L.A. sits and spins at the top of the world
~ By RON GARMON ~
Angelenos live in a graveyard of dead futures, putting us once again miles ahead of the rest of the world. If architecture really is the secret Ozymandian dream of the human race, then the sum of L.A.’s great up-ended vanity box of design is nothing less than the entire spatial fantasy of the American Century, now unhappily past. No style tickles our zeitgeist more than the Space Age of the late-50s to the mid-70s, with its imperial retro-flash vying with Rat Pack nostalgia for ambience. This conceit, which promised technology would liberate the human spirit the same way Our Boys were liberating the Mekong Delta, found expression in the irresistible hoke of James Bond movies, Les Baxter film scores, and the revolving cocktail bar.
As America’s premier city-of-tomorrow, L.A. is entitled to several of these pretties, including the BonaVista Lounge atop downtown’s Westin Bonaventure and the endearing, silly Encounter bar and restaurant at LAX. Add to these a new/old site called West, the soon-to-be-reopened bar/restaurant on the 17th floor of the Hotel Angeleno (a former Holiday Inn), at the juncture of Sunset Boulevard and the 405. Built in the early 70s and empty since last October, the space is undergoing transformation "as a modern interpretation of a 1940s Italian steakhouse" at the hands of co-owner and designer Joanna Perlman. "It was inspired by the Italian, the Ralph Lauren, the Talented Mr. Ripley feel," she explains. "Walnut and cherrywood floors. Cherrywood ceilings."
Her approach to the existing site is ambitious. "The whole building was a 35-year-old Holiday Inn, and the restaurant hadn’t been renovated since the 80s, when it was a hot spot, so we gutted it completely. There’s not even a single reminder." Likewise, the project uses almost none of the previous design, but takes the original tiered seating and expands on it.
All this preliminary gouging and haulage is being done for the sake of the customer’s ease-of-mind. Perlman’s new look will emphasize "comfort, upscale, rich, warm, inviting ‘handsome’ is a word we use." Features will include "a huge, square bar that overlooks the view, with a huge lounge with built-in booths. There’s a 300-degree view of Brentwood and Bel-Air. You can see the ocean with Catalina in the same shot as downtown L.A. and the snowcapped mountains," she enthuses. It’s very, very comfortable and relaxed, but high-style design and a unique dining experience."
Perhaps. How well the local gentry and the tourist trade will take to the reality of a giant rotating cocoon will be known soon enough, since the space opens to the public in May. Even with 40 months passed since my last drink, the idea of a bar in the sky is, for me, more of a call to adventure, the pre-cred setting for an evening of stylish large life in Movietown. Sloe-eyed, dissipated leisure was how America rewarded itself for saving what it used to call civilization, so even as that post-Cold War world is running down, one makes the best of what’s still around.
And best are the stern pleasures of the Westin Bonaventure. Its IQ-test floor plan memorably confused postmodernist critic Frederic Jameson, a fit of horror polysyllabic enough to make him the H.P. Lovecraft of academia. Approached more playfully, this mid-70s mirrored pile is a sort of definitive American High; part Philip K. Dick trickiness and part 007 movie-villain opulence. Through the somnolent maze of the lobby past the upscale junkshops to the rocket-to-the-sky elevators suddenly ripping a basin panorama across your eyes and up to the BonaVista, you enter a space that is one more spin of an old American Dream deliriously pursued. The city makes its once-an-hour turn in soft semidarkness with a selection of 70s chart hits strutting in the aural background. Hipsters, staff, and tourists pad by, unnoticed by you. Jameson might be right about the place being a monument to the late-capitalist mindset, but a less crabbed imagination could conclude that one good revolution deserves another.
first appeared in LA CITY BEAT 04-13-06
c) 2006 Ron Garmon