This essay by Alan Hess about the iconic Capitol Records building in Los Angeles was originally published as "The Architecture of the Capitol Records Tower." It is part of the book 75 Years of Capitol Records, published by TASCHEN, which is scheduled for release in February.
The president of Capitol Records was certain that a serious company could not operate out of a building that looked like the stack of records in a jukebox. So when Welton Becket, the new headquarters’ architect, showed him a model of the multistoried circular tower, Wallichs was annoyed. It would look like an advertising gimmick, Wallichs said, in a city where hot dogs were sold out of buildings shaped like hot dogs. Becket countered that the circular floor plan was more cost-efficient for the amount of usable space than a standard rectangular office building. Unimpressed, Wallichs told Becket to go back and design a conventional building.
The myth that a stack of records inspired the Tower has never died, though. As soon as the building opened, Hollywood columnist Bob Thomas wrote about it as “a monstrous stack of records.” Wallichs went on a public offensive from the start: “There was no intentional relationship between the shape of phonograph records and the circular design of the Tower” he insisted to the Chicago Tribune.
But maybe the symbolic association was meant to be. The Capitol Records Tower struck a chord in the public imagination that has never diminished. Its distinctive profile has been as synonymous with Los Angeles as the nearby Hollywood sign. It’s a mark of popular success that it’s usually the first L.A. landmark to be demolished by tornadoes, earthquakes, or aliens in disaster movies.
Los Angeles architecture has always been known for pushing boundaries and inventing new ideas, from restaurants shaped like hats to airports that look like futuristic space stations. Even if it wasn’t based on a stack of shellac records, the Capitol Records Tower was certainly innovative: an all-new headquarters for the rapidly changing high-tech recording industry. Its sleek unconventional form also symbolized a new way of living, a new way of doing business, and a new popular culture.
It was also an attempt to revive downtown Hollywood. When the Capitol Records building opened in 1956 a block north of Hollywood and Vine, Hollywood was on a slow decline as an entertainment district. Just like the young families moving into new ranch house tracts in the suburbs, film and television production was moving to suburbs like Burbank. No one knew exactly how traditional downtowns like Hollywood would change in this new era. Yet the shiny new tower could be a symbol of a hopeful future: electronic technology was changing as high fidelity recording was introduced, and stereo sound for the mass market was around the corner. The Tower’s architecture was just as bold, unconventional, and modern.
Los Angeles itself was being transformed as a city by modern technologies. Once the mass production of houses had been refined, the agricultural land of the San Fernando and San Gabriel Valleys became suburbs. Once most families owned at least one car, the design of gas stations, coffee shops, supermarkets, drive-in banks, department stores, and movie theaters began stimulating architects’ creativity. So did the design of the new workplace — especially for the growing entertainment industry.
When architects Welton Becket and his University of Washington classmate Walter Wurdeman first partnered in the 1930s, they had established ties with the entertainment industry by designing homes for the movie colony; then their 1935 Pan-Pacific Auditorium became the city’s principal venue for exhibits, car shows, and concerts. After the end of World War II, Wurdeman and Becket built a reputation for innovations responding to the needs of booming businesses: Bullock’s Pasadena (1947) reinvented the department store for the new suburbs. Downtown they built General Petroleum’s office building (1947) featuring modular walls that could be shifted as the workforce changed, and an entirely up-to-date headquarters for the Los Angeles Police Department (1955, later named Parker Center). Out on Wilshire’s Miracle Mile, they built the handsome Prudential Building (1948), and further out they built Conrad Hilton’s flagship hotel (1953) in Beverly Hills.
Throughout the city, Wurdeman and Becket were creating new architecture for a new kind of city. Capitol Records itself was also burgeoning as a business; from offices over Wallichs Music City record store at Sunset and Vine in 1942, the record company was ready by 1954 to leap into a 13-story tower. Capitol Records embodied Los Angeles’ global power in media, entertainment, and popular culture, and Becket’s design for their headquarters would become a landmark of a defining moment in the city’s history.
