The Architecture of Santa Monica Place


For some unknown reason, architect Frank Gehry has been put on a postmodern pedestal in this town and worshiped as the prince of innovation. More appropriately, he should be made to stand on one of his ungodly chain-link fences so he can experience, firsthand, their lack of integrity and function. Aaron Betsky, in his critique of Santa Monica Place (Times, June 3), praises Gehry’s chain-link-wrapped parking garage as “the most beautiful” such facade in Southern California. The fact that the structure visually cuts the city in half, isolating City Hall from its downtown arteries and northern residential heritage, and was the main contributing factor to the demise of the original Third Street mall, was probably never a consideration in Mr. Gehry’s planning. And why should it have been? The three-story chain-link spelling out “Santa Monica Place” is a nice adjunct to the dignified City Hall Plaza and stands as another “I’m a Frank Gehry in-your-face design.” Mr. Betsky also praises the fact that “because the chain-link is translucent, you can see the cars that are stacked behind this sign. Their grills are proudly displayed on thin concrete slabs.” And Cal Worthington should be a city planner.

Mr. Betsky politely refers to this as “a piece of pop art.” But then he’s quick to criticize the recent playful renovation inside as “just another shopping mall whose confused forms blend seamlessly into the fashions displayed within its frames.” At least this pop art is on the inside, so we don’t have to look at it every time we drive by. And I know plenty of people who found Mr. Gehry’s “clearly defined space” (before the renovation) just as confusing: The parking structure is not functionally integrated into the layout and planning of this mall, so one is completely lost until he happens upon the center of the mall. Once there, of course, there are no staircases, no elevator and only one up and one down escalator located opposite each other across a hundred-foot plaza! Yes, Mr. Betsky, the Place is alive with the movement of people--all trying to find their destination. Proper signage and directories are almost nonexistent, leaving the shopper lost and stranded.

I’m glad Mr. Gehry--having given the area a non-functional writer’s lookout on the Venice Boardwalk, a popsy eyesore on Main Street and another in the residential neighborhood where he lives--is taking his philosophy downtown. I just hope the new Music Center addition doesn’t look like Disneyland. And Mr. Betsky, I hope you sent your students to see the Louis Kahn retrospect at MOCA so that they could see what timeless, classical architecture and design should look like.