The West Hollywood City Council last week adopted a proposal by Councilmembers John D’Amico and John Heilman that asks the city to consider developing standards for excellence in architecture and urban design. And Councilmember Lauren Meister has suggested that the city establish a design review committee separate from the Planning Commission to review projects proposed by developers.
But history bears witness to the fact that so-called “design excellence committees” always make matters worse. First, they almost always end up homogenizing otherwise daring and breakthrough designs. One need only look as far as Portland, Ore., where Michael Graves was commissioned in the early 1980s to design that city’s new office building. It was Graves’ first large-scale public commission and would have introduced the concept of postmodernism at its extreme to the world. Well, every time their “excellence committee” convened to review its design, the committee members, some of whom were rivals of Graves, would find yet another feature that needed to be winnowed down. By the time he finally had a version that was acceptable to the committee, it looked nothing like he intended, and ended up being a very decorative box. He did a great traveling show on that entire process and how what ended up being built happened. Podcasts of his presentation are available online here and here.
The reality about being a “great architect” is that you have to be a total egomaniac and a colossal bully to get your best designs built. As a student, I had the dubious pleasure of having four of the “New York Five” famous architects of the day — Charles Gwathmy, Robert Stern, Peter Eisenman, and the venerable Frank Gehry — on the jury for the class’s final projects. These guys shredded every design that was displayed to the point that, at the end of the day after a particularly tear-filled session, the next person put his work up and no one said a word. One of our professors said, “Well, it seems that if you don’t have anything bad to say, you don’t have anything to,” and he was cut off and the blood bath began. When asked why they had done this, the architects explained that they were attempting to get us to rigorously defend our designs because that was what we would face as professionals. Being the mental marshmallow that I was, I chose a different profession. If we were lucky enough to have a great designer come to WeHo, and the city’s design excellence committee tried to change things, that designer would likely just walk and tell us “if you don’t want what I am selling, I don’t sell anything else.” That’s because great architects they have plenty of other work.
Thank God Disney had the wisdom to know if you hire the best, you let them give you their best. Consider Graves’ “Team Disney” building in Burbank, with the seven dwarfs as support columns for its roof, and Isozaki’s amazing “Team Disney” office building at Disney World in Florida, with its gigantic conical sundial in the middle of what is generally seen as one of the most creative uses of various colors of reflective glass in the world. Both are the result of letting architects do their jobs.
One other local example of committee design is the L.A. County Museum of Art (LACMA). In 2000 Rem Koolhaus won the Pritzker Prize, and in 2004 he was asked to develop a master plan for the LACMA campus. His undulating dome , which covered the entire development, scared the hell out of everyone, and he was doomed. No one knows what would have eventually happened if Koolhaus had been allowed to execute his vision. It might have been truly amazing or not. But by then Renzo Piano had become the architect du jour for major museum design because of his truly relevatory Science Museum in San Francisco. Piano was and is a safe choice. But while his buildings here are decent and functional, they certainly aren’t his best work in my opinion. And the LACMA committee has selected yet another person to “tie it all together” with a sidewalk that runs the property’s perimeter. The committee’s endless changes of heart and mind have pushed back the project so many times that many of us may never see a completed complex. While it drags on, The Broad downtown already is almost completed and quite something.
So if WeHo projects were to attract any truly exceptional architect, I’d rather let that architect realize his or her vision.
Jim Chud, an HIV care analyst with the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services, is chair of the West Hollywood Disabilities Advisory Board , a board member of the National AIDS Housing Coalition and a member of the L.A. County HIV Commission.