Architects Scott Johnson and William Fain have left an indelible mark on the Century City skyline, receiving worldwide attention for designing MGM Plaza, Fox Plaza and SunAmerica Center.
But two decades after starting their L.A.-based firm, Johnson Fain Partners, the pair have moved from high-rise office buildings to some of the largest residential developments in Los Angeles projects that could total 4,000 apartments and condominiums from Century City to Glendale to Hollywood Boulevard.
It's easy to see why. In the last decade, only two office towers have been built in L.A., both designed by Johnson Fain. Meanwhile, the city is exploding with mixed-use urban projects that put apartments above shops and restaurants. "This is a revolution," Johnson said. "I've never seen anything like it."
Clarett Group hired Johnson Fain to design its $300 million redevelopment of seven acres along Hollywood Boulevard owned by the Nederlander family. JMB Realty Corp., the Chicago developer of Century City high-rises, has the firm designing three soaring condominium towers on a five-acre parcel at the corner of Avenue of the Stars and Constellation Blvd. And in downtown Glendale, Mapleton Securities has hired the firm to design a high-rise condo.
At the same time, Johnson Fain is designing the conversion of the 55-acre site of the former CF Braun headquarters in Alhambra into a residential and commercial campus for developer Wayne Ratkovich and a similar "village" concept on a 16-acre parcel adjacent to the Northridge Fashion Center for New Urban West Inc.
Each project has at least the promise of revitalization. Clarett's Hollywood development would replace run-down buildings and surface parking lots and JMB's could enliven an area of Century City that becomes a ghost town after dark.
"There's always been a wonderment as to why Los Angeles has never done these types of things," Fain said. "People's attitudes are changing about living in urban areas; they are starting to explore their city."
The residential phenomenon isn't limited to Johnson Fain. "Virtually any firm that has done commercial work is being approached to do housing now," said architect Herb Nadel, who designed the Californian condominium tower nearing completion at Wilshire Boulevard and Malcolm Avenue. "Even firms whose clients are office building developers are switching to building something else so they to continue making money. There's just no demand in L.A. for more office space."
Last year, Johnson Fain moved into new Chinatown offices on the site of a former Basso Chrysler/Jeep dealership along a bustling section of Broadway.
The offices were created by connecting the showrooms, garages and adjoining warehouses. Vestiges from the building's past remain, including some of the original flooring. A slide-down garage door adorns one wall of the employee break room.
While the offices are typical for an architecture firm walls are plastered with drawings of current projects and scale models sprawl over long tables the location is not.
The neighborhood looks out upon downtown and an abandoned rail yard, dubbed the Cornfield. During a recent visit security guards were stationed in the parking lot and could be seen patrolling the building's perimeter. "We think this is a great location," Fain said, nevertheless. "The area is going through a renewal of its own."
Both Johnson and Fain studied architecture at UC Berkeley and received master's degrees from Harvard's graduate school of design. After graduating, Johnson took a job in the firm of New York architect Philip Johnson, known for his modernist designs.
Fain worked as an urban planner in New York, Boston and Washington, D.C., then moved to Los Angeles in 1980 to join the architecture firm of Bill Pereira, who had designed such L.A. landmarks as Los Angeles International Airport and CBS Television City. Johnson joined the firm three years later.
Pereira died in 1995 and Fain took over the business side of the firm, while Johnson assumed design responsibilities.
Besides office towers, the partners have designed Napa Valley wineries, public schools and four buildings for St. Andrew's Abbey in Valvermo, 20 miles southeast of Palmdale.
Now the partners so in tune that they often complete each other's sentences want the firm to become known for mixed-use. "By their very nature, architects are usually at the leading edge of whatever trend developers are responding to," Fain said.
Many of the mixed-use projects span several city blocks, a challenging feature Johnson and Fain say they look for in a potential development.
The firm advocates cutting large parcels up with walkways to make it easier for pedestrians, especially in L.A. where the city blocks can be unwieldy in length.
"In Irvine the city blocks are so long, why would you try to walk," Fain said, frowning. "Even if people are only going a couple blocks away, it's no wonder they drive."
Fain said developers around downtown's Staples Center have the right idea, especially the South Group, which has broken ground on two large condo buildings. The developers are splitting up the buildings, which take up half a city block, with parks and passageways.
Johnson and Fain declined to show off early plans for the Nederlander site in Hollywood, dubbed "The Boulevard" by New York-based Clarett Group. "It's still a little too early," Johnson said. "It's a really big site and we've got a lot of ideas."
Planning for JMB's Century City condo towers is more advanced. Drawings line the walls and the towers rise more than four feet in a model in the middle of the office. The plan, very different from what the architects are pushing for downtown, has towers set back from the street. A terraced park, which will be open to the public, rises to a platform where a restaurant or two could be set up.
"We couldn't put a lot of retail space on the ground because people will likely walk to the mall because it's so close," Johnson said. "The mall is an 800-pound gorilla when it comes to what you can and can't realistically do with a building."
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