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Hollywood's Fresh Blueprint

Studios are boldly using design to project new self-images, attract talent-and try to put themselves ahead of the competition.

September 22, 1996|Frances Anderton | Frances Anderton is an architecture writer based in Los Angeles

'What is fascinating is that, as the oldest new city, L.A. poses the question of 'what is next?' " says Dutch-born Rem Koolhaas, who has been named to create a master plan for MCA/Universal's 415-acre site in Universal City.

The architect, co-founder of OMA, the Rotterdam-based Office for Metropolitan Architecture, was personally selected by MCA/Universal's new owner, Edgar Bronfman Jr. Koolhaas' mission is to inject clarity and excitement into the plan for 5.9 million square feet of new studio and production, retail, resort and office facilities that are planned to be added to MCA/Universal's existing theme park and studio lot.

Meanwhile, in nearby Glendale, architecture is being put to work to realize a very different vision of "what is next" for another entertainment industry client--DreamWorks SKG. The company recently unveiled Los Angeles architect Steven Ehrlich's design for its new 300,000-square-foot animation studios, a Mediterranean-style collage of piazzas and courtyards with dripping foliage.

"We wanted to create a congenial and creative atmosphere for the animators," Ehrlich says, pointing to the proposed shady orchard, gurgling brook and seating nooks of the collegiate-style environment that is to be located in a light-industrial area near Griffith Park.

These are just two of several large construction projects in the works for major local entertainment industry studios that are expanding and using architecture to give them a competitive edge. At each, architects have been hired to give concrete form to very different ideas reflecting the companies' self-image and working environment.


Bronfman comes from East Coast old money, and while he may be a newcomer to the film business, he is no stranger to architecture, being the scion of a family that has long exhibited an interest in modern buildings. Bronfman's grandfather, Samuel Bronfman, commissioned, at the urging of his architecturally enlightened daughter Phyllis Lambert, the famous Mies van der Rohe 1958 Seagram Building in New York, a monumental gesture that legitimized Modernist architecture and established the minimalist steel-and-glass extruded box as the model for corporate America.

Lambert, Edgar Bronfman Jr.'s aunt, founded the prestigious Canadian Center for Architecture in Montreal and is a dedicated proponent of contemporary architecture as well as a vigilant defender of Montreal's historic architectural heritage. Knowing Koolhaas' work, Lambert knew he would be inspired by the L.A. condition, and she advised her nephew to add him to his list of possible choices.

Bronfman's choice of Koolhaas is both dramatic and bold, for while the architect may not yet be widely known beyond architectural circles on the West Coast, this cool intellectual is currently Europe's hottest architect and theorist, lauded particularly for his approach to mega-structures and large-scale environments.

Koolhaas, 52, a longtime devotee of Americana and graduate of the progressive and highly experimental Architectural Association in London, spent several years in the United States as a journalist and screenwriter (of a never-produced Russ Meyer film, among other projects), before catapulting into the eyes of the architectural world with the publication of "Delirious New York," a book bulging with novel theories and images about that city--among them an image of the Chrysler Building in bed with the Empire State Building.

In New York, he found what he termed the "culture of congestion" in the intense overlapping of human activities. Like Gehry in Los Angeles, Koolhaas went on to create poetic buildings that are seemingly ad hoc collages of cheap industrial materials. Unlike contemporary town planners who hate the sprawl, malls, infrastructure and other hallmarks of late-20th century cities, he applauds modern urbanity, with all its over-scaled and scattered ugliness.

"OMA produces an architecture that embraces aspects of the maligned metropolitan condition with enthusiasm," proclaims Koolhaas, who since establishing his grandly named design firm in 1980 has attempted to capture in his projects this delirium, or "chaotic adventure."

The commission from MCA/Universal is a break for Koolhaas, who has never built in this country before. He sees Los Angeles as "entirely defined by the 20th century" and relishes its "mutant, 'liter' urban substance." Koolhaas sees his design challenge as "the renewal of the new"--how to "make the city more intense without losing the qualities of its dispersal." While he will reveal little about the MCA project--which remains under wraps until the entitlement process is completed (spokesmen will concede only that the ideas are "exciting")--hints about his direction can perhaps be gleaned from his recently completed Euralille.

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