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A Modern Workplace Drama

An ex-client and fans of architect John Lautner try to save the Century City office he designed.

September 30, 2005|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

It's an old-fashioned dilemma with a modern twist: When your lease is up, what do you do with your one-of-a-kind, built-in office space?

Century City businessman James F. Goldstein faces that question tonight when lights are turned out for the last time at an office designed for him by acclaimed Modernist architect John Lautner.

Goldstein is a modern-architecture lover who lives in a sleek Lautner home. He loves its swooping, airy look so much that he hired the famed designer in 1987 to create the interior of his 20th-floor office, which has since been featured in photo shoots and on architecture tours.

But Goldstein's office lease has run out. And a larger tenant of the six-story building wants to take over the entire floor.

The law firm of Loeb & Loeb already rents four floors of the office tower. But it has no interest in keeping Goldstein's unique, Lautner-designed work space as it adds a fifth.

Fans of modern architecture are trying to block demolition of the office. Members of the John Lautner Foundation, a group that celebrates the legacy of the architect, who died in 1994, have appealed to the lawyers to change their minds.

If that doesn't work, they hope to block the office's demolition by having it designated a Los Angeles landmark. A Cultural Heritage Commission hearing has been scheduled for Oct. 19, and city planners are recommending that the office be given landmark status -- an action that could prevent demolition for up to one year.

"Their new law offices could fit in nicely with this," said Duncan Nicholson, an architect who apprenticed with Lautner and took up the Modernist's work upon his death. "This could be a law office conference room. It could be used for lawyers' depositions. It could be a place used to celebrate the victory when they win their cases."

Loeb & Loeb spokeswoman Jennifer Manton said the law firm would oppose the landmark designation.

"While we admire the architectural value of John Lautner's work, we believe that rented, internal space in a commercial office building with no public access is not an appropriate location for the application of landmark law," she said in a statement released through a New York public relations firm.

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The office is only 850 square feet. But it seems to extend forever.

At one end is a floor-to-ceiling window. Overhead is a cloud-like ceiling built of fir panels. The floor is made from dark, triangular black slate. The walls are larger panels of black slate, glass and strips of sleek copper.

When viewed from Goldstein's paperwork-piled desk, the office seems to float serenely over the nearby Los Angeles Country Club's golf course and reach toward distant mountains.

Nicholson, of Santa Monica, has worked with Goldstein to update and expand the businessman's showplace Beverly Hills home, which is used frequently as a movie setting and often cited in architecture books.

He said Goldstein's high-rise work space at 10100 Santa Monica Blvd. is the only office ever designed by Lautner.

"John was all about space. This is no different," Nicholson said as he visited the office Wednesday for perhaps the last time. "When you walk in here, you're completely reoriented to the 'box' that defines most office space."

Goldstein is a real estate investor. But he is also known for wearing flamboyant western-style clothes and is regularly seen courtside at Laker and Clipper games and alongside runways at international fashion shows.

Reached at a fashion show in Milan, Italy, he expressed outrage at the fate of his office. "I've put so much into it, and enjoyed it so much. Of course, I have no legal right to stay," he said.

But before leaving, Goldstein lingered late one night last week to enjoy a final sunset reflecting off his golden copper wall, Nicholson said.

Shari Sivak, who has run Goldstein's office for more than six years, works at a massive slate-rock desk that Lautner designed to be cantilevered from a sloping wall.

She said the office has often been used for catalog photo shoots.

Lautner fans have wrangled visits to the high-rise for one last look at the work space, she said.

Christopher Carr, an architect and vice president of the John Lautner Foundation, said Goldstein sought for a year to renew his lease -- even offering to pay Loeb & Loeb an above-market rate to continue renting his office in their new space. He currently pays about $3,500 a month. (The manager of the building declined to comment.)

In the past the foundation has led tours of the Lautner office for modern-architecture devotees and would be willing to coordinate its preservation with Loeb & Loeb, Carr said.

"Unfortunately, the office can't be dismantled and moved somewhere else. It's site-specific -- it's integrated into the view. It can't be reoriented," he said. "But it can be incorporated into their new law office like a piece of art. That's really what it is: art."

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