A Sense of Place in an Age of Alienation

The focus of architecture's spotlight in recent decades has been on private projects: idiosyncratically designed single-family houses, boldly styled corporate office towers, flamboyantly decorated festival markets and malls and independent institutions searching for a signature structure.

The commercial projects obviously were designed to engage customers and clients, but still, when you walk through their doors, you are on private ground, a guest. A shopping center, no matter how inviting, is not a public street or a park.

As for most of the other private efforts, they have been isolated, inaccessible objects, located behind fences, hedges and guarded gates, contributing little to the public experience of the city and the civic pride of its residents.

In fact, an argument can be made that the waves of indulgent private architecture of recent years--the mini-malls, monster mansions, obese office towers and other anti-contextual exercises--have heightened the depressing sense of anomie that marks most of our cities in this age of alienation.

But there are a few hopeful signs that the currents of architecture are changing and that public projects fashioned to engender a sense of pride and place once again will be a major focus of the design community, as it was at the beginning of the century.

During that period, in the wake of the so-called City Beautiful movement, a variety of public projects blossomed.

These included what are now some of Los Angeles' most prominent architectural landmarks, such as the Central Library, City Hall, Exposition Park and the Beverly Hills and Pasadena civic centers.

And it is civic centers that once again are pacing architecture's public presence.

Nearing completion is the ambitious expansion of the Beverly Hills civic center. It is a fanciful plan that includes a new firehouse, police station, library and city offices focused on three palm-lined oval courtyards, styled in the Spanish Baroque spirit of the 1931 City Hall.

The $83-million project, when completed at the end of this year, promises to offer an appropriately extravagant public focus for a city known for its private extravagances.

It was designed with a flourish by Charles Moore and the Urban Innovations Group, and the landscape architectural firm of Campbell & Campbell.

Also under way is the expansion and revitalization of the landmark Pasadena civic center, a marvelous collection of classically styled public structures sited in the beaux-arts tradition of the City Beautiful movement and centered on a wedding cake of a City Hall.

The expansion includes a new police station (designed by nouvelle classicist Robert Stern), extensive landscaping and street furnishings (once again by the traditionalist Campbell & Campbell) and a sensitive mix of complementary commercial and residential uses (by mix master Johannes Van Tilburg).

"The object is to lend new life to old spaces, building upon the generations of pride Pasadena residents feel for the civic center," said Marsha Rood of the city's redevelopment agency. "We want to reinforce the center's place as the focal point of the city."

In San Diego County, the recently completed first phase of the Romantic-Spanish-styled Escondido civic center is drawing rave reviews as a public place during the workweek and a setting for weddings on weekends.

Also promising is the modest, accessible design for Oceanside's new civic center, now under construction.

Unfortunately not being constructed is the West Hollywood civic center, the plan for which has narrowly defeated last year by 170 or so votes in a controversy concerning the proposed site at San Vicente and Santa Monica boulevards.

The plan called for a distinctive assemblage of public buildings and spaces (designed by Chang & Sherman, with Gruen Associates), offering the fledgling city a needed identity. A new site is being sought.

The latest plan for a civic center comes out of Culver City, which a few weeks ago approved an energetic scheme that seeks to lend the city a sense of history while providing its downtown with a focus.

Both are desperately needed, for Culver City appears at present to be not much more than a fragmented collection of residential enclaves in a confused web of ugly commercial strips that slice and dice the city into unappealing bits and pieces.

And this despite the city's increasing attractiveness as one of the few reasonably priced areas on the Westside.

"The plan is an outgrowth of civic pride, or perhaps more accurately, a search for civic pride," said Culver City's community development director Jody Hall-Esser.

She explained that in orchestrating the limited competition and public review that led to the selection of the plan, it was obvious that "people were looking for some identification with the city, a flag in the wind."

Particularly appealing is that the winning plan by the architectural firm of CHCG went beyond just designing a City Hall that the competition called for, and addressed the issue of a civic center and the potential there for a pedestrian experience.

The new city hall is to be located on a site encompassing the old, earthquake-unsound City Hall at Culver Boulevard and Duquesne Avenue.

Instead of siting the parking at ground level in the rear of the new City Hall as originally suggested, it places it below grade, with access by an open, lushly landscaped stairway to a formal square in front of the building and open to the street.

The result is an accessible, attractive public space in the rich tradition of the Spanish Mission style the city requested the center take.

In a gesture to the city's past, the existing facade of the old City Hall is saved to form an arch for a heritage park featuring historically symbolic plantings and materials.

The facade also will block in part the view to the northwest of the obnoxious, over-scaled MGM building and its loading dock. There are plans to further divert the view toward a plaza across the street, and the welcome redevelopment of the Moderne-styled Culver Theatre.

Distinguishing the plan is the clear intent not to treat the new City Hall as just a public service building, but rather as the "corner stone" of an effort to "protect and extend pedestrian and public values" in the renaissance of downtown, according to CHCG's David Goodale.

There are still questions concerning the detailing and massing of the City Hall, in particular how it can be more assertive in its relationship to the street and its neighbor to the northeast, the Mission-styled Meralta office building.

Culver City does not need another syrupy suburban exercise. It is time for it to become a city. The civic center would be a start.

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