L.A.'s got a lot of buildings coated with black glass bleck — like the horrendous eyesore at Sony Pictures Plaza in Culver City, the Olympia Medical Plaza near San Vicente and Olympic and this newly reopened BBCN bank (formerly the Nara bank, which merged last fall with Center Bank to create BBCN) at 2727 W. Olympic Blvd. in Koreatown.
This unapproachable chunk of sadness sports a black mass in the middle, bookended at the corners by drab, concrete-block towers, for an ice-cold delivery on the street. Even worse, the bank recently reopened without any exterior renovation whatsoever except for plastic wrap signs around the old ones and a new motto, “We're still as ugly and dull as ever.” What does that communicate to the community it serves? It's a big “eff-you” to the poor saps who walk and drive past its bland presence every day. Some colorful “Occupy Koreatown” tents could do wonders for this dowdy, black and brown bore.
Black glass as a building material had its heyday in the 1960s and '70s. It could make the building reflective like still water, dramatic like a slash in the sky and sober (for many corporate clients) without being heavy (you try making a 50-plus-story skyscraper look un-heavy with masonry, metal panels or something other than glass).
Like the minimal slab that drives the apes crazy in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, black glass on buildings was always used to achieve a streamlined, clean and cool presence. Back then, Norman Foster's Willis building (1975) and Mies van der Rohe's 1971 IBM building in Chicago epitomized innovation, style and new approaches in reimagining glass façades.
Black glass, at the time, also was environmentally friendly because of its tinting. It could cut down on the cooling bills in the summer and heat the place up in the winter. That concept still rules in passive heating and cooling design today, but thanks to huge steps in green material innovations, the glass doesn't have to be black anymore to do that work. There's even been some buzz about changing the Sears Tower's classic black cladding to silver, to better reflect heat and glare for occupants.
But cool black buildings haven't died out completely. Fumihiko Maki's new plan for an Astor place apartment building in New York gives a classic nod to the stealthy silhouettes of midcentury design, and the Italian firm Damilano Studio Architects has proven black glass is still cool if you do it right with its twisting and turning office building.
It takes a discerning hand and a well-trained designer's eye (and not a whole lot of money) to bring out these properties in this inexpensive material — windows need to be meticulously detailed with skinny frames or no frames at all. The masses should be accentuated rather than restrained, and scale should be carefully considered.
Not much planning and thinking of this kind went down at 2727 W. Olympic Blvd. BBCN's sad, fortresslike branch in Koreatown unfortunately does not gain any benefit from its plain, black glass facade, and when black glass (or any other building material, for that matter) can't make up its mind what it stands for, it does nothing for the structure onto which it's stuck. The material that once symbolized modern streamlined innovation just makes this building look like a rundown outpost for the evil empire.