Arts Plaza Is Experts' Choice, if Not Residents'

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Some local critics refer to it as the blob, Hitler's bunker, the box, the Mayan temple, and other not-so-favorable nicknames. And others just call it plain ugly.

But architects and experts around the nation--indeed, the world--are using much different words to describe the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza these days.

Beautiful. Outstanding. A "Freeway Acropolis."

The monolithic, $64-million City Hall and performing arts center, designed by maverick New Mexico architect Antoine Predock, has been collecting a staggering heap of laurels lately.

It's been praised in prestigious European magazines and national architectural reviews. It recently won a coveted design award, and is said to be the leading candidate for another. People who know architecture think highly of it--even if some Thousand Oaks residents do not.

All of which strikes Predock as perfectly normal.

"There has always been controversy in every project I have done," Predock said in a telephone interview. "If there wasn't, I wouldn't feel I was pushing the boundaries of my art.

"I'm really gratified [by] the international recognition I have received," he added. "This was a big, important project."

City Manager Grant Brimhall, who has some strong, mixed feelings about the appearance of the Civic Arts Plaza himself, agrees. When it comes to matters of art--and the center is a work of art, he said--there are bound to be differences of opinion.

"There is kind of a love/hate relationship with the building," Brimhall said. "Some people like the Mona Lisa, others say, 'So what?' Some people like The Blue Boy, others think it's ugly."

But Thousand Oaks taxpayers didn't shell out $64 million for The Blue Boy. What some residents dislike about the Civic Arts Plaza is its very uniqueness and gargantuan scale make the building look utterly out of place in their suburban city.

"It's a large piece of nothing that we paid a fortune for," said Miriam Albert, who has lived in Thousand Oaks since 1982. "It doesn't fit in with any of the architecture in Thousand Oaks. I have nothing against modern architecture, but that thing sticks out like a sore thumb."

The way the architecture critics see it, that's a good thing.

L'Arca, Italy's leading architectural magazine, devoted part of its October 1995 issue to the Civic Arts Plaza. Reviewer Aldo Castellano noted the difficulty of building something unique like the Civic Arts Plaza with all "the vacuous populist projects still in vogue in the United States," and went on to commend Predock for his desire to listen to the demands of "the actual inhabitants of Thousand Oaks" as part of his effort.

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England's Architectural Review, which featured the Civic Arts Plaza in its February issue, said the project was an "attempt to give focus to a scattered California community." Its reviewer said while the building is a bit difficult to navigate, it is "not a bad achievement in a featureless spot along the roaring freeway," especially in a valley that is "swiftly filling with instant, meretricious commercial buildings."

"That's very good," concedes Assistant City Manager Ed Johnduff, referring to the "meretricious" building reference. "That's one of the better descriptions of Thousand Oaks I have read."

Johnduff, a trained architect who worked closely with Predock and his partner, Dworsky Associates, said the Civic Arts Plaza is tame compared with the Hotel Santa Fe at Disneyland Paris, the Nelson Fine Arts Center at Arizona State University, and some of Predock's other famous buildings.

"It's not nearly as nuts as it could have been," Johnduff said with a grin. "It could have been crazy."

Whatever the case, some residents believe the Civic Arts Plaza is far too crazy as it is. What most raises their ire, however, is not the complex, poly-geometric side of the building facing Thousand Oaks Boulevard, but the plain, boxy side seen from the Ventura Freeway.

The design was a calculated move by Predock to place the Civic Arts Plaza's largest sections--the 1,800-seat Charles E. Probst auditorium and the 850-car parking lot--squarely against the freeway to serve as a shield. It worked, drastically reducing noise in the outdoor public areas on the other side of the building.

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But it left many of the estimated 150,000 drivers who zoom past the Civic Arts Plaza on the freeway every day wondering what they were passing.

Predock's solution to that problem--the $150,000 public artwork known as the Copper Curtain--may be the most criticized of all the building's facets. And the future of the "refrigerator's backside," as it has become known, is uncertain.

"I think the appearance from the freeway is awful," said Brimhall, echoing the sentiment of many Thousand Oaks residents. "The Copper Curtain is a terrible disappointment. It doesn't do what people wanted it to do. It doesn't reflect light. It doesn't flutter in the wind. It's just there."

Even the architectural connoisseurs have poked a little fun at the Civic Arts Plaza's unadorned freeway side. A 1995 review in World Architecture magazine opens with "A huge box rises above the freeway, waves of rippling copper catching the motorist's eye." But the article, titled "A Square It's Not," quickly reverses field, noting that "the stone facade belies the intricate edifice of which it is only a part."

As far as Predock is concerned, reaction to the Civic Arts Plaza from the freeway has been just right. He is concerned that a city committee is now studying a plan to--gasp!--place lettering on his building and modify the Copper Curtain by possibly adding the center's unofficial logo, the Exuberant Muse, to its metallic strips. The committee is expected to present its findings to the City Council in the next few weeks, Brimhall said.

"It is kind of an art process as opposed to typography, which would be too literal," Predock said of his Copper Curtain. "The building itself is a sign. I continue to support that."

Stefanos D. Polyzoides, a noted architect and professor at USC, said Thousand Oaks, not Predock, is to blame for the public's lack of connection to the Civic Arts Plaza. He said city leaders got exactly what they had sought: a big-name architect to design a signature building.

"I admire a lot of Predock's work, but he is an object-maker," Polyzoides said. "People are not an important part of his work."

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Polyzoides is apparently in the minority, however, when it comes to Predock and the Civic Arts Plaza. Architecture, the magazine that declared the building a "Freeway Acropolis," praises it for establishing "our primal connection with earth, water and sky," pointing to its airy plaza and its rooftop reflecting pool.

The New Mexico chapter of the American Institute of Architects recently gave Predock and Dworsky Associates an Honor Award for their work on the Civic Arts Plaza. And several sources said the building is heavily favored to win the Institute's regional prize.

Nevertheless, many Thousand Oaks residents who gaze at the unorthodox building on a daily basis would beg to differ with the experts.

"Awards for what?" said Blake Ratcliffe, standing outside the Yukon Belle bar just across from the Civic Arts Plaza. "The building suits its purpose very well. But personally, it looks bad."

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