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Critic's Notebook: Hollywood landmark at a crossroads

New York developers are reviving plans to surround the Capitol Records building with a mixed-use project covering 1 million square feet. Whether it would enhance or detract from the iconic structure depends on fuzzy details.

May 29, 2011|By Christopher Hawthorne, Los Angeles Times

There is sure to be anxiety in Hollywood about the extent to which the project — and others that could crop up on nearby parcels — might dwarf Capitol Records and in a larger sense alter the generally midrise feel of the neighborhood. To be fair to Aarons and his group, if there is a part of Los Angeles where it makes sense to try this kind of approach, pairing slender skyscrapers with generous open space, Hollywood is it.

Rising density has in recent years helped rather than threatened the neighborhood's character. Thanks to the subway, the Walk of Fame and timely investments by the Community Redevelopment Agency and private developers, the sidewalks along Hollywood Boulevard and others stretching south toward Sunset rank among the busiest in the city. The area around the Space 15-Twenty retail complex on Cahuenga is especially vital, and the whole neighborhood has opened itself to bikes and pedestrians in ways that would have been tough to envision even five years ago.

As made clear by the example of the restored 1963 Cinerama Dome, another design by Becket's prolific office, there is also a history in this neighborhood of adding to historical landmarks without overshadowing them.

The new architecture in the area, on the other hand, has not kept pace with these signs of renewed street life, nor with those preservation success stories. For all the energy it has added to the sidewalks along Hollywood Boulevard, for example, the giant new W Hotel complex is a confused piece of architecture, with nothing of the clarity or light touch of the design by Becket and Naidorf for Capitol Records. And the less said about the Hollywood and Highland complex the better.

The challenge now for Aarons and his team is to take Hollywood's new sidewalk-level vitality and draw it north onto this stretch of Vine as well to flesh out and improve the design of the towers. Sharpening the proposal could have symbolic and illustrative benefits that reach well beyond Hollywood. Los Angeles is full of landmarks that stand dramatically aloof from the city around them. Adding to these buildings — figuring out how to bring them into some kind of dialogue with the rest of the city — can be a challenge. The local firm Johnson Fain learned that in proposing additions (still unbuilt) to Dodger Stadium — our classic stand-alone landmark — as did Boston's Machado Silvetti Architects in their smart but mannered reworking of the Getty Villa in Malibu.

The best of these landmarks — a group that also includes more recent buildings such as Walt Disney Concert Hall — don't just acknowledge their detachment from the urban fabric; they exploit it. As the current shortcomings of the Millennium Hollywood plan make clear, building near these pieces of architecture, or simply figuring out how to deal with them as they age, can present something of a paradox. It is a question, essentially, of providing context for buildings originally designed to float proudly free of it.

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