP, in particular, allowed its designers to build in a dull, inoffensive style that can best be described as Institutional Bland.

Six years ago, however, a quiet revolution began in the quality of architecture produced by most Los Angeles city agencies. The post-World War II tradition of dull designs was overturned in favor of a fresh wave of excellent public buildings that can be seen throughout the city.

The design revolution was sparked by the city's Cultural Affairs Commission. After years of routine approval of public agency projects, the commission, which has the power, under the city charter, to approve or disapprove the design of all buildings proposed for public lands, began to reject designs they considered aesthetically mediocre.

Led by former president Merry Norris, the commission began to insist that public agencies such as DWP reconsider the aesthetic qualities of its proposed buildings. Despite early resistance from agency executives and elected officials, the commission persistently rejected architectural mediocrity.

In its campaign to elevate the design of buildings submitted by the DWP and other public agencies, the commission turned chiefly to the Santa Monica office of the national architecture firm of Ellerbe Becket Inc. Under its previous title, Welton Becket & Associates, the firm had had a longstanding relationship with L.A.'s public agencies.

Within Ellerbe Becket, design principal Lou Naidorf gave the new DWP projects to a gifted young designer, Mehrdad Yazdani.

Three of Yazdani's DWP projects have been completed and a fourth is under construction. The completed projects include the DWP's downtown Central Distribution Headquarters on Maple Street and an administration and warehouse building and separate parking structure for the DWP's Van Nuys Distribution Headquarters on Saticoy Street. A fleet service building for the DWP's downtown headquarters is under construction.

The downtown Central Distribution Headquarters won a 1992 honor award from the Los Angeles chapter of the American Institute of Architecture, and Yazdani's group of DWP projects has attracted notice in national architecture publications. This is a remarkable record for a designer who, when he joined Ellerbe Becket in 1987, was only 27 years old and recently graduated from Harvard.

"The commission immediately recognized Yazdani's talents," Norris said. "His designs were a revelation of what an imaginative architect could do with a tight budget and a simple palette of materials. With Yazdani, mediocrity went out the window."

The design revolution sparked by the commission has created opportunities for a number of gifted architects. Along with the DWP, the Department of Public Works and other city agencies have upgraded the aesthetic standards of their buildings in recent years.

However, Yazdani's projects stand out as the leading edge in this design revolution. Under his guidance, Ellerbe Becket has developed a consistent style for a new generation of L.A.'s public architecture.

The style is gritty yet graceful, serviceable yet elegant. Simple materials, such as colored or textured concrete block and painted metal, are complemented by the occasional dash of extravagance in panels of glass block or tile.

A skillful use of curves sets off long blank walls, and massive buildings are boldly sculpted into lively shapes and volumes. Playful touches, such as exposed steel trusses over parking sheds, relieve the industrial monotony that threatens such mundane structures.

"It's been a gentle kind of design education for the DWP," Yazdani said. "I think I've proved that I can turn in a building that works and is under budget, so the department engineers have come to trust me."

The two headquarters buildings that Yazdani has designed for the DWP present variations on the theme of gritty elegance.

The downtown headquarters has rugged surroundings. The high brick walls enclosing neighboring warehouses and workshops are topped with razor wire and most windows are protected by burglar bars. The DWP site itself is ringed by a concrete block security fence.

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