The National Trust for Historic Preservation has listed the Century Plaza Hotel in Century City on its list of the 11 most endangered historic places of 2009.
The list includes a mental hospital in South Dakota, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple in Oak Park, IL and a Utah airplane hangar that housed the WWII Atomic Bomb plane, Enola Gay.
I am a historic preservation minded person who has lived in Chicago, Boston, New York and Los Angeles. It is easy to appreciate those quaint small towns that one finds on the East Coast, and to marvel at the architecture of Chicago, whose technical innovations in the late 19th Century brought us the works of Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright.
But Los Angeles always challenges me when the word “historic preservation” is spoken here. It is often used as a lasso, to rope around structures that honestly are ugly and anti-urban in every sense of the word. It seems that merely being over 40 years old, brings some sort of citation and honor to various car washes, diners, shopping malls and hamburger stands in the Southland.
I don’t like the Century Plaza Hotel and I never did. The first time I went to it, I arrived by car, and entered a windy and garish lobby that looks the dreamland location for a 1967 Bar Mitzvah. I dislike the shape of building, which stands far from the Avenue of the Stars, and is meant to be looked at from the passenger side of a speeding car. A repetitive and monotonous pattern of balconies, a sunken restaurant plaza, and those globe shaped lights are all markers of the most mundane and corporatist era of hotel design. If one had to create a satirical parody of all the cliche elements of an international 60s hotel, this would be it.
Diane Keaton is heading an activist front to “preserve” this Minoru Yamasaki (World Trade Center) architectural masterpiece. One can expect to hear praise for poured concrete or whatever honorarium can be pulled out of the engineering hat. The 9/11 connection will connote the same holy tactile analogy as the Shroud of Turin does for many Christians.
This building is big and well known, and in this city, that is always what counts.
But in the San Fernando Valley, wholesale destruction of the obscure and charming homes of Studio City, many dating from the 1930s and 40s, continues unabated by the recession. Where are the historic preservationists who might confer some designation for Studio City, which also lost the iconic 1944 “Studio City Camera” sign in 2007? Who marches down Sylvan Street in Van Nuys to shout about the old library and post office?
All the small places that make life worth living, and give a city its soul are forgotten, and we concentrate our energies on praising and “protecting” the most alienating and ugly structure, the Century Plaza Hotel. Does this indifferent, mute and commercial non-entity really contribute to the vitality and street life of Los Angeles?