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A building primer, from the ground up

September 06, 2004|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

Detailed and diverting, if not especially deep, the History Channel's four-part documentary "Building a Skyscraper" follows the construction of the just-opened Caltrans District 7 headquarters, just a block away from the offices of this newspaper -- and after Frank Gehry's Disney Hall, downtown's least conventional edifice. (The first two parts premiere tonight and will repeat Tuesday night before parts three and four.)

Just what makes the building interesting from an aesthetic standpoint, why it looks the way it looks, on what basis Thom Mayne's Santa Monica-based Morphosis won the commission, and its place in the evolving hodge-podge of the Civic Center are beyond the scope of the series, which uses the building only as a handy example of what it takes to put up a large structure. To wit, according to the narration: "two years of blood, sweat and swearing." (And they're not kidding about the blood.)

The main focus is on the literal nuts and bolts -- how a building goes up, who puts it up, and what's done to keep the darn things from falling down or blowing over. We see glass being made and windows fabricated, meet the men who run the tower cranes and the men who set the beams -- the Connectors, the Hook-on-ers, the Bolter-Uppers. The fact that at 13 stories, and somewhat wider than it is tall, the Caltrans building can barely be called a skyscraper, is briefly acknowledged and soon forgotten in a welter of fascinating facts and big numbers: 700,000 square feet of floor space, 13,000 tons of steel, 36,000 cubic yards of concrete, a million pounds of glass, a $174-million budget.

Intercut with the Caltrans-specific material are more general segments that briefly trace the history of the form -- from Louis Sullivan to Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson, from the Chicago Style to the International Style and beyond -- and the emerging technologies, evolving challenges, aesthetic movements, legal decisions and environmental imperatives that continue to shape its construction and appearance.

The program's attitude toward its subject is essentially positive, cheery even. (The construction scenes are all accompanied by bar-band rock 'n' roll.) The focus remains on masterpieces of the form rather than the towering dross that makes up most urban skylines.

There is a glancing mention of "ego" as a historical determinant, but no examination of the heedlessness and hubris of developers such as Donald Trump, a man whose love of height is only matched by his lack of taste. (The main thing about the skyscraper -- phallic symbolism aside -- is that it's a way to get a lot of money out of a little bit of land.)

"The skyscraper is a symbol of economic power, willpower [and] technological innovation," says Howard Decker, chief curator of the National Building Museum, and he says it like it's a good thing, with no opposing voice.

But anyone who has seen Montparnasse Tower, sticking up like a sore baguette over Paris' Left Bank, knows that "up" is not always "onward." Los Angeles was a low-lying town until the 1970s, and there are some of us -- we meet under cover of darkness -- who think it would have been better off staying that way.

Still, despite its limited ambitions, "Building a Skyscraper" is eminently watchable, appealing to whatever center in the brain makes makeover shows and "How Things Work" books such an addictive pleasure. We live in a world of things whose making is unknown to us; your car was not, after all, extruded whole from a nozzle. And it's useful to remember the blood and sweat that go into them, if not necessarily the swearing.


'Modern Marvels: Building a Skyscraper'

Where: History Channel

When: Part 1: "The Skeleton," 9 to 10 tonight. Part 2: "The Exterior," 10 to 11 tonight. Part 3: "The Human Environment," 9 to 10 p.m. Tuesday. Part 4: "The Arteries," 10 to 11 p.m. Tuesday.

Written and produced by Luke Ellis. Narrated by Max Raphael. Series created by Bruce Nash.

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