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Who’s in charge of our : SKYLINE?

Leon Whiteson, a free-lance writer based in Los Angeles, writes regularly about architecture for The Times.

Standing at the window of his fifth-floor office in Irvine’s University Town Center, architect David Baab gestures at the panorama of clustered high-rise towers that form a knobby six-mile-long spine across the flat horizon.

Everything that’s good and bad about the architectural and urban development of central Orange County over the past 10 to 15 years can be plainly seen from his office window, Baab said.

“The bad part is that, given an almost completely clean slate to start with, we’ve created a disconnected, strung-out, car-obsessed metropolis populated with bland glass boxes,” he commented.

“The good part is that we’re beginning to think hard about the need to create real downtowns where people can work, live, shop and play in a pedestrian-friendly environment.”

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The surprising thing about the view from Baab’s window is that central Orange County is well on the way to becoming a linear metropolis composed of a string of high-rise urban centers stretching from Hutton Centre in the north to Newport Center in the south.

This new Southern Californian metropolis, centered around John Wayne Airport and the nearby interchange of the San Diego and Costa Mesa freeways, rivals downtown Los Angeles in area of office space and volume of business activity.

But the urbanization of central Orange County has happened so fast its commercial buildings seem to have been designed in a rush, without much concern for subtlety or attempt to develop a distinctive local style.

“With almost no traditional architectural character to give us clues to the future or bind our hands with images of the past, we should have had the imagination and the courage to create new city centers that are more than collections of mediocre and anonymous commercial towers,” says former UC Irvine campus architect David Neuman.

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“We should have taken the wonderful opportunity to create a truly local sense of place,” he said.

“Expressionless,” “boring” and “anonymous” are the epithets most outside critics, and many local designers, apply to the style of the buildings erected in central Orange County over the past 15 years.

Washington architect Joseph Passoneau, invited to critique Irvine’s urban development by the Mayor’s Institute on City Design in early 1989, described the local scene as “10-story office buildings sitting in the middle of their lots screaming at one another.”

Passoneau characterized the design of the typical Orange County office building as “schlock, kitsch and terrible.”

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Boston architecture critic Robert Campbell added that the architecture in the Irvine Business Complex is “bland and uninteresting. None of the new developments address the issue of how buildings come together to create neighborhoods.”

The uninspired character of most commercial buildings in central Orange County is illustrated by the poor showing local design makes in the standard architecture guide to Southern California.

South Coast Metro is dismissed in a brief paragraph, its main attraction being its status as the host of South Coast Plaza, the Southland’s largest regional shopping mall.

The Orange County Performing Arts Center, South Coast Metro’s proudest new building, has been characterized by critics as “a half citrus ready for squeezing,” notable only as “an upbeat note in Orange County’s ambitions to be more than a cultural wasteland.”

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A few Newport Center structures are deemed worthy of mention by the guide, including Fashion Island, which has recently undergone a radical redesign. Only the UC Irvine campus gets major attention by critics for its innovative architecture by some of the world’s leading designers. The campus has by far the best collection of modern non-residential architecture in Orange County.

Building upon a 1963 master plan by William Pereira, campus architect Neuman began a program in the 1980s to “change the character of UCI from a suburban college into an urbane campus with an ambition to be academically and architecturally first rate.”

To accomplish this new urbanity, Neuman commissioned designs for campus structures by top architects from all over the world. At the same time, UCI’s internal linkages, including walkways, bike paths and landscaping, were strengthened to give the whole campus the sense of a small city.

The UCI campus demonstrates that architectural diversity, including even the occasional bizarre or aggressively avant-garde building, is what makes a city visually stimulating. It’s the reigning bland sameness of much of Orange County’s new commercial architecture that stifles the spirit.

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Even some updated, slightly more adventurous examples of the conventional glass box, such as the Atrium on Von Karman Avenue, opened in 1986, continue the anonymous Modernist style that provides its occupants with little sense of being in a particular locality.

