Jean Nouvel, the French architect who five years ago lost out to Rem Koolhaas for the then-contemplated museum makeover at LACMA, stopped by the Four Seasons Hotel last week to unveil a 45-story condo he has designed for Century City. The ritzy $400 million tower, set to rise above the intersection of Century Park East and Santa Monica Boulevard, will be Nouvel's first American building west of the Mississippi. A slender high-rise, 50 feet wide and 325 feet long, the building is a hydroponic version of the ancient Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Nouvel, who is part of the international brotherhood of plane-hopping architects and who designed MoMA's new Manhattan tower, took the basic outline of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power headquarters, squeezed it at both sides, then invited a landscaper to graft two ecosystems — desert flora facing south, Mediterranean plants facing north — onto 4-foot brims that extend from each floor. It's an intriguing scheme. The building, which Nouvel calls "the Green Blade," will emerge as either a sky-high, see-through topiary or a boring boxwood hedge.
The crowd of 120 men and women, made up mostly of business executives — apparently culled from the developer SunCal Companies'* Rolodex rather than from the usual arts and architecture suspects — didn't seem too interested in the architectural details. In the anteroom, where salmon canapes and Gorgonzola croquettes were held aloft by waiters who jokingly offered one another a degustation, the closest thing to actual architecture was the presence of Nouvel and Hitoshi Abe, the new head of UCLA's department of architecture. Between the two, Abe alone was playing the role of architect — by wearing a waistcoat that Johnny Cash might have owned.
Parisian transplant Olivier Touraine, who has been working with Nouvel on the project, was there to field any of the probing architectural inquiries that might arise. Dressed, appropriately, in a suit tailored for a latter-day Stakonovite workman, he was asked, "So, where's the model?" Typically developers and architects trot out scrupulously precise miniatures of their projects — nifty handicrafts that make you want to believe in even the most unbelievable work. Touraine answered cannily, "There will be a full-scale model. We're installing it on Santa Monica Boulevard."
The quip passed into thin air as the event moved from cocktails to roast chicken, a sit-down lunch amid flocked wallpaper, swag-and-pleat curtains and chandeliers made of glass leaves. City Councilman Jack Weiss, who is championing the project over anticipated boos from nearby residential associations, thought he'd found the perfect cultural reference to bring into focus the idea that Century City could become a livable place.
"Last night," he intoned, "I put on an album. I don't know if my French friends know what that is. It's a black disc with a hole in it." Weiss said he'd dropped the needle into the groove of Tom Petty's 1979 song "Century City."
"'We're gonna live in Century City,'" Weiss quoted. "Tom Petty wrote that 30 years ago. At the time he wrote it, it was ironic. Thirty years ago people didn't live in Century City. It was designed for office buildings and automobiles. Now we're trying to retrofit pedestrians and residents, and most importantly, we're going to retrofit greenery into Century City."
Abe, the professor and practitioner from Japan, spoke reverently of the Frenchman who has been described as the "master of translucency": "Jean Nouvel is like King Midas. Everything he touches turns to gold." Abe was thinking about art, not commerce. "All the materials you are used to seeing on a building, he turns into something else. His work is phenomenological."
Nouvel, who looks a bit like Dr. Evil with his shiny cue-ball head and arched, sinister eyebrows, wasn't having any of it. Like the Mike Myers bad guy, the Frenchman is downright funny. He stepped to the microphone, and said in rugged English, "Too many compliments. Usually so many compliments means you are dead."
Everyone laughed. From that moment on, the room belonged to Nouvel. He'd won over his audience. Which is an architect's first, and some might say only, job. The building, like the model, is just an afterthought.
* Editor's note: The name of SunCal Companies was corrected online on Feb. 29.