Making parks more than 'just grass and trees'

Whether it's a sculpture of a rabbit or a statue of Ronald Reagan, he believes iconic features are placed in parks so people will remember them.

Because of its sheer size the Newport Beach Civic Center's 16-acre park won't be easy to forget.

But landscape architect Peter Walker, of Peter Walker Partners, wants to leave visitors with something else.

Walker, who will give a presentation at the Central Library on Tuesday, envisions marquee elements that will capture the attention of adults and children. His career of more than 50 years has been distinguished by awards for parks, sculpture gardens and building landscape designs.

"It's those features, often, that give a park more character than just grass and trees," he said.

Walker's firm designed a sculpture garden out of big rabbits — two 8-foot rabbits that would be forged in white concrete in the central park and near the library — and a ring of small rabbits near a meadow. He expects children to climb on the smaller rabbits.

"It's a kind of strange, artistic thing to do," he said. "We just thought the rabbits would be intriguing."

Newport residents are already intrigued by the land's natural value, Walker said, so the design emphasizes restored wetlands. It has a series of bridges, more than a mile of walking trails, and a belvedere to take in views.

He also hopes it will become known for its dog run and places for kids to play. Walker and his team toured nearby dog parks to glean ideas.

This isn't the Berkeley-based firm's first project in Newport-Mesa. It also designed the Town Center Park near the Segerstrom Center for the Arts.

Walker has collaborated with Renzo Piano, Norman Foster and other notable firms like Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, the architect firm of the Newport Beach Civic Center.

He has worked on the National September 11 Memorial in New York City and designed the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, an outdoor "roofless" museum for a private collection.

In Newport, the city has formed a partnership with the Orange County Museum of Art to curate permanent and temporary sculptures throughout the Civic Center and park grounds.

Walker's firm has incorporated sculpture around the buildings and in the two main spaces, Central Park and the North Park on the north side of San Miguel Drive.

"It's supposed to ramble and be part of the landscape," said Councilman Steve Rosansky.

Rosansky is one of three members on the council building committee, which collaborates with the architects.

The chairwoman of the City Arts Commission, Robyn Grant, Rosansky's sister, said, "We're looking for a destination for people to come and experience a very unusual environment."

How unusual or memorable a statue of Ronald Reagan would be in conservative Newport Beach's Civic Center will be something Rosansky's and Grant's bodies address.

Earlier this month, the City Council commissioned a statue of Reagan to be placed somewhere in the city, and Councilman Keith Curry has said the Civic Center might be a good place for it.

Walker said his firm would consider the places in the Civic Center and park where it might be appropriate, if the council asks him.

"We'd simply show them where it might fit," he said. "We're not building a play; we're building a theater. The sculptures are actors."

For the National September 11 Memorial he recommended that a piece of a fallen staircase be placed in certain locations outside, and the project's backers decided it would be better suited inside.

"You want to find a place that honors the person and the people who are putting it up," he said. "They may decide this is not the right place."

Rosansky thinks the Civic Center is not the right place for a Reagan tribute. He is waiting for the Arts Commission to make an official recommendation, and he wants to honor the wishes of the Orange County Museum of Art.

"I'd rather see it somewhere else," Rosansky said. "Although Ronald Reagan was a good governor and a good president, City Hall is a non-partisan place."

The City Arts Commission will vote on the issue on Thursday, Feb. 2.

"I think the Arts Commission recognizes that there's a lot of things that fall into the category of art," Curry said.

Controversies over politically charged sculptures eventually fade, said Walker, who thinks decades into the future when planning a project.

"People get used to it and you generally don't have a continuing animosity coming out of it," he said. "After time, it becomes part of the lore of the country."


What: Free lecture by landscape architect Peter Walker

Topic: How art has played an increasingly important role in his designs.

When: 7 p.m. Tuesday

Where: The Friends Room, Newport Beach Public Library Central Branch, 1000 Avocado Ave.

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