On the other hand, the skillful transformation by the Jerde Partnership of the Fashion Island mall in Newport Center into a pleasant place to shop, stroll or people-watch is an object lesson in the way old-style suburban malls can be upgraded to attract a more sophisticated clientele.

The main criticisms delivered by many professional designers, both local and outsider, about the state of architecture and urban planning in central Orange County may be summarized as follows:

* Individual commercial buildings are not so much ugly as boring and anonymous in design.

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* Apart from their common architectural mediocrity, these office towers, hotels and shopping malls are more concerned to assert their own egos than to combine to create a collective sense of being in a real downtown.

* There is no shared vision shaping the future of the Orange County metropolitan region, a vigorous and expanding mega-city.

Famed architect Cesar Pelli of New Haven, Conn., a former dean of the Yale School of Architecture who is designing a 21-story stainless steel office tower in Costa Mesa jointly owned by IBM and C.J. Segerstrom & Sons, says bluntly:

“We should not judge a building by how beautiful it is in isolation, but instead by how much better or worse that particular place has become by its addition.

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“If the city has not gained by the addition, we should seriously question the design and the building itself, no matter how beautiful and theoretically correct it may be.”

Pelli’s appearance on the central Orange County scene is a hopeful sign.

The fact that architects of his caliber are being commissioned to design buildings in South Coast Metro shows that leading developers in the area have begun to grasp the need to upgrade the level of design of individual buildings. And they seem willing to grapple with their collective responsibility to build downtowns that create a sense of place for the people who work, visit and live there.

“We need to develop a real feeling of being downtown in the South Coast Metro complex, with a sensitivity to the man on foot as well as his cousin in the car,” said developer Henry Segerstrom.

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“To create a real downtown in Costa Mesa we’ve developed pleasant vistas through parks like our Noguchi Gardens, and overlaid cultural facilities such as the South Coast Repertory Theater and the Orange County Performing Arts Center upon the basic regional shopping center in South Coast Plaza.”

Segerstrom also looks to a “refinement of architecture” through the commissioning of top-flight commercial designers such as Pelli, who was the architect of Manhattan’s World Financial Center. This level of design, he feels, will attract the top law firms, accounting offices and insurance companies that will give South Coast Metro an “international cachet.”

Why is Pelli’s IBM/Segerstrom design superior to that of a typical Orange County high-rise such as Hutton Centre’s Griffin Towers? The crucial difference lies not in the basic shape of these contrasting towers, which share the same essential plan, but in the sensitivity Pelli’s shows in his design’s details and proportions.

While Griffin Towers has the look of a first sketch quickly built, Pelli’s design takes care to make the skin that clads his high-rise interesting in every detail.

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He articulates the proportions of the standard system of mullions and panels that clothe his building so that they keep the eye’s interest even in close-up. In addition, he adjusts the size of the panels to fit the overall scale of the IBM/Segerstrom tower, avoiding the cookie-cutter look of so many commonplace glass boxes that seem to have been assembled from the same standard kit.

The typical glass box office building commonly seen in Orange County’s urban centers reached its height of popularity among developers nationwide in the high-flying 1960s and ‘70s, when speculative office buildings were thrown up by the hundreds all over the United States, to satisfy a seemingly insatiable demand for modern office space.

The standardization of these towers, that looked the same in Houston or Chicago, mimicked the mass production of cars or refrigerators. Their designers felt these anonymous cubes were positive expressions of our unified, one-world Global Village, transcending local, national and international boundaries and idiosyncrasies of style.

In fact, modern architecture was known as the International Style in the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s.

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Today most progressive designers despise these boring boxes and lament their lack of any local identity.

The trend now is to marry a commercial building to the character of its surroundings.

If those surroundings have few interesting characteristics or an established style, the architect attempts to give his high-rise some kind of distinctive look that draws clues from its context in more subtle ways.

“You can’t create a true sense of place if all the high-rises look the same wherever they may be,” Pelli says. “Individuality can’t come out of a packing case.”

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The absence of a shared vision or coordinated overall plan in urban Orange County can be traced to several root causes.

