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.
The lobby's marble staircase
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.
A view up the stairwell, illuminated by the programmable light wall.
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.
“We wanted to communicate a range of things,” says Rubel, chargé d’affaires for the new building’s design and execution. “We wanted first and foremost to encourage the collaborative spirit that’s at the heart of the company’s culture.”
To sum up its aspirations in steel and stone—and to house its 700 employees—CAA needed a lot of room, and found it in a new complex under construction by developer Trammell Crow Company in Century City. In January 2007 the agency moved into 240,000 square feet of dazzling lobbies, conference rooms and offices laid out with Gattaca-like perfection. The building—actually a semi-self-contained block within the office complex—is wired to the hilt for instant global communication and further tricked out with a 12-screen programmable multimedia wall in the lounge and a glowing nine-story light wall that bathes the central atrium in shifting colors. That central atrium, incidentally, is the spine and soul of the building, an open column that allows agents to shout the news from one floor to the next—imagine Pei’s lobby, but stretched vertically—and provides agents upward mobility via a bank of mirrored elevators and a seemingly endless staircase.
Apart from employees, clients and select friends of the secretive agency, though, few outsiders have actually passed through the lobby’s glass entrance door and walked the burnished Carrara-marble floors. Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne gained entry only after weeks of phone calls and e-mails, he noted pointedly in his review of CAA’s offices. Such reticence to open doors inevitably strikes some observers as arrogant or even menacing, and a common misperception holds that CAA occupies the entire 500,000 square feet of offices at 2000 Avenue of the Stars—a structure that is striking for its imposing size and the dramatic eight-story aperture that pierces its center. Like other structures that cloak power—the Pentagon, for one—the CAA headquarters has provoked lurid gossip and fantasies. (“I heard CAA is trying for some…white-leather, Gucci-style, 1970s grandeur over there,” Endeavor chief Ari Emanuel was quoted saying in the Times, perhaps disguising his competitive anxiety as disdain.) Small wonder then that Hollywood gawkers, industry insiders and rival agents have dubbed the place the Death Star, in recognition of the attraction, envy and, likely, fear that CAA inspires. “I don’t understand what it means,” deadpans Lourd. “Is that Star Trek or Star Wars?”
The first thing you notice when you approach CAA’s lobby from the valet parking circle outside is a 220-foot-long wall made of slabs of hand-chiseled Carrara marble, sized as if for an ancient monument. The true centerpiece of the lobby, though, is a monumental marble staircase, a glossy paean to hard-edged cool that anchors the soaring space like a giant paperweight handed down by Zeus. The fact that its use is largely ceremonial—most employees opt for the elevator—makes it seem even more extravagant. It’s the kind of architectural flourish meant to flatter agency clients such as Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts and George Clooney and convince them that they couldn’t possibly be better represented elsewhere.
Like several of the most striking features of the building, the staircase was Lourd’s idea.
“We had come up with a very clean, very modern, very elegant staircase,” recalls principal design architect Gene Watanabe of the firm Gensler. “Bryan e-mailed me photographs of five or six examples of more monumental stairs. He had the feeling the lobby needed something more substantial.”
Lourd is well known in the industry as a charismatic figure who carries himself with a restless energy, and the pre-Oscar bash at his home is quite possibly the most coveted invitation of the year. The way Watanabe describes project meetings with the CAA partners—all of whom had a voice in the process and jointly approved major decisions—it sounds as if Lourd were the opener, swooping in to pitch an exciting big idea, and Rubel the closer, a reliable manager with the patience to see things through.
“Bryan loved stone,” recalls Watanabe when asked about the lobby, which is covered in so much marble that some observers liken it to a mausoleum. “But what he hated was that when you cut it up, it starts to look like tile. He talked about grout lines.”
What Lourd meant was that “stone should look like stone, almost like the Pyramids,” Watanabe says, explaining how he sometimes had to interpret Lourd’s oracular pronouncements before translating them into tangible design solutions. Rubel, by contrast, took an interest in the minute details: He can discuss the structural implications of chiseling stone to a depth of nearly an inch.
Watanabe insists that the partners articulated what the project “needed to do, not what it should look like.” Still, one wonders how a star architect such as Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaas or Zaha Hadid—the contemporary equivalents to Pei in the Eighties—would have responded to micromanaging. When asked why CAA didn’t opt for a high-profile architect, Rubel blandly explains that the agency didn’t want to find itself once again constrained within a signature building. Lourd puts it another way: “We didn’t feel we needed to make that statement. It would have been fun, but it wasn’t necessary.”
In fact, Lourd and Rubel generated numerous key details, from the lobby staircase to an intimate circular meeting room known as “the tank.” They also wanted every agent’s office to be identical in size, while allowing only the partners to customize their larger corner offices. Lourd’s digs, for instance, have a private meeting room, a seating area and an assistant’s desk. But like everyone else in the building, he chose furniture from a limited set of options that included Mies van der Rohe chairs and Florence Knoll desks.
Given a color palette of muted black and white stone, dark wood, brushed metal and gray fabrics, the agency’s 300-piece art collection virtually pops from the walls; even stray personal effects around the office assert themselves as if they were curated artifacts. On one desk, a large ball constructed of rubber bands suggests an art project rather than the manic habit of an overcaffeinated assistant. But it’s the small trophy topped with a jack-o’-lantern head on the seventh-floor reception desk—a prize awarded the winner in an informal competition between floors to decorate for a Halloween party for employees’ children—that offers the rare touch of spontaneity in an otherwise ruthlessly controlled building.
One of the key directives was given was that the new CAA headquarters “not be reminiscent of the old space,” which it isn’t—and yet is. Talent agency buildings, Hawthorne observed in the Times, tend to be “the architectural version of the agent’s neatly pressed dark suit.” If Ovitz’s building was like an Eighties Armani suit—the synergistic creation of unimpeachable taste and marketing hype—the new CAA headquarters is more like one of Lourd’s custom-made Band of Outsiders suits, triangulating attitude, craftsmanship and just enough new styling to tweak tradition without breaking from it.
In the end, what makes CAA’s building most interesting is not that it’s an architectural masterpiece, but rather that it isn’t. And that may be its smartest success. For Lourd and Co., the heirs of a brilliant visionary, to attempt to outbuild Ovitz would have smacked of edifice-complex insecurities—or, even worse, unbridled vanity, since no architecture should distract attention from the real stars of the building, the CAA clientele. Ovitz built a palace for himself, but the new CAA, with its design process by committee, has produced something akin to a mega-gadget. It’s multifunctional, programmable and sleek to the touch, appealing to the design geek and the techno nerd alike. Plus, it’s cool enough and expensive enough that those who don’t possess it will undoubtedly wish that they did, which is, after all, exactly the allure of owning an iPhone, a G-V or, for that matter, the Death Star.