By the early 1960s, Welton Becket Associates (renamed after Wurdeman died unexpectedly in 1949) would become the largest architecture firm in the country. Organizing around the concept of Total Design, the firm developed the skills and organizational finesse to design and build the complex campuses, planning projects, and technical facilities that the growing region demanded. Under one roof, design, interiors, planning, and construction for enormous projects could be accomplished smoothly and efficiently.
Becket himself encouraged fresh thinking by hiring a young workforce and giving them opportunities to prove themselves. Lou Naidorf was only 24 years old, just three years out of the University of California, Berkeley’s architecture school, when Becket gave him the chance to design “Project X” — the code name for the Capitol Records headquarters.
Under the supervision of Becket’s director of design, Maynard Woodard, Naidorf designed the office tower without knowing exactly what kind of business would occupy it. He was given a list of requirements; the base was a large windowless box; the offices in the tower would be mostly equal-sized offices, without the usual large administrative floor filled with dozens of gray metal desks.
Naidorf reached back to an architecture school project he had developed just a few years before. He had analyzed the modern office building, and decided that it was a new kind of factory: data went in, decisions came out. And even in 1950, it was clear to close observers that the computer would be replacing the huge data-crunching staffs of most businesses. From that school project, Naidorf developed the circular plan for the office floors. Wallichs budget was tight, and the efficiency of costs in building a circular structure compared to the usable floor area produced looked very good — especially when the core services (elevators, stairs, utility chases, bathrooms) could be clustered efficiently in the central core. As Naidorf calculated, 20 percent of a standard rectangular office building was devoted to utilities; his round building would require only 14 percent for utilities; radiating out from the central core, pipes and ducting didn’t have to be as long. A building without squared-off corners would save 13-20 percent in the cost of building the perimeter wall, he showed.
Becket liked fresh ideas, and agreed. The structure would be poured concrete for the ring of structural columns standing just inside the skin of the building; each floor slab, 90 feet in diameter, would be concrete too, with a slight cantilever extending outside the skin.
Wallichs initial disapproval of the scheme failed to discourage Becket. First he told Naidorf to design a more conventional, rectangular scheme; then he told Wallichs to see what his lenders, an insurance company, thought of each proposal. The bean counters liked the cost savings from the circular plan, and convinced Wallichs to build it. They even encouraged him to add more floors (13 stories was the maximum then allowed in L.A.); the lender had faith that the notable building in the center of Hollywood would attract renters that would justify extra floors. The building would be 91,900 square feet of area, with 6,300 square feet per floor.
But for all the beauty of its rational, cost-effective efficiency, the stocky cylindrical form was a problem. “Bland is the kindest thing you can say about it,” Naidorf admits; it had “the proportions of a Campbell’s tomato soup can.”
The design needed to be shaped and polished. The second floor at the base of the Tower was inset six feet, allowing the upper floors to appear to float in the air. Another pragmatic feature helped to make the Capitol Records Tower memorable: the porcelain-enameled sunscreens ringing each floor. They grow, as does all good modern design, from their function; the building was an early adopter of air conditioning for an office in Los Angeles, but before the invention of tinted, solar-heat-reducing glass, a music agent sitting at his desk in the direct sunlight would have been uncomfortably hot. Windows could be opened, but the sunshades ringing each floor would help cool the building — what we call passive solar design today.
The sunshades were designed to be a system separate from the structure itself, adding a light weight, practical-yet-ornamental feature to the Tower. The shades of porcelain-enameled metal were bolted onto steel frameworks holding them out from the surface of the building. Like thin leaves, angled downward and hovering around the curving façade, these functional elements become an intriguing, ever-changing decorative element, animating the façade as sun and shadows move around the building and slivers of light play across the façade through the day.
