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‘What Could Have Been’ Shouldn’t

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“What Could Have Been” is the title of an engaging architectural exhibit on display at the modest Modern Museum of Art that has been fashioned out of ancillary ground-floor space of the Griffin Towers office complex in Santa Ana.

The exhibit, organized by Texas architect Peter Jay Zweig, features a capricious collection of renderings and models of a wide range of real and imagined projects designed within the last decade by mostly name architects and artists, that were never carried out.

It is a rich and evocative, if odd collection that includes some captivating drawings, in particular by Michael Graves, for his losing submission in the Phoenix government center competition; Antoine Predock, for a housing complex in the desert near Scottsdale, Ariz., and George Sowden and Nathalie du Pasquier, of a fanciful cartoon of a “square and a street in a town of squares and streets.”

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There also are some expressively wrought models of ambitious residences designed, if not overdesigned, by Zweig, Robert Mangurian and Thom Mayne and Michael Rotundi; a brash restaurant in a Memphis mode by Ettore Sottsass that bit the dust in San Francisco, and a subdued museum by Frank Gehry and William Turnbull that lost out in a Santa Cruz competition. Architecture buffs should find them fascinating and architecture students instructive.

Inherent in such an exhibit is the message that most of the projects were not realized because of a failure of vision, will or finances by forces beyond the designer’s realm, and that if they had been built, architecture, as well as the universe would have been better served.

Frankly, I don’t think so, and am glad a few of the projects failed, and hope the architects involved learned something from the process. The separate submissions by Cesar Pelli and Helmut Jahn for the Columbus Circle competition in New York City were overscaled and overwhelming. Whether this was a result of the program or the architect’s ego, the fact is both would have been done irreparable harm to the cityscape. (The winning design by Moshe Safdie was no winner either and, happily, has been chopped down by an outraged citizenry.)

Also, in my opinion, not particularly successful was Rob Wellington Quigley’s proposal for a tourist and commercial facility on the San Diego waterfront. I do not know what was worse, the purple prose included in the proposal, “the forms are different, intriguing, yet somehow familiar,” or the design, which, among other things, indicated a mega structure that blocked the view of the waterfront and a walkway that would have challenged a high-wire artist.

In addition, I found the Gehry-Turnbull concept for the Triton Museum of Art badly sited and uninspired; the proposal by James Wines of SITE for a high-rise structural system to accommodate single-family houses, pure pie-in-the- face; the Graves entry a strained search for allegories, and the initial submission by Gwathmey Siegel & Associates for an addition to the Guggenheim Museum in New York City not particularly respectful of Frank Lloyd Wright’s original design or the neighbors.

I felt more kindly disposed to the private housing, believing that this is a matter between the architect and the client rather than between the architect, client and the public. I hope someday the houses can be built, though not necessarily next door to mine.

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Most inviting to me was the most fanciful project, Sowden and du Pasquier’s drawing of a townscape. Shown on a large canvas was a mix of individual building types, uses, construction materials and bright colors, all interacting to decorate and energize a series of public spaces. It would not make a bad plan to lend some life to the sterile office park in which the museum is located.

The exhibit will continue through June 10 at the museum at Griffin Towers, which is located at 5 Hutton Centre Drive. Hours are Tuesdays though Fridays, from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., and weekends, noon to 5 p.m. For more information and directions, please call 714/754 4111.

What Might Be: When in Santa Ana, I learned of two projects there that, while still very much in the formative stages, had some interesting elements, and just what an urban design doctor might prescribe to start focusing an Orange County that seems to be stumbling in the midst of a very awkward adolescence.

The first project is being designed by the firm of Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates and calls for a concentration of cultural facilities complementing an expanded Bowers Museum and anchoring the north Main Street corridor and a revitalized commercial district. Stressed is the streetscape, enhanced by a promenade and an arts plaza that encourage pedestrian activity.

The second project is a more intense mixed-use district with an emphasis on housing and shopping. This very urban and needed concoction is being shaped by an equally intense design team of Jon Jerde doing the retail; Fisher Friedman, of San Francisco, the housing, and M. Paul Friedberg, of New York, the cityscaping. The promoter is local developer Roger Torriero.

What also might be, or let’s hope so, is Showa Village, a pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use proposal for the area known as First Street North in Little Tokyo, designed by the team of Johannes Van Tilburg & Partners and Gensler & Associates and packaged by the Janss Corp. and the Peck/Jones Partnership.

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Consisting of an imaginative blend of office, hotel, residential and retail uses, streetscaping and the recycling of two local landmarks, the proposal evolved out of a conscientious planning process to become the preferred scheme of the local community. And this despite local Councilman Gilbert Lindsay lobbying for other schemes over the years.

But it seems Lindsay is not done yet, and has been delaying the various votes of the City Council which the scheme needs to move forward. One of these days it would be refreshing for Lindsay to make a decision based on the design of a project instead of its politics. Then, perhaps, downtown, which is everyone’s district, not just Lindsay’s, will begin to look and function like a central city, not a political fiefdom.

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