In the mid-Eighties, when Michael Ovitz hired I.M. Pei to design a new building for Creative Artists Agency, the hard-driving Ovitz, CAA’s chairman, was in the throes of revolutionizing the talent agency system and rattling the Hollywood power structure from top to bottom. The refined Pei, on the other hand, was widely considered the architect of the decade and known for the elegance of his projects—among them the east wing of the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., and the glass pyramid added to the Louvre in 1989, the same year that the CAA building opened. Pei was equally admired for the personal cultivation that endeared him to such society friends as Jackie O.
For Ovitz, who had cofounded CAA in 1975, the Pei commission was a remarkable coup. Hollywood marveled at the vision, taste and cash that he lavished on the Pei Palace, a court truly befitting the king of agents. Ovitz didn’t just join the establishment; he remade it in his image, and the building he commissioned remains a case study in architecture placed in the service of corporate mythmaking.
It’s ironic, then, that the CAA building wasn’t actually grand enough: Between the time Ovitz ordered it and the move-in date, the agency had already outgrown its Pei home. Ad hoc expansions were necessary over the years, both before and after Ovitz’s 1995 departure for Disney, and the agency literally knocked through to an adjacent building and later annexed floors in another across the street. (The Pei building is now owned by a company that Ovitz controls.)
“It was just a nightmarish way to address company culture,” recalls CAA’s general counsel, Michael Rubel, who notes that by 2002, the company’s culture of “connectivity” was suffering. Agents were no longer able to share information easily across departments or to quickly “package” deals—the process by which they put together, say, a writer, director and actor (all CAA clients, of course) before pitching the project for sale. This once visionary idea—the basis of the agency’s business strategy and now standard industry practice—was built into the Pei building: That big lobby with views of balcony offices symbolized openness of communication, while the large conference room where agents gathered for their legendary Wednesday meetings was a packaging think tank.
In the new millennium the agency needed raw space to continue growing, and its six post-Ovitz partners—president Richard Lovett, Bryan Lourd, Kevin Huvane, Rob Light, David O’Connor and Rick Nicita—also sensed a branding opportunity to freshen the image of CAA 2.0.
If the old building announced CAA’s arrival, its new headquarters asserts its mature ascendancy. It is not only large enough to contain the agency’s near imperial ambitions, but also sufficiently restrained, proving that it knows how to walk softly, as befits any superpower.