Times Arts Editor

Even someone who works in the heart of the city has to stroll the territory every few weeks just to keep abreast of the fast and almost phantasmagorical changes that keep taking place on and around Bunker Hill.

Just now, Arata Isozaki's stunning red sandstone Museum of Contemporary Art has been completed on Upper Grand Avenue (Grand Avenue being double-decked in this stretch, to the occasional confusion of walkers and drivers alike).

The museum does not formally open until early December, but director Richard Koshalek and his staff have already moved up the hill from the Temporary Contemporary in Little Tokyo to their permanent offices in the new place. (The Temporary is now permanent, too, of course, and will be part of the MOCA scene for the next half-century.)

Earlier this week, on a gray and wind-swept Wednesday noontime, the men who built the new museum ceremonially presented the symbolic key to it to the men and women who will operate it.

The pleasantries were held in the museum's sculpture court, with its fountain burbling away in the background. The sculptures are yet to come, but the key--a very large thing made of what looked like Plexiglas on a ring the size of a hula hoop--was scaled somewhere between a Claes Oldenberg hamburger and an Andy Warhol soup can, and seemed appropriately artful.

William Hatch represented the California Plaza partnership, which built the $23-million museum and has given an additional $1 million to its endowment. (An oversubscribed gala held Friday night will swell MOCA's funding.) William Kieschnick, who heads the museum's board of trustees, accepted the key.

There were remarks by Mayor Tom Bradley and Jim Wood, representing the Community Redevelopment Agency, under whose aegis this strikingly fruitful marriage of the public and private sectors in the interests of art became possible. Councilman Gilbert Lindsay, whose 9th District embraces Bunker Hill, gave a brief but lively sermon on practical politics, erasing any doubts that the support of the City Council was crucial.

In sunnier and less windy moments it is close to astonishing to stroll the museum's sculpture court and see the changes a little time and a great deal of capital have brought to the downtown cityscape.

To the east, across the now-empty space where a hotel will rise as a further part of the $1.2 billion California Plaza development, stand the three modernistic and attractive blocks of senior citizen housing, balconies abloom with flowers.

Just to the south in the Plaza complex is the first of its tall and darkly shining marble office towers; across Grand and beyond are more topless towers and a glimpse of one of the mirrored cylindrical wings of the Bonaventure Hotel.

To the west, there is a glimpse of another of the new hotels, the Sheraton Grande, and swinging north you can see the Music Center and the handsome Water and Power building, which between them commenced the revitalization of Bunker Hill. Just beyond them are the new blocks of condominiums that will probably do more than anything else to transform the nature of the central city by giving it an around-the-clock life.

Amid the shining and assertively high-rising grandeur of the surroundings, the Museum of Contemporary Art already looks like an oasis of low-rise tranquillity, with a curiously undated charm. (It has seven levels but rises only four stories above street level.)

Isozati's choice of the red sandstone (quarried in India, cut in Japan) seems to an amateur observer just about perfect, warm and even old-fashioned, hinting of a red brick and sandstone American civic past. The pyramidal skylights suggest a melding of cultures. But the museum is indubitably contemporary in design, what with a windowless extension of the main wing lying like a half-cylinder on its side, over the main entrance.

Yet the whole effect is of a quiet integrating of present and past, and the creation of spaces indoors and out that will admire rather than compete with the art itself. The interior exhibition areas, covering more than 40,000 square feet, with one gallery as large as a basketball court, are mostly below street level but suffused with marvelous natural light from above.

Richard Koshalek and his staff, even as they work on the next shows at the Temporary Contemporary (including a retrospective of the work of the great and courageous photographer W. Eugene Smith), are shaping the massive show for the December grand opening, a collective celebration that is to include about 80 artists and more than 400 works of their art.

Unlike the Temporary, with its raffish and inviting informality (what could be intimidating about a converted garage?), the Permanent MOCA will have to worry about an elitist image, despite its inviting warmth.

The parking in the structure itself is outrageously expensive, and there seems to be none other near at hand. And you have to hope there will be some early evening hours for day workers to enjoy the museum. While you're at it, you might as well try for perfection.

The museum's existence is a significant civic achievement, and the way it came about--a bargain in which the developers were allowed to acquire a whole 11-plus-acre Bunker Hill parcel with the additional provision that they construct the museum--is a model that other cities should view with interest.

Meanwhile, Father Serra wouldn't recognize the hill.

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