Johnson Fain Again Makes Its Mark on Century City
By JOSHUA TOMPKINS
Not quite midway between the Pacific Ocean and downtown, Scott Johnson has staked his claim.
The design partner at Johnson Fain Architects has set his mark on Century City by designing three of its most distinctive buildings: the 35-story Fox Plaza, which opened in 1987, the 39-story SunAmerica Center (1990) and the MGM Tower, set to open next month.
Yet this latest project, said Johnson, is notably different than his previous efforts.
Meant to evoke a curved sail, MGM is a slender building that “tries very hard to be sleek,” he said. “I hope we pulled it off.”
Where Fox Plaza is “like an obelisk” and SunAmerica is an “enormous paraboloid,” MGM is decidedly svelte.
That slender design is as much a nod to art as it is commerce.
When the 35-story, 704,000-square-foot tower, the first new L.A. high-rise in a decade, was first announced, there were howls of protest from nearby residents and other Westsiders concerned about increased traffic and hindered views.
When nearby residents got wind of the development, a long battle ensued over the issue of increased traffic. Then-city councilman Mike Feuer, in whose district the building stood, opposed the project, but the project was approved with the stipulation that it be scaled back from its original plan of 791,000 square feet and that the builders allocate more than $6 million to help alleviate potential traffic problems.
The payment financed the implementation of a computerized program that will vary the timing of signal lights at dozens of intersections surrounding the site in an effort to forestall gridlock.
“I think the whole series of improvements that either have been made or are going to be made will mean that the increase will be able to be handled,” said Con Howe, planning director for the city of Los Angeles.
Rising from a long, rectangular footprint at the corner of Constellation Avenue and Century Park West, the $250 million tower was planned to afford maximum floor space without blocking the ocean view of the Century Plaza Hotel or interfering pedestrian access to the Westfield Shoppingtown Century City across the street.
Johnson avoided spoiling the view from the Century Plaza by orienting the tower’s narrow axis toward the hotel to minimize interference. To encourage foot traffic through and around the building, he designed a spacious lobby that’s easily entered or exited in every direction.
“I’m always interested in sites being as porous and permeable as possible,” he said. “We’re trying to make Century City more pedestrian and a little less about the car.”
The subtle hues of MGM differ as well. Where the rose granite of Fox Plaza and SunAmerica’s green and gold stand out sharply against the sky, Johnson chose a subdued palette for MGM.
“I think it’s a more classic and rich building in the sense that it uses these very understated silvery tones,” he said.
Other design highlights include the lobby, where a 20-foot-high, 250-foot-long, uninterrupted glass wall overlooks poplar trees and a garden. The walkway to a separate parking garage, a starkly utilitarian corridor in most buildings, is an art garden filled with fountains, mosaic bowls and other works by Northern California artist Anna Valentina Murch.
“I’ve done projects with Scott in the past, and this is the best project he’s ever done,” said Dave Padrutt, senior vice president with developer JMB Realty Corp. “We are absolutely in love with the building.”
And not all the love comes from the design.
In a glutted Westside office market, JMB has managed to use the lure of the city’s newest landmark tower (among other incentives) to substantially pre-lease the property.
Seventy-five percent of the space is taken. In addition to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc., which will occupy 14 floors, tenants include aircraft leasing company International Lease Finance Corp. and law firm Christensen Miller Fink Jacobs Glaser Weil and Shapiro LLP.
MGM’s 15-year, 425,000-square-foot deal was estimated to be worth $500 million, considered the biggest office space transaction in L.A. history. Padrutt said other potential tenants have expressed interest in leasing four or five of the remaining floors, and he expects little space left unoccupied in a year.
“The building has these little additional parts that jut out left and right,” said Johnson. “That allows us to get a bigger floor plate without compromising the general vertical thrust. We wanted to be sure we could accommodate creative tenants and tech tenants.”
Evident in all three structures Johnson has designed in Century City is a love of glass.
“Glass is actually a very beautiful and energy-efficient material. It’s generally not thought to be that. It can accept heat and light or reject it, depending on how you use it. Then there’s a whole myriad of aesthetic possibilities,” he said.
Covering the MGM Tower is high-performance double-insulated glass a “glass sandwich” to Johnson with traces of titanium on the inner pane to give the building its metallic gray look.
Perhaps the structure’s greatest triumph over conformity, however, lies in its “curtain wall,” which is the outer skin.
Where typical office building curtain walls are static and flat, Johnson avoided the monolithic look by using windows of different sizes and arranging them along a diagonal grid. That dodged flatness by varying the inset of the wall from one section to the next, creating a jewel-like depth accentuated by a palette of gray and white granite.
“It’s a very lively skin,” he said. “I don’t think anyone’s ever done a curtain wall quite like this.”
Herb Nadel, president of Nadel Architects Inc., praised the tower’s proportions and elegant detail.
“I can see the building from my office. It’s restrained and dignified,” he said. “It’s not another ‘me, too’ building. This is the kind of thing that Scott if known for.”
Johnson said designing and building a skyscraper is the greatest challenge an architect coan face.
“They’re a space shot, basically, because you’re starting from zip and you’re going to end up with this engineered work of art,” he said. “They have to deliver higher levels of efficiency and amenity and view and service but they are also de facto public works of art. We all share these buildings. We can’t avoid them. They’re the biggest things on the manmade landscape.”
Best Architectural Design – Project: MGM Tower
Players: Scott Johnson,
design partner, Johnson Fain Architects
The Deal: Johnson’s third Century City skyscraper, the MGM Tower differs markedly from his previous efforts, Fox Plaza and SunAmerica Center. In his attempt to create a sleeker building, he has evoked a ship’s sail, both in the building’s shape and its muted palette.