Who knew James Corner, the landscape architect best known for his work on the acclaimed High Line elevated park in Manhattan, had such a picturesque streak?
The British-born Corner and his New York firm Field Operations have just finished their first major project in California. The $46.1-million park covers seven acres just west of Santa Monica City Hall, two blocks from the beach. It will open officially with a ceremony on Oct. 19 but could be accessible to the public, once the construction fencing is taken down, as early as a few days after Labor Day.
It's actually two parks in one. A small park right at the foot of City Hall, partly open already, is called Ken Genser Square, in honor of the city's late mayor. A much larger space, named Tongva Park after one of the L.A. basin's original Native American populations, is on the other side of Main Street, filling six acres on the site of the old Rand Corp. headquarters.
What's most surprising about the design of the bigger section is how organic and naturalistic it has turned out to be. Based on the rather earnest theme of the arroyo — and with a site plan matching the spreading veins of a leaf — Tongva Park is dominated by a series of winding paths and modest hills thickly planted with a mixture of native and drought-tolerant plants.
Viewing platforms overlooking the ocean and the Santa Monica Pier are wrapped inside oval forms that suggest both breaking waves and woven baskets.
An early version of the design, published not long after Corner beat out prominent competitors for the park including Frank Gehry and the veteran landscape architect Peter Walker in early 2010, featured spare rectangular frames atop the overlooks.
They paid indirect homage to art's Light and Space movement, which was led by Robert Irwin, James Turrell and others and got its start in and around Santa Monica in the 1960s.
In the finished version those frames are gone. So, in a broader sense, is any significant connection between the park design and the postwar or contemporary artistic and architectural culture of Santa Monica — or even its particular climate. Most arroyos, after all, are a lot more arid and lot farther inland.
Still, the project is unquestionably a rare example of farsighted urban planning in Southern California, which may in the end be its most important legacy. Santa Monica is ready to unveil an ambitious new public space more than two years before the completion of the second phase of the Expo Line, whose final stop, at 4th Street and Colorado Avenue, will be just two blocks away.
Certainly the park is poised to be hugely popular both as a place to walk and as a shady refuge from the lively, aggressive commercialism of the pier and nearby Third Street Promenade. It includes dense clusters of large sycamore, olive, pine, ficus and strawberry trees, a children's playground, a generous supply of benches and large tables and a shaded picnic grove.
In large part the park's calm, fluid character represents the canniness and political sophistication for which Corner is well known. In the arroyo theme he found an approachable aesthetic that he figured would win broad support in a city known for a tricky and sometimes punishing kind of public-design process. And he was right.
Still, it would hardly be fair to describe Corner's approach here as pandering or insincere. The High Line was a project fraught with tension about who deserved credit as lead designer. Corner and Field Operations were officially the chief designers, but many writers showered primary praise instead on architects, who sometimes did little to correct them.
Corner teamed with an architect in Santa Monica too — the L.A. firm Frederick Fisher and Partners. But this time around Corner hasn't left any doubt about who's running the design team. He wasn't about to make that mistake again.
What Corner has produced here seems equal parts strategic and genuine. You might say he's found the sweet spot between his own design sensibility and one capable of surviving public meeting after public meeting in Santa Monica.
The design of Ken Genser Square has gone through several iterations, in part over concerns about how it might affect Santa Monica City Hall, a 1939 PWA Moderne building by Donald Parkinson and Joseph Estep. It shows the strain of that long and involved process.
It might have worked well as an emptier space, a kind of lightly planted civic plaza. Or it might have succeeded as an obvious and direct extension of Tongva Park.
Instead it hovers somewhere in between, more formal than the design across the street but not nearly open enough to work as a real gathering spot or location for political protest. And the crosswalks leading from it to Tongva Park leave pedestrians surprisingly exposed to the car and bus traffic along this stretch of Main Street.