Downside or Upside : Ventura...


Look at Antoine Predock--his shock of white hair, his double-breasted suit, his world-class resume as an architect--and try not to smile when he describes himself as an artless engineering student.

"I never dreamed of following an artistic life," Predock said recently, sipping a Dr Pepper in a corner of Thousand Oaks' interim City Hall. "But fortunately, as an engineering student, I had a professor in a technical drawing class who was an architect. He projected a commitment that was beyond the job. And it was infectious. . . .I was 21."

At 54, Predock is still infected, and now renowned.

In the opinion of Times architecture critic Leon Whiteson, Predock's "profound sense of place" has elevated him "from an obscure New Mexico regionalist into a 'cosmic modernist' with an international reputation."

Predock designed the Fine Arts Center at the University of Arizona in Tempe and the central library and children's museum in Las Vegas. Shuttling between studios in Albuquerque and Los Angeles, he has large-scale hotel projects rising in Paris and Orlando, Fla., the second of those a commission by Disney. And then there is his connection with Thousand Oaks--the city's $63.8-million Civic Arts Plaza project.

Predock teamed with Dworsky Associates of Los Angeles to land the job two years ago, and a public debate has percolated ever since.

In a bedroom community whose architecture runs to red tile roofs and contemporary Mediterranean styles, Predock condemns the misappropriation of Spanish design. In his design for the new City Hall and a neighboring 1,800-seat theater, he proposes buildings with ancient Chumash markings, unpredictable geometry and nary a red tile. And he describes his intentions in terms seldom heard in City Council meetings:

The duality of earth and sky . . . . the fusion of land and building.

More often than he is used to, the public answers back.

At a recent public hearing, a critic charged that the architect's design was "too cold, too harsh, too unrepresentative of what Thousand Oaks is all about."

Said another, sitting in a wheelchair and contemplating a series of terraces on one side of the project: "What this building says to me is 'You're not welcome here.' "

And a third opponent said: "This building doesn't belong in Thousand Oaks. I don't think it belongs in California."

Others spoke up for the project, and city officials offered assurances that it would meet all state handicapped access requirements. But the relentless democracy of the experience, Predock concedes, has been more than he bargained for.

"The length of the public process--revisiting ideas time and time again--strikes me as a bit unusual. . . . I don't intend to compromise my architecture to the point of dilution. But I'm going to listen to the collective voice here as best I can," he said.

Already Predock has added greenery to soften the building's impact, eliminated a costly access road, repositioned the entire complex slightly lower on the sloped site, and reduced the height of the theater's backstage fly tower.

"A lot of architects aren't used to that," said Ed Johnduff, administrative services manager for Thousand Oaks, who has watched the designer's many public encounters. "It's been tough for Predock, because he's worked for people like Disney. He's handled it pretty well, actually. He's a class guy."

Certainly, he's a rare guy.

He won't take a project, he says, if the client isn't inspired or willing to push any limits.

He keeps a rock from the Thousand Oaks site in his West Coast studio to help him stay focused on the site.

He says any design, including a jail, can be art, because "I don't think that has anything to do with the type of building. It has to do with the intensity brought to the table in designing it."

He hopes to borrow from ancient Chumash imagery for the project's most prominent wall adornment--pictograph inscriptions of a serpent, a condor and a cluster of stars above the theater entrance, hints at the duality of earth and sky.

"It's very important to coordinate that with the Chumash elders," Predock added, "to clear it, spiritually . . . with those who have an original connection."

In Tempe, he designed the backside of a playhouse fly tower to double as an outdoor movie screen, and housed a multipurpose performance space in a structure that Progressive Architecture magazine called a "magic mountain."

Asked to name a favorite project designed by someone else, Predock suggests the Earth. When that answer is rejected, he counters with the Ryoan-ji temple in Kyoto, Japan, a 500-year-old structure accompanied by a garden of raked gravel and granite stones, suggesting islands in the sea to some, clouds in the sky to others.

"It creates associations that go way beyond its physical presence," said Predock, who was at the temple in 1973. The lesson he came away with, he said, was that "architecture can live outside itself at symbolic levels."

Closer at hand, however, is the birth and life of the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza.

Having reached the halfway point in his design development for the project two weeks ago, Predock took his plans to the City Council. Twelve citizens opposed the plans and 12 supported them.

"People are concerned about exceptions to norms around here," Johnduff said. "There's a homogeneity that people really like."

The council took testimony and debated for three hours before approving it, but with half a dozen conditions attached. Handicapped accessibility would be reviewed. Ways to further emphasize the entrance to City Hall would be explored. A possible alternative to the Chumash pictograph would be developed. But Predock, the maker of mountains, was undeterred.

"There's always a degree of adjustment," the architect said. "But I wouldn't call it compromise."

THE PROJECT: Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza. City leaders, cramped by their current 60,000-square-foot municipal center, want a new 85,000-square-foot city hall. In addition to city offices, the plaza will include an 1,800-seat theater--the largest such facility in the county--and a public meeting room designed to double as a 400-seat performance venue.

The plaza, with 200,000 square feet of buildings in all, will adjoin a seven-acre park on a 22-acre city property that once held the privately run Jungleland zoo. The site is just north of the Ventura Freeway at Thousand Oaks Boulevard and Conejo School Road.

THE PRICE: $63.8 million, as approved by the Thousand Oaks City Council. Of that, $4.5 million is architect fees.

THE PROCESS: In 1989, the city issued a request for proposals and heard from 37 architects, including such notables as Michael Graves (designer of the Disney building buttressed by the seven dwarfs in Burbank) and Robert Stern of New York. A city committee narrowed the field to three, and in October, 1989, the City Council chose Antoine Predock, teamed with Dworsky Associates of Los Angeles.

Last August, the council approved Predock's plans for the site. In meetings during coming months, Predock and city officials will settle on building materials and design details. Groundbreaking is expected this August. Completion is scheduled for 1993.

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