Commentary: Newport-Mesa architecture is unimaginative

Nearly 40 years ago, I interviewed Newport Beach architect William Ficker and asked why most of the major buildings in the Newport-Mesa area lacked strong architectural design.

Ficker's answer was that it requires a mature community to accept strong design, pointing to mature cities in the Northeast.

Now, nearly four decades later, it appears that the Newport-Mesa area has still not matured enough to have strong architecture.

Yes, we have some major buildings that are interesting: the flared Pacific Life building by architect William Pereira in Newport Center; the vertical, reflective glass-striped tower, formerly called the Avco Finance building, by Welton Becket, also in Newport Center; the curved, bronze, granite-faced Center Tower and the Performing Arts Center, both by CRS in Costa Mesa's South Coast Metro area; and Cesar Pelli's stainless steel-faced tower, also in South Coast Metro.

But that seems to end the list.

I had high hopes for two new projects, but those hopes were dashed. When the Irvine Co. retained the heralded architectural firm of Pei Cobb Freed for the nearly completed PIMCO tower in Newport Center, I had anticipated a truly strong addition to the skyline.

Instead, we have another average office building, albeit accented with travertine marble and "Chicago-style" windows. The same firm is doing the Irvine Co.'s under-construction speculative office tower in Newport Center. I won't hold my breath.

Of course, an architectural firm will tell you that the client frequently exercises restraint. And yes, the two new towers should harmonize with the existing buildings in Newport Center.

We know that Irvine Co. Chairman Donald Bren has strong architectural concepts, and it appears that he still admires the clean style of his once-favorite architectural firm, Skidmore, Owings and Merrill.

My second major recent disappointment — and a big one at that — is the new Our Lady Queen of Angels Church near Jamboree Road and Eastbluff Drive in Newport Beach. When I heard that the church hired A.C. Martin Partners for its new edifice, I was really excited. The Martin firm designed the fantastic St. Basil Catholic Church on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, and I could hardly wait for what would grace the hilltop corner.

But what was designed and built? A rectangular building with a pitched roof — like the picture of a house young children typically draw.

In this case, I had an opportunity to ask the architectural firm about the project and was told that Our Lady Queen of Angels wanted something "traditional." No, the Newport-Mesa area has not yet matured.

A discussion about architecture in the Newport-Mesa area is not complete without a mention of the new Newport Beach Civic Center by architectural practice Bohlin Cywinski Jackson.

The design was the result of an architectural competition, and it is extremely workable, but the vaulted roof, which is supposed to resemble waves, is awfully 1960s and boringly traditional.

The best thing that the Civic Center project does is to create a new rear entrance for the Newport Beach Central Library. The library, by Simon Martin-Vegue Winkelstein Moris, opened in 1994, and it has always resembled a reformatory.

MARTIN A. BROWER lives in Corona del Mar.

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