The final chapter for an architectural icon

07 Mar 2011

Cesar Pelli's west coast Mecca for design nears completion

When it was begun 40 years ago, the Pacific Design Center was a novel idea of sorts - an epicenter for designers that would house some 130 showrooms and a branch of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. But for architects, the project is noteworthy for the revolutionary architecture it brought about. Designed in 1975 by a young Cesar Pelli who was then working in the office of Victor Gruen, a pioneer of shopping mall design, the Pacific Design Center is notable for its pioneering use of colour in curtain wall construction and for its bold forms that were a departure from the simpler geometric buildings of the day. So ground breaking was the project’s design, that it established Pelli as the go-to-guy for stylish modernistic glass buildings and set in motion what would become a long and storied career for its architect.

Like many large commercial development projects, the Pacific Design Center was long in the making. Its completion was hampered in part by a novel programme that was challenging to realise but mostly it was delayed due to having been conceived at a time of an economic downturn. As a result, the project was only partially realised. The Blue Building, known as the Blue Whale, was built in 1975. It was followed by the Green Building which was built 13 years later in 1988. But with the announcement last week of the topping out of the complex’s third and final building, the Red Building, the project’s completion is all but imminent, bringing to a close an interesting chapter.

Of the three buildings that comprise the 14-acre complex, the Red Building is the most sculptural and visually arresting. It consists of two office towers totaling 400,000 sq ft, linked by a shared plaza planted with palm trees. The lower, six-storey West Tower slopes inward toward the Hollywood Hills while the taller eight-storey East Tower gestures boldly toward the sky. But by including such amenities as a VIP express elevator that transports executives from a valet drop directly to their offices, the project seems to be more in tune with the excesses of the nineties than with the lean, green, socially conscious buildings of today.

Looking at the Pacific Design Center today, it is easy to forget how radical it was in its day. While the project owes a debt to Paxton’s Crystal Palace (as both structures are exhibition halls enclosed by large expanses of glass) it ushered in a new sensibility that was embraced by others. While Pelli is praised by some for having invigorated the large-scale development project with a stylish flare, he is also criticised for not bringing the same inventiveness to his buildings’ interiors, which perhaps explains why he is known more as a master of architectural surface than a shaper of architectural space. Regardless, the completion of the Pacific Design Center is an important milestone in the architect’s career.

Sharon McHugh
US Correspondent

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