* The influence and independence of a relative handful of powerful developers who own large chunks of valuable land and go about their business with little effective control by local city agencies.

* A lack of clear long-range urban planning objectives by the four cities--Costa Mesa, Santa Ana, Irvine and Newport Beach--whose jurisdictions cover the central Orange County urban region.

* A scarcity of consultation and coordination among these cities, though they share the common problems of traffic congestion created by the area’s rapid commercial development.

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Varying in size from the Irvine Co.'s 64,000-acre holdings to Segerstrom’s 2,240 acres on down to smaller landowners such as Newport Beach’s Mola Development Corp., local land barons have carved powerful fiefdoms out of the commercial heart of Orange County.

The Irvine Co. has divided up the old Irvine Ranch into districts containing houses, offices, shops, research centers and the UC Irvine campus, based on a 1960 master plan prepared by architect Pereira.

Pereira’s plan, covering a territory that stretches from the Santa Ana Mountains to the Pacific, set the model that has shaped the urban form of central Orange County.

The problems with this model are inherent in the patterns of power it reflects and the increasingly outdated suburban concepts upon which it was based.

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By developing each chunk of land independently, developers have created inward-looking, isolated projects that do not relate to one another or encourage the kind of pedestrian street life that makes a city’s center worth spending time in during or after working hours.

By rigidly segregating the areas where people live from where they work, the death of downtown after the offices empty out in the evening is guaranteed. The frustration of rush-hour congestion as office workers hurry home becomes a way of life.

Spurring various initiatives to integrate residential and commercial areas is a widespread concern about what experts call “the jobs-housing imbalance.”

This means that while thousands of new jobs are added each year in central Orange County, mostly in the Irvine Business Complex and South Coast Metro areas, the number of traditional single-family homes at a price an average family or young couple can afford has fallen behind the pace of job creation.

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“The result is that people live too far from where they work,” said Irvine Co. senior planner Ron Hendrickson. “This not only generates too much traffic, it deprives people of the leisure time in which they might stroll the avenues where they live or work and so develop a stronger feeling of identity with both.”

Dan Heinfeld, president-designate of the Orange County Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, agrees.

“If we don’t want young couples who work in central Orange County to have to go as far out as Riverside to find a place to live they can afford, we must construct much more multiple-housing units, like apartments and condos, closer to the downtowns,” he said.

Heinfeld is the partner in charge of the Orange office of Leason Pomeroy Architects, designers of the $55-million John Wayne Airport terminal. The new terminal will allow the airport to double its annual passenger capacity from 4.75 million to 8.4 million when it opens this fall.

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The enlarged airport is perceived by planners as the key piece of the puzzle spurring the surrounding cities to coordinate their development strategies, including initiatives designed to integrate residential and commercial developments in a more urban scenario.

At its March 22 meeting the Costa Mesa City Council considered an Urban Center Mixed Use draft ordinance, prepared by the city’s planners, that would encourage developers to build projects that include housing--mostly rental apartments and condos--among the shops and offices in South Coast Metro. This would allow people employed in the commercial towers or in South Coast Plaza to live close by, and maybe even walk to work.

City of Costa Mesa planner Mike Robinson, one of the authors of the mixed-use ordinance, is delighted that the city itself is beginning to play a role in the area’s urban design.

“Public planning agencies in Costa Mesa must begin to provide the framework of policies that encourage the integration of living areas and work places,” he said. “This is the only way we can create livable downtowns.”

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Meanwhile in Irvine, the Irvine Business Complex, South Coast Metro’s rival for the role of central Orange County’s major urban focus, is also developing a strategy for the creation of a true downtown.

A draft plan under consideration by the city of Irvine proposes an “Urban Village Concept” for the now dispersed business center divided by the San Diego Freeway.

Criticizing past developments as “large and inward-looking . . . with no particular plan except for those of the individual sites,” the IBC plan report urges the consolidation of an Urban Village, described as “an area larger than a neighborhood, in which a host of urban needs, such as housing, employment and cultural activities are met.”