Another key element of the design is the steel-framed spire that rises from the roof. For those who like to see the building as a stack of records, it is an abstract stylus, the needle playing the pressed grooves of a 78 record. In fact it’s a vestigial broadcast tower, a remnant of Capitol’s scheme to include a radio station in their new headquarters. Usually these towers were open frame steel derricks, looking roughly like a small Eiffel Tower; two typical broadcast towers still rise from the roof of the 1928 Warner Bros. Theater nearby on Hollywood Boulevard. But those were old fashioned. The spirit of modern Los Angeles demanded something new; Naidorf instead designed the Tower as a piece of abstract sculpture, an asymmetrical pyramid-shaped steel framework balanced on three legs. To hide the steel frame and emphasize the modernistic volume, perforated metal panels clad the volume. Beneath it, a wide metal ring holding the “Capitol Records” name also floats out from the building on a steel armature. The spire is placed jauntily off-center, as counterpoint to the emphatic centrality of the cylindrical tower. It is a piece of integral modern art and perfectly tuned to the energy of the city.
The floors were ringed by offices, each with a secretarial desk and open to tremendous views through an uninterrupted band of windows. Corridors hug the curving central core holding elevators, stairs, restrooms, and services. As designed by Welton Becket Associates, the offices featured built-in and modern furniture to match the building, And of course the building was wired to play soft music throughout.
The main lobby off of Vine Street was also a set piece of modern design; it was an abstract composition of marble walls, thick circular columns, floating beams supporting dropped pinpoint can lights, and planters bringing the outdoors indoors. The receptionists sat in chairs designed by Charles and Ray Eames. A screen of expanded aluminum hung outside to shade them from the western sun.
The heart and soul of the building, though, are the three recording studios, partly excavated into the earth on the ground floor. These lofty spaces occupied the mysterious windowless base that originally piqued Naidorf’s curiosity. The legendary aura of the Capitol Records Tower owes a lot to the artists who recorded there, but it also owes a lot to Wallichs insistence on the highest technical standards for those studios. The echo chambers dug under the parking lot to the east were part of that. Wallichs himself was an expert in sound engineering, but they also hired acoustical engineers, and Capitol artists such as Les Paul were consulted on the equipment and sound design of the space. “There are seven layers of wall so that there will be absolute silence, and the floors are floating on an asphalt-impregnated cork to eliminate all vibration,” Wallichs reported to the press.
The result is a legendary sound studio, but also one of the most impressive (and rarely seen) modern designs in midcentury Los Angeles. It’s the definition of modernism: form elegantly following function. Each element exists to create great sound. The room was designed with no parallel surfaces, so sound is not trapped and deadened, but that also results in a remarkably energetic, asymmetrical space. Hinged panels lining the walls have soundreflecting birch wood on one side, sound-absorbing acoustical panels on the other; each can be arranged to tune the entire room, like a grand piano, to any quality of sound, bright or soft, that the musicians and producers desired. The control room window is angled, and adjustable ceiling baffles float at random angles. In seeking the perfect acoustic functionality, the room’s jagged planes, movable baffles covered in colorful cloth, and the polished wood floor create an agile, kinetic, ever-changing, ever-new, ever-modern space of tremendous abstract beauty.
Ground was broken for the Tower in September 1954, and the building opened in April 1956. A Capitol press release pegged the cost at $2 million. The Tower’s lithe and practical form, its sunshade haloes, its comfortable offices with tremendous views, the spire crowning its roof, the recording studios at its heart: put them together and you have one of the most effective pieces of modern architecture in L.A. from a period when the city was known for groundbreaking modern design. It was a model for the workplace in a new era of electronics. In Southern California history, Capitol Records stands both in contrast to the sharp functional precision of Richard Neutra’s modern architecture, and as prophetic of Frank Gehry’s exuberant geometries.
Yet so tradition-bound was the architecture profession that it would take years for the Capitol Records Tower to be recognized as something other than an advertising gimmick; rectangular boxes remained the industry standard for office towers until fairly recently. Still, the Capitol Records Tower found its way into the popular consciousness much more quickly. The term “iconic” is thrown around too freely today, but it applies to the Capitol Records Tower. It captured its place, times, and function perfectly: the boldness to be inventive and purposefully different, the symbol of the music industry swelled by the youth culture, and revolutionizing global commerce and culture. That’s an icon that can never be dislodged.