April 22, 1993|AARON BETSKY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Aaron Betsky teaches and writes about architecture
Hollywood was founded by temperance-minded religious pioneers who dreamed of a city of churches, not saloons. Ironically, it became the sin center of Los Angeles, filled with worldly entertainment ranging from raunchy sex to rock 'n' roll.
There are only a few churches left, and those that exist must adapt themselves to a hostile environment. A case in point is the Seventh-day Adventist Church at Hollywood Boulevard and Van Ness Avenue. Its sanctuary is hidden by a formidable bunker of concrete block, while its nave offers itself as a freeway equivalent to the cathedral of Chartres, rising up above the road to mark the place of devotion.
The church is a landmark: It marks the place where the Hollywood Freeway bisects Hollywood and starts its sweeping ascent through the Cahuenga Pass. Depending on your perspective, the Seventh-day Adventist Church is shaped either like a boat of faith riding out onto this river of passing humanity or like a spindle for this movement. Its thin spire rises out of a circle of steel fins that look like the gear for the curved apse that confronts the boulevard and then comes apart into four fins facing north.
The image that comes to mind is that of a car engine, and it would be easy to see this building (as one rather irreverent critic put it) as God's Own Gas Station, but architect Robert Burman claims that the form is just an expression of the triangular site and the tradition of modern places of worship. Burman moved to Los Angeles in 1959 from Seattle to design this church, which opened in 1962. Since then he has graced the Southland with dozens of ecclesiastical structures. His churches are plays of folded white planes that stretch over the interior spaces in overlapping geometries that allow light to seep in between their structural members.
That certainly is the case in the Hollywood Seventh-day Adventist Church. Walk into the nave, and you see nothing but planes held up by high-strength, thin steel tubes. Between the splayed planes, Burman placed glass that is invisible from the main space but lets a sequence of yellow, pink, blue and green light wash around the structure. A rounded apse of folded planes leading to randomly placed panes of glass ends the whole space, while a large chandelier and pulpit mirror the finned steeple outside, giving you the sense that the whole building is revolving into religious mystery around that one, sharp point.
The reality of mundane concerns and the passing of time unfortunately dull the impact of this gesture. On the outside, the main nave is covered with a glittering Venetian glass tile that, with the years and the application of weatherproofing, has turned into a rather undignified pinkish purple. The various offices and classrooms that surround the sanctuary are bland and uninspired, though functional.
The worst part of the Seventh-day Adventist Church is its attitude toward the city; from the street level, its great curving gesture remains hidden behind a deep and tall wall of textured concrete block. This helps keep the street noise and violence out but also manages to project a sense of animosity toward Hollywood. Even worse, you enter the building through a giant parking lot at the rear of the structure.
Burman had plans for a more open structure that included courtyards and a friendlier texture to the walls, but budget restrictions and an increase in the needs of the church led to the current bunker configuration. Like many modernist architects, Burman is fascinated with such basic elements of building as structure and light, perhaps at the expense of a concern for how the building fits into the neighborhood. The result is a modern structure, isolated in its purpose and its design. The Seventh-day Adventist Church is a great building to drive by, but I am not sure I would want to live near it.
Seventh-day Adventist Church: 1711 N. Van Ness Ave., at Hollywood Boulevard
Architect: Robert Burman