The report proposes that Von Karman Avenue will be the Urban Village’s “Great Street.” Spanning the freeway, served by an elevated monorail, lined with shops and restaurants, the Von Karman corridor will become Irvine’s grand boulevard where citizens gather to stroll, eat a leisurely lunch or dinner, watch their fellows passing by and enjoy all the amenities of metropolitan life.

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Opponents of the Urban Village concept dismiss it as “an architect’s dream.” Former Irvine City Councilman Ray Catalano says the concept is “simply there to indulge the whims of a small number of folks interested in urban design. It was done by architects and designers trying to achieve aesthetic improvements without understanding land use and traffic constraints.”

Catalano and other Urban Village concept critics claim that the current ugly collection of low-rise office buildings and leftover industrial warehouses--crude relics of the first stage of Irvine’s development--that clutter the edges of Von Karman Avenue will soon be replaced by a better class of building through the continued practice of private, piecemeal development that has ruled the past decade.

David Neuman disagrees.

“Such primitive attitudes are holdovers from the brutal early era of central Orange County’s rapid growth,” he said. “In those days private development was king and the notion of a public interest in the urban scene was little more than a bad joke.”

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Those simple-minded gold-rush days are past, Neuman insisted.

“If we’re not to continue the damaging, traffic-ridden, anti-urban development practices that now present us with so many problems, we must change the uncoordinated way we plan our cities. The future of everyone, from developers to commuters, office workers and householders, depends on the kind of common public purpose epitomized in the Urban Village.”

In pursuit of a common public purpose, the cities of Costa Mesa, Irvine, Newport Beach and Santa Ana have recently gotten together in an informal consortium to deal with shared problems arising from development around the airport.

A heavy increase in traffic on MacArthur Boulevard--the north-south thread that links most of central Orange County’s commercial centers--is a major concern for all four cities.

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Architect Ron Nestor of Costa Mesa-based architects McLarand Vasquez & Partners Inc. hopes that the creation of the consortium signals that central Orange County planners have begun to “grasp the concept that the entire urban fabric must be knitted together if we’re ever to create a real city rather than a collection of pretty private places with no interconnection.”

“The whole notion of urban design will mean little or nothing in central Orange County unless all the entities--politicians, developers and architects--pull together. Such cooperation in a common vision is the heart of a true urbanity.”

“The life of the street” is a phrase often on the lips of Orange County architects, planners and elected officials as they ponder the future development of the commercial heart of the region.

An example of how street life could be encouraged in the “real downtowns” planners propose in South Coast Metro and the Irvine Business Complex is demonstrated in a project proposed by the Intrawest Corp. for the corner of Von Karman Avenue and Michelson Drive in Irvine.

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As designed by Newport Beach architects Zimmer Gunsul Frasca Partnership, the development would mix two levels of shops and restaurants with a high-rise apartment tower set back from the street.

“People could pause to sample an aperitif as they walk home from work,” says architect Bob Frasca. “They could amuse themselves by people watching--a rare pleasure in Irvine--or follow the monorail cars gliding by on their overhead track. At last the street would come alive for people as well as cars.”

Mola Center, a 40-acre mixed-use project at the intersection of Campus Drive and Jamboree Road in Irvine, includes a mixture of hotels, apartments and offices designed to encourage an active pedestrian life within the development’s boundaries.

Developer Frank Mola says his project will serve the upscale attitudes of a younger generation of Orange County white-collar and professional workers eager for a more urbane environment.

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“The man who goes out shopping for an Armani suit will want to sit down at a sidewalk cafe and sip an espresso,” he said. “By placing apartments close to office buildings we encourage people to leave their cars at home and enjoy a stroll along the avenues.”

But designing a genuinely urban project that connects with the larger body of the central Orange County metropolitan region isn’t always easy, Mola said.

“Most of our problems relate to traffic. This means that streets like Jamboree Road are circulation arteries, not the kind of urban thoroughfares lined with shops and cafes that might encourage us to open our private and separate developments to the outside world.”


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