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ARCHITECTURE : Venice’s Windward Circle Recalls Past but Lacks Focus, Character

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Aaron Betsky, a resident of West Hollywood, teaches and writes extensively about architecture.

Stand in the middle of Windward Circle in Venice today, and all one sees is a traffic circle and a few forlorn buildings, including a post office, a video store, a Japanese restaurant and some apartments. If one had stood on the same spot 75 years ago, one would have been floating in an imported Venetian gondola, adrift in a “lagoon.”

Canals would have radiated out all around into quaint residential neighborhoods, while on one side the biggest, baddest roller coaster in California would be careening off into the sky. This was the heart of the fantastic world of Venice, Calif., where Italy met Coney Island and the fantasies never stopped.

Venice architect Steven Ehrlich is trying to revive the excitement of Windward Circle. In the last four years, he has designed and built no fewer than three buildings on the circle, each meant as a reference to the former glory of the circle, which was filled in, along with the other canals, in 1929. The Arts Building, a three-story house on the east side of the circle, is meant to recall the Antlers Hotel that once stood on the site. It does that by referring to the composition of the original facade, but with a twist: the columns that made an elaborate stucco arcade in the original are now concrete-filled culvert pipes, and the windows and roofs play an abstract, thoroughly modern game with the past.

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In fact, modern abstraction is the signature of all three buildings. Just to the south of the Arts Building stands a mixed-use building called “The Race Through the Clouds.” It is meant to recall a roller coaster of that name that once stood there through the use of a blue neon curve and metal grating that run through a plain stucco facade.

The oversized windows and complicated shapes of this little building give one the idea that its video store and offices are part of a grander past.

The Ace Market Place Bulding across the circle is a block of offices above a ground floor and mezzanine of shops. It sports erector-set steel beams that are meant to remind of the shapes of the steam-shovels used to dredge the original lagoon and to fill it in. The name of the building refers to another part of Venice’s past, the Ace Gallery that was the center of the Venice avant garde art scene of the 1970s.

Together, these three buildings are supposed to make a dense and rich world that is no longer visible today. Unfortunately, the gestures are so abstract and the reality of the buildings has so little to do with the original character of the lagoon that one only gets the history if one already knows it.

But Ehrlich has even grander ambitions. “As elements of a contemporary piazza,” he says, “the buildings create an urban edge and animated container for activities around the circle.”

But Windward Circle is still just a traffic island, and the three buildings are lost in a space much larger than they are, with no particular focus or character.

The reality of traffic engineering, the economics of how buildings work and how they are built, and an inability to develop one’s own architectural fantasies leave the three Windward Circle buildings sitting as rather forlorn reminders of a failure at making urban places with any kind of integrity, meaning or fun.

* Windward Circle: Grand Boulevard, Venice.

* Architect: Steven Ehrlich


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