City Review : Government Facility Rises Above Post-Prop. 13 Level : San Bernardino Center Gives City a Needed Focus

Times Urban Design Critic

New public buildings in recent years generally have been dismal affairs, products of prosaic architects and petty bureaucrats hiding behind the excuse of budget constraints.

That is why the new San Bernardino County Government Center is so welcome. It is a rare and needed example in this post-Proposition 13 age of successful, economical civic design.

Coming at time when it seems the public sector has all but abandoned its role in shaping cities to private interests, the center asserts itself in planning, design and execution to dominate the clutter that is downtown San Bernardino.

The center is dramatically sited on what had been 4th Street between Arrowhead and Mountain View avenues, providing the sprawling city a desperately needed focal point, and those in the building some very scenic views of downtown and beyond.

Closing the street also provided the county a relatively inexpensive site with no relocation and demolition problems for the construction of the center, which is the first and critical stage in a long-range, sympathetic plan to redevelop the county complex of government offices and courts.

The plan and the design for the center is a joint venture of Kurt Meyer Partners and Archiplan Collaborative, with Meyer serving as the principal in charge. Coordinating the effort for the county was administrative officer Robert Rigney and project manager Robert Wilkinson.

Together they took a complex program involving a variety of uses totaling about 160,000 square feet, and within the strict constraints of a $20-million budget came up with something more than just another government office building. It was an exemplary effort.

The center first and foremost seems to be a pleasant, efficient place in which to work, get some paper or other stamped, or a question answered. The circulation pattern on the two lower public floors is simple and various public counters and meeting areas are accessible.

While the space planning by Michael Sanchez & Associates is effective, the interior design by the same firm appears cluttered with too many materials and textures.

It is nice to have a touch of marble, some natural woods and a smattering of fabrics to soften surfaces, but their blending takes sensitive detailing that is missing here. Not helping is some heavy public art, in particular just a few too many bas-relief panels hanging between a few too many decorative columns in the rotunda.

Where the blending of the detailing and public art does work is in an exceptionally well-appointed cafeteria, at least for a government facility. Spilling out onto a landscaped terrace through glass doors affording a spectacular view of distant mountains, the cafeteria is open to the public as well as county employees.

Particularly attractive is the hearing chamber of the county's Board of Supervisors. It was designed as a theater-in-the-round, placing the supervisors on the same level as the flanking public seating and creating a much more intimate space than the usual raised stage dominating an auditorium.

The fifth-floor offices of the supervisors, their staff and the county administrative officer also are attractive, bathed in natural light filtering through two continuous linear skylights and taking full advantage of the views.

Sense of Ceremony

But government buildings serving the public and where elected officials sit in deliberation should be more than efficient, pleasant structures. They should be civic symbols with a sense of ceremony and place. That, the San Bernardino County Center definitely is, in part due to its placement on an axis, its facade, shape and landscaping.

Its placement on an axis on 4th Street lends visual prominence, which is reinforced by a well-scaled, strong facade accented by textured, precast concrete panels and a distinctively arched roof line.

The form was well chosen, for the classical arch for centuries has been used by governments as both symbolic and functional entries to cities, public spaces and public buildings. It is a nice touch of architectural allegory, executed without a heavy hand that has marked many of the so-called post- modern design efforts in which classical fragments and allusion are used.

As for the precast panels, their finish and light purple gray color is supposed to recall the pastel tones of the distant San Gorgonio Mountains at dusk. Whatever, they go well with the gray glass windows in the north and south facades and the reflective glass in the east and west facades.

Also functional as well as symbolic is the Arrowhead Plaza in front of the building. A sunken court with Valencia orange trees and Canary Island palms, cascading water and well-placed benches forms a pleasant gathering place, a miniature square of sorts, while symbolizing the mountains, rivers and agriculture of the county. The landscape architect was POD Inc.

A disappointment is the concrete wall separating the plaza from the sidewalk and street, which the county uses to advertise its new center, as if its prominent location and distinctive architecture were not enough of a signature. The wall makes for an awkward entry into the plaza while blocking views to and from the street.

The center also can be approached from a parking lot to the north and from a courthouse to the south under a pedestrian arcade. The arcade is a nice touch, providing shade as well as connecting and architecturally integrating the new center and the old courthouse.

Hopefully, the center will set a standard for the other structures scheduled to be constructed as part of a master plan for the county complex.

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