Viva La Rumba
Hagy Belzberg shakes it up at the Conga Room in downtown Los Angeles
Edie Cohen -- Interior Design, 3/1/2009 12:00:00 AM
"What does a young Jewish guy from the prosperous West Side of Los Angeles know about Latin dance and culture?" That, architect Hagy Belzberg recalls, was the question posed by Brad Gluckstein, who owns the city's venerable Conga Room with a group that includes Jimmy Smits, Jennifer Lopez, and Will.I.Am of the Black Eyed Peas. Quite a bit, it turns out. Belzberg's immediate counter: "Latin embodies many motifs, styles, and design approaches. The real question is how to contemporize the concept for a Latin club." Clearly, Belzberg aced the interview.
The Conga Room was leaving the Miracle Mile neighborhood, home since 1998, for downtown's L.A. Live, a massive RTKL Associates—designed urban-renewal project eventually slated to house hotels, restaurants, theaters, a bowling alley, and offices. Hired to deliver a two-level nightclub in a commercial building, what Belzberg Architects basically got was 14,000 square feet of obstacles—tied to entry procession, acoustics, and, well, making the place look like more than a gigantic dance floor with multiple bars and a restaurant. Belzberg first took his cue from the energy of the music itself. Nothing suggests that better than a computerized color-changing LED system with its lights in constant motion, like the dancers themselves. For additional inspiration, he went to the richly ornamental wrought iron and stained glass so prevalent in Latin design. As tech-savvy and innovative as he is, though, he took the idea of traditional ornamentation...and extrapolated it into abstract patterning.
Patterns and their underlying process became the crux of his solution, starting in the small ground-level entry that offers access to the club proper, on the second floor. "Because the club is part of a plaza, it's the kiss of death if you don't create instant allure," he says. The entry itself may be relatively subdued, but descending through a cutout in the ceiling is a glowing stalactite suspended from a sculptural canopy that undulates out across the ceiling of the upstairs lobby and dance floor. "You have a constant partner as you move up the stairway," he explains. And move people do. Starting around 8:00 PM, up to 1,000 of them congregate to work their rumba or salsa in lieu of hitting the gym. Then, the nighttime crowd takes over for live entertainment, empanadas in the restaurant, or cocktails at the four bars—one of which, sheltered by a freestanding resin-coated trellis, is by Cuban artist Jorge Pardo.
While reading as discrete entities, the suspended column and the canopy are both composed of hundreds of plywood panels, sandwiched between MDF layers and painted in a fire-retardant semigloss white. "The ceiling is the single unifying element visible above a sea of heads," Belzberg notes. Attached to steel struts, the column's elongated panels, each unique, evolve into a three-dimensional floral pattern over the dance floor. "We originally thought we could design everything with software. When we showed the files to the ceiling-panel installers, though, they needed architectural drawings and plan sections," he continues. "We ended up flipping back and forth between two-dimensional drawings and 3-D models." The panels have acoustical benefits, too—crucial for the surrounding office tenants—and reflect the light of perimeter LEDs. HVAC equipment and house lights are concealed inside the column and above the canopy.
Total sound absorption was equally necessary in the restaurant, Boca, but standard acoustical tiles were off the table for aesthetic reasons. So Belzberg turned to another artist, Mexico City—born Sergio Arau. If the Conga Room needed more "street," Arau provided it with the tattoo vibe of an "inked" butterfly that Belzberg laser-cut into composite-wood panels. Some of them form Boca's 30-foot-long front wall; others line the ceiling, with acoustical tile above. Arau also contributed the statue in the niche at the top of the stairway: a headless winged figure with the body of a conga drum. And he painted the arresting mural in a lounge near the VIP zone. This time, the angel's wings are attached to a masked wrestler, who swoops past a cartoonlike rendition of the Raquel Welch character from the movie One Million Years B.C. An unlikely duo, perhaps, but the guests downing their mojitos don't miss a beat.
Photography by Benny Chan/Fotoworks.
Cory Taylor (Project Manager); Andrew Atwood (Project Manager); Lauren Zuzack; Carina Bien-Willner; Kelly Bair; Bill Bowen; David Cheung; Dan Rentch; Barry Gartin; Brock Desmit: Belzberg Architects. John A. Martin & Associates: Structural Engineer. John Dorius & Associates: Mep. A&F Consulting Engineers: Electrical Engineer. Newson Brown Acoustics: Acoustical Engineer. Spectrum Oak Products: Woodwork. Winters-Schram Associates: General Contractor.
Dupont: Bar Solid Surfacing (Dance Floor). Bisazza: Bar Tile (Dance Floor), Riser Tile (Stairwell). Bocci: Pendant Fixtures (Dance Floor, Lounge). Junckers Hardwood: Paneling (Stairwell). Philips: Led Fixtures (Lobby). Design Your Wall: Custom Wallpaper. Cobsa: Column Tile (Lounge). Through Ylighting: Chandeliers (Restaurant). Crate And Barrel: Stools (Dance Floor). 3form: Back Bar Paneling. Beaufurn: Furniture (Mezzanine). Throughout Dutko Flooring: Flooring. Benjamin Moore & Co.: Paint.
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