Shopping center

In LA, a mall is reborn as a workplace

The original building was designed by Victor Gruen & Associates, the pioneering firm that partly invented the indoor mall. Although the building has not been designated a Historic-Cultural Landmark by the City of Los Angeles, the exterior is considered potentially significant. GPI and HLW chose to preserve key elements of the original exterior, which features classically inspired white concrete pilasters at 25-foot intervals that flare outward to support a roof of mansard style. On a much smaller scale, the redesign retained some of the original May Company terrazzo flooring.

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“I am very pleased that this restriction has been imposed on us,” said Sejal Sonani, AIA, general manager of HLW’s Los Angeles office. “It tells a better story: it’s what was there before and it’s the new insertion into it. There’s something about keeping the urban fabric of Los Angeles alive as it undergoes all the changes.

Whichever tenants move in, they will be entitled to extensive interior design options. The 16-foot ceilings on the first floor and the slightly lower ceilings on the second and basement levels are high enough to allow for the construction of mezzanines and multi-storey interior modules.

The adaptation eliminates the masonry walls that made Macy’s a sunless box and replaces them with floor-to-roof windows that give the office spaces expansive views. HLW’s signature modification involved cutting out a 52-foot-wide courtyard, removing the roof and exterior walls to separate the building into two halves. The yard slopes down to the basement, bringing in enough natural light to make it feel at ground level. A beautiful paneled staircase connects the three floors.

As large as the project was, it required relatively minimal approvals from the city. GPI chose not to modify the building envelope, and the move from retail to office did not trigger any significant municipal or environmental review.

These details, however, do not match the enormity next door.

The original May Co. was a stand-alone box adjacent to a bowling alley, single-screen movie theater, and retail store. Most of it was razed in the early 1980s to make way for the Westside Pavilion shopping centre, a postmodern shopping extravaganza designed by The Jerde Partnership, which is itself being converted into offices under developer Hudson Pacific and the Gensler architecture firm. The two projects are legally distinct but are functionally and stylistically related. Longer and taller than West End, the mass of Westside Pavilion – more than twice the square footage of West End – resembles that of a container ship. Both projects rely on clean lines and black glass and coatings in a sort of inviting corporate modernism. (Google, which leased the converted Westside Pavilion, did not make tours of the building or photographs available to the press).

The Pico Boulevard store was one of three nearly identical May Company stores in the Los Angeles area, developed during the height of the Southern California suburban boom.
Exterior of mid-century department store, now an office complex

The buildings are no longer connected, but they will share a newly constructed parking structure and, like the old shopping complex, will likely be interpreted as a single complex by casual observers.

The West End’s biggest disappointment is at street level. Although the courtyard and new entrance on Pico Boulevard make the building more welcoming than Macy’s, the pandemic has dampened ambitions to activate the sidewalk. A set of rust-colored metal doors have been added to control entry from the street, and the planned retail and dining spaces facing the sidewalk will likely be absorbed into offices.

The result is a major urban intersection that hasn’t changed in decades. Across Pico is an austere 1960s bank that looks like a miniature version of the May Co. building, and across Overland is a modernist four-story office building. Diagonally across the intersection: a gas station.

As always, LA’s automotive-focused cityscape is anything but a giveaway.