The 63-year-old Capitol Records Building may look like a stack of records with a rooftop spire resembling a phonograph needle, but according to its designer, 91-year-old architect Louis Naidorf, that’s just a coincidence.
“I designed the bloody thing,” laughs Naidorf, speaking over the phone from his home in Santa Rosa, California. “Unequivocally, it had nothing to do with a stack of records. If it were IHOP, everyone would think that it looks like a stack of pancakes or plates. If it were Firestone, everyone would think that it looks like a stack of inner tubes. There are lots of things that look like that.”
That the building’s design resembled a stack of records is, in fact, the reason Capitol co-founder Glenn Wallichs initially shunned it and sent Naidorf back to the literal drawing board to design a traditional rectangular building instead, worried it would be perceived as a cheap advertising stunt. His boss Welton Becket, however, suggested Wallichs take models of both the circular and rectangular plans to the insurance company who was helping pay for the building’s construction. According to Naidorf, the insurance company encouraged Wallichs to opt for the round design.
Naidorf recalls, “The insurance company said, ‘Glenn, you’re not on Hollywood Boulevard. You’re up some damn side street and you’re only occupying half of the building and leasing out the rest. People won’t laugh at the building, but they will notice it and that’s damn good for leasing. Do the round one.'”
When it came to designing the building’s rooftop spire, which covers an antenna, Naidorf was told the upper floors were intended to house a radio station. Accordingly, he designed an antenna he made asymmetrical specifically not to look like a phonograph needle.
“At that point, I was getting an enormous amount of laughs and static from everyone in the office,” he says. However, plans for the radio station were ultimately nixed, leaving the antenna without a use. Naidorf laughs, “They have a nice thing on top that has done nothing but hold up an asymmetrical Christmas tree every year.” He finds more humor in the red light atop the spire that spells out “Hollywood” in Morse code every few seconds: “It’s like the building is sending tweets,” he says.
Constructed from 1955-1956, the Capitol Records Building was Naidorf’s first architectural project as a young design architect at Los Angeles firm Welton Becket & Associates. Without initially knowing who commissioned the tower (“It was top secret,” Naidorf says) the 24-year-old was tasked with designing a 13-story building, 150 feet tall, on a sloped section of Vine Street in Hollywood. He was given few instructions beyond that the building had to be kept as cool as possible, that work spaces had to be equal in size with no corner offices and that the building would be constructed on top of a windowless box at the base. Naidorf initially experimented with boxy designs but ultimately drew upon the master’s thesis he’d written while studying at the University of California, Berkeley about a government center with circular office buildings.
Beyond its technical requirements, Naidorf says his intention was to design a “happy” building. “I thought there was another client even when there was only supposedly one … who was just as important, who was invisible, who couldn’t speak to the client and who didn’t exist until the building was finished: the building’s occupants. While the president may be happy in his office, secretaries, clerks, junior executives and mailroom employees were not leading such enchanted lives driving in on packed highways from the suburbs and trying to determine if they have time to stop for gas before work on a Monday after the weekend. The expression is, ‘Thank God, it’s Friday’ and not ‘Thank God, it’s Monday,’ so I felt an obligation as an architect to do everything I could to ameliorate the impact of coming to the building by making it light, animated, generous, kindly, open and transparent, rather than off-putting.”
Though for years Naidorf rebuked the longstanding and popular misconception that the building’s design was meant to resemble a stack of records, his attitude has since softened. “It used to irritate me. Not now,” he says. “It was designed 67 years ago, so I’ve had a lot of time to have this question arise ad nauseam. I finally came to a decision that we live in a world where happiness is a little fragile and where there are more tears than laughter so, really, what difference does it make if people think that and they like the building and it pleases them? It’s more important that a person has a smile than so-called truth when joy, happiness and simple pleasures are in short supply.”
Proud of his creation, its landmark status and firm entrenchment in popular culture, Naidorf amusedly notes that the Capitol Records Building has been destroyed in a slew of films: blown up in Independence Day, hit by an earthquake in Earthquake, and ravaged by a tornado in The Day After Tomorrow, among other films in which it was obliterated. Quietly reflecting for a moment, he says humbly and quietly, “It’s a sweetheart. I like the building. Sixty seven years is a pretty long time for a design to hold up. It’s a real kick. It’s a strange thing, this project that had such a strange birth. It was either sophisticated or very naive or both.”
Naidorf, who’s never retired, remains as passionate about architecture in his 90s as he was in his 20s — paying to keep his license active, taking continuing education classes and mentoring younger architects. Referring to his age, he laughs and says, “I’m hanging on by a pretty frayed rope.”
The best advice I’ve ever received was when the director of design in the office said, “Be brave.” And he meant it in a design sense. To be faced with two alternatives, take the bolder one. I think we’re always concerned with choices and I think the success lies in taking the braver and bolder choice most of the time.
What I’ve learned in hindsight is that love gained is extraordinary and that love lost is incredibly painful, but the gain is worth the loss. I’ve lost two wives who died and in each case, in different ways, it was extremely painful but they were fine women. I loved them intensely and I received that in return from them and, in a way, I think to share an intense love with another person is the best thing in the world but it’s also incredibly painful when, for any reason, you lose it. You can’t let the prospect of loss keep you from seeking that kind of loving relationship.
When you’re coming up in a career, follow a path of complete honesty and transparency. Avoid entanglements with self-seeking gains to office politics and focus on doing an outstanding job and don’t waste one moment of energy in trying to be clever to avoid things. Focus your attention on doing the most outstanding job that you can do.
I was fortunate in that I didn’t choose to be an architect. The profession pulled me in. I’ve never given it a single thought, but I do enjoy the entire field of knowledge. Beyond one’s personal profession, whether it’s in the arts or business or whatever, it’s important to expand your knowledge of the sciences, the arts, human emotions, how your body works, of every aspect of life because we’re called upon as citizens to make informed judgments and that calls for us to be informed.
I’ve never understood why the seven deadly sins don’t include ignorance and cruelty. They have anger and gluttony and lust in there, but I’d much rather have a person eat three slices of apple pie but be kind and well informed. Gluttony doesn’t come anywhere close to ignorance. I’m not talking about stupidity. I’m talking about failing to be informed and to deliberately cut yourself off from knowing things. That must lead to every kind of error there is.
The easiest thing is when you’re knocked down to stay down. It’s also the worst thing. The easiest thing is not to make a decision but, in my experience, you can’t steer a car that isn’t moving, so if you want to make a future for yourself — and in large part our future is in our hands — it’s necessary to be active. It’s best when faced with an issue to move ahead. You can always make course corrections, but you can’t do anything if you remain parked at the curb. Do something.
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