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.
Woody, I think there is a misunderstanding. Any proposals for rules about new building designs are only going to apply to projects that pass through the weho Planning Commission. The mega-boxes never go through any public design review, challenges and forced changes to plans as a group of arbitrary appointed planning commissioners can, collectively agree to AS A COMPROMISE in opinion. Design by Committee is a well studied science and has proven, any design BY COMMITTEE will have a much less desirable outcome than a single cohesive designer leading a plan. e.g. the green house. HAS BEEN DENIED the 5… Read more »
As Jim says, creativity by committee is tough. But I think everyone is just looking to see some improvement over the big glass and steel structures that are popping up all over. Unfortunately much of the “world class” design that keeps coming before the Planning Commission is driven by the economic “needs” of the developer, not the needs of the community. Thank you Jim and Woody for the thought provoking discussion.
I think Woody kinda missed my point. I was saying that good design tends to be deminished by committees. I’m not saying that the stuff we have is great by anymeans, with the exception of the original PDC blue building and new courtyard and fountain. You might check to see who the designer was and what his pedigree and expertise has yielded. Personally, I’d like us – the City – to have the spunk and courage to sponsor competitions for the next municipal buildings of significance. Those tend to attract rising stars and an old timer or two if they… Read more »
Re. Larry: “All this talk about boxes.. its less than 1% of our housing stock.”
Oh, really? Citation, please?
Do you mean, 100% of all the new mixed-use construction?
Or are you just throwing up numbers and hoping we’ll believe you?
We have eyes in Weho, and we can easily see one awful-looking new box going up after another.
You must be kidding yourself, because you’re not kidding us.
Richard, you mention qualified members. Who on city council is actually qualified to judge design? Perhaps D’Amico, because that’s his profession, but he won’t be on the council forever. I honestly don’t know that any of the council now or ever will be qualified to get into the nitty gritty of design and its not their job.
Thank you Jim for a great article and new perspective. Your article should be a catalyst to the design standards so that we can achieve more than a standard ‘within’ guideline design. We need to encourage excellence in design that does not have limitations. All this talk about boxes.. its less than 1% of our housing stock.. Its almost as if some are advocating for a circular home because they don’t like square lines.. Most all parcels in the city are rectangular or square and most every home has square or rectangular lines.. This stuff about blaming people for building… Read more »
Unfortunately I think that more often than not, design professionals follow the money, that’s why all of the new architectural designs in the city are essentially indistinguishable. Money comes first. Personally, I believe it would make the discussion far more interesting to add the input of a non professional but interested community member or two to the mix & hear & see some ideas outside the lines of the generic blueprints. You don’t need to be a professional to be a teacher.
I agree with Woody. We should be so lucky as to have the architects that critiqued Mr. Chud’s projects in college designing new developments here in West Hollywood. Who the developers are hiring and the designs that they’re bringing to the table are not of that ilk. West Hollywood is at the bursting point; new construction should be held up to a very very high standard. We don’t need more giant boxes built out to the edge of the sidewalk. I believe a separate design review committee with qualified members is a great idea. It would take some of the… Read more »
I couldn’t have said it better Woody!
Well said, Woody !
To compare the current trend of WeHo architecture to “Team Disney” or LACMA or innovative & beautiful architecture anywhere else is patently ludicrous. I have no architectural expertise, but I have eyes & what I see is a generic line-up of square boxes made from glass & silver metal, all cut from the same mold & blueprint, with little or no variation even in the details. The developers are exploiting the market by building cheap, selling high & moving on, leaving the City looking like Legoland, characterized by square edges & extreme regularity. I think the proposals of D’.Amico, Meister… Read more »