The Pacific Design Center (8687 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood, 310-657-0800) has always seemed an unapproachable building, a visually impenetrable leviathan so out of scale that, as you pass by, you feel you’re about to be crushed or swallowed. Despite its bright ocean-going blue, it feels lifeless. Cesar Pelli, the building’s Argentine-born architect, says, “I am interested in expressing the exteriors of buildings as enclosures for controlled living environments,” and so he designed PDC’s slick surface to look as if the Plexiglas were vacuum-formed over the steel frame. The building uses tautness to crisply express cold geometry. You can’t miss the rectangles, circles, pyramids.
Thanks to this, the Blue Whale offers an uncommon, and wholly unexpected, view of the city. You’ve got to be intrepid, and you’ve got to be ready to tolerate the sensation of the Earth’s powerful gravitational pull, but if you crane your neck and peer upward at the high escarpment on the Melrose side of the PDC, Los Angeles will reveal itself in a light you cannot catch anywhere else. The line of the building tilts out, creating a periscope 75 feet high and 300 feet long — made up of 77 individual panels lined up in a row. You must wait until after 11 p.m., when the klieg lights are turned off, and the blue turns into an obsidian mirror. Step five or six paces away from the front of the building and the view comes into focus.
What you’ll see isn’t the Mulholland Drive panorama of a shimmering summer night. It isn’t the smug, self-referential glitz glimpsed from the Sky Bar on the Sunset Strip. Nor is it the dense, relentless, orange glow of a night flight on approach to LAX barreling down the slot at Beaumont.
At PDC, whether Pelli intended it or not, you confront the city as a puzzle. Landmarks acquire odd qualities. A Calvin Klein billboard on the north face of the Beverly Center becomes a map of Africa — or maybe it’s Hotel Sofitel that looks like the Equatorial continent? Tall buildings, well-lighted streets, become zigzag bolts of light, affecting spectral changes panel by panel. As you tilt your head sideway, the light bends, like ripples on a pond. The city appears as if painted by Stuart Davis — noisy, vital, strangely lucid.
Then you pause, and look left-to-right, or right-to-left, taking in the entire ribbon of city. If it is late enough, and there is no moonlight, you begin to notice in the reflection the beauty of darkness. Between all those lights there is darkness. As though peering at stars, you begin to notice the void in which they swim and pulsate. Perhaps it’s an illusion, but it seems as if the tilted panels take in not only what’s on the ground, but the horizon itself. The built-up city mingles with the empty night sky. Or maybe the city is more dark than light. Who knows. The view becomes an end itself. You get hooked on just seeing.
Then you leave, once again navigating on the ground, through the grid of asphalt and street lamps. Still, the distorted image lingers. L.A. never looked better, or fresher.