A Los Angeles Primer: Century City

"We're gonna live in Century City," sings Tom Petty on his and the Heartbreakers' 1979 song named after the place. "Go ahead and give in — Century City. Like modern men and modern girls, we're gonna live in the modern world." At that time, Century City, 176 acres built up against Westwood and Beverly Hills, may still have looked like a viable concept of the future. Even as recently as 2004, it provided both setting and title for a short-lived CBS science-fiction legal drama set in then then-far-flung year of 2030. Now, at least in my experience, it serves primarily as a navigational aid: if you can see downtown, if you can see the mountains, and if you can see the thirty- and forty-story towers of Century City's narrow skyline, you can roughly triangulate your location in Los Angeles. Handy though that may sound, I suspect the district's builders, working in the late fifties and early sixties with a piece of the former 20th Century Fox backlot, had — as that era's builders often did — something grander in mind.

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"Nothing dates faster than people's fantasies about the future," said art critic Robert Hughes, standing in Brasília, in an episode of "The Shock of the New", his television series on modernism. "This is what you get when perfectly decent, intelligent, and talented men start thinking in terms of space rather than place, and single rather than multiple meanings. It's what you get when you design for political aspirations rather than real human needs. You get miles of jerry-built platonic nowhere infested with Volkswagens." Each and every one of my trips past Century City — and before now, all of them took me past it, since I never had a legitimate reason to enter — got me thinking about Brazil's highway-wrapped, monument-studded capital, planned and built whole in the late fifties, officially inaugurated in 1960. Just three years later, Century City's first building would open. Later that decade, the Century Plaza Hotel, designed by World Trade Center architect Minoru Yamasaki, would have its ribbon cut; his West Coast twin towers of the Century Plaza would open in 1975.

I look first for those askew triangular monoliths, still Century City's tallest and most recognizable buildings, whenever I perform the aforementioned exercise in visual navigation. Yamasaki's hotel exists, in my mind, more abstractly, chiefly as a battleground in the debate between those who would preserve all modern architecture (of whom you meet a disproportionately large number in Los Angeles, though they usually fight their battles over low-slung coffee shops) and those who would condemn it all, in some cases literally. But even if it makes your eyes sore, Century City's built environment, unlike Brasília's, at least hasn't fallen into a hazardous degree of disrepair. I've heard that Fox Plaza, which when first built in 1985 played Die Hard's besieged Nakatomi Plaza, could now use some attention, but when I finally started exploring the area, I found it relatively untouched by the ravages characteristic to other concentrations of midcentury modernism. And instead of the Volkswagen infestation, Century City displays vehicular ostentation; witness, for instance, the Lotuses and Bentleys parked so deliberately in front of Watt Plaza, the newer, shorter set of twin towers.

Still, despite its prosperity — maybe even because of its prosperity — the place invites ridicule. "Last-Century City" jokes come readily to mind. Its streets have corny space-age names like Constellation Boulevard and Galaxy Way, and walking them you experience, on a small scale, a development wholly taken in by Corbusian notions about separating the functions of a city: residences here, hotels there, commerce here, industry there. Hughes criticized just this aspect of Brasília when he spoke of "single rather than multiple meanings," and wherever you find Los Angeles' least satisfying urban experiences, you find this separation at its strictest. (See also Jeremy Rosenberg's post, "The Roots of Sprawl: Why We Don't Live Where We Work".) For a long time, and despite Petty's lyrics, I didn't think you could live in Century City at all, but then I found its lower-rise east side given over to housing almost entirely. Down and around the central Avenue of the Stars you have all its well-known office towers. Just west of there sit Fox's remaining studios and the Westfield Century City Mall, the seat of local commercial life.

Ironically, those of us who grew up in the middle of vast tracts of quiet single-family homes might have envied this setup. Century City's relatively few residents all live in easy walking distance of the mall, and it hardly looks or feels like the dying beasts in which we spent adolescence hanging out. Even those inclined to dismiss the likes of Westfield Century City as vulgar temples to consumerism — diatribes usually more boring than the malls themselves — have to admit that this one ranks a cut above. You can tell just by visiting its food court, which confronts you with neither a Sbarro nor an Orange Julius (though it has admitted a Panda Express). The complex also includes an entire high-end grocery store, and unlike most malls, has an expansion underway. In a district already built atop parking garages noted for their size — under the Century Plaza Towers you'll find one of America's largest — banners around the construction site unabashedly promise over five hundred more spaces on the way.

More parking? Have the world-changing, near-utopian architectural ambitions of the mid-twentieth century shriveled down to that? Century City looks impressive on the horizon. Its mall stays busy even at times of the day I would expect emptiness. Plenty of people seem to work in its office blocks. But the place still feels naggingly incomplete, a western downtown designed by those who've only seen downtown from a great distance — which, in postwar Los Angeles, they may only have. "You have the strange feeling," says David Gebhard and Robert Winter's well-respected architectural guidebook, "that this city was planned not for people but for architectural photography." Indeed, the temptation to take low-angle, human-free shots of building after gleaming building weighs heavily upon me whenever I walk along the Avenue of the Stars. Yet there I also sense signs of change. A series of playful bronze animal sculptures has, in recent years, appeared along the street, and the real-estate media has made much of plans for more pedestrian-friendly, bicycle-friendly development spurred on by the prospect of that cutting-edge technology known as a subway reaching the corner of Constellation. As of this writing, alas, a station looks unlikely to materialize before 2026, only four years ahead of the time only "Century City", with its plots of human cloning, bionic eyes, and mind implants, dared envision.

Photos by Colin Marshall.

About the Author

Colin Marshall hosts and produces the podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture. These columns present essays adapted from his book-in-progress, "A Los Angeles Primer: Mastering the Stateless City."
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