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Sam Hall Kaplan

Out-of-Towners Win L. A. Design Plums

January 20, 1985|Sam Hall Kaplan

These are good times for architecture in Los Angeles, but not necessarily for local architects.

Judging from letters and telephone calls, and comments heard at various gatherings, there seems to be a healthy rise in the design consciousness of developers, public officials and citizens.

This, in turn, has prompted a healthy questioning of proposed projects, such as the effect of their height, scale, massing and details on the street scape and skyline, as well as simply how they function.

At last the realization appears to be sinking in that, as Winston Churchill once declared, "We shape our buildings, thereafter they shape us."

The rise in design consciousness also has prompted many developers to seek name architects, the so-called superstars, who they presumably feel, are more sensitive to the design considerations, while, not incidentally, lending their projects some distinction to aid marketing.

Architectural firms selected recently for major projects in Los Angeles include I.M. Pei, Philip Johnson & John Burgee, Kohn Pedersen Fox, Hardy, Holzman Pfeiffer, and Richard Meier, all of New York; Murphy/Jahn and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill of Chicago; Morris/ Aubry of Houston; Arthur Erickson of Vancouver, and Arata Isozaki of Tokyo.

What has been happening is that many of the best projects proposed recently in Los Angeles--the towering office complexes and major museums--"commissions to kill for," according to a local architect--are going to outside firms.

The situation gnaws away at the egos of many Los Angeles architects, who feel, given the opportunity, that they can produce designs of comparable quality, if not more sensitive to the local city scape.

The reasons for the preference of superstars from outside are varied and debatable, at least according to an informal survey I have been conducting. They also are revealing of a perplexing corner into which some local architects have designed themselves and others, no thanks to parochial prejudices of taste makers.

The issue is simmering and as various projects begin taking form should begin to boil. When cooked and flavored, we shall be ready with knife and fork.

Meanwhile, intent on improving the status of local architects, the Los Angeles chapter of the American Institute of Architects has laid out an ambitious blueprint for the coming year.

Announced by the chapter's new president, Mark Hall, at his installation last weekend, the plan includes encouraging more public participation by creating an architectural foundation open to all interested persons, holding exhibits at the Museum of Science and Industry, and initiating an intern program.

The plan also calls for the chapter to become more involved in public issues through a government relations program and by taking positions on various urban design issues "causing concern today." Among the issues listed were the proliferation of mini-convenience shopping centers and the potential for creation of special-image boulevards.

With 1,700 members, the chapter is the largest in the United States, and indeed could be a very influential interest group on the local scene. The potential is certainly there.

However, for a variety of boring reasons that plague such professional associations, the chapter just has not seemed able to get its act together in recent years to assert its collective talent. As a result, the chapter, the reputation of its members and the city itself have suffered.

Hall and the newly installed officers and directors of the chapter seem to be well aware of the situation and determined to do something about it, once they and their predecessors stop congratulating each other. The chapter's gatherings do have a problem of running on and on and on. You would think the gatherings were a construction project, with no penalty clause tacked on to the scheduling.

The national A.I.A. also is attempting a new program to bridge the gap between the public and the design professional by establishing something it calls the Forum for Architecture. "We've called it Forum because it truly will function as a forum for the discussion of issues and trends in American architecture," declared a statement of purpose in the organization's breezy, first newsletter.

The question is whether in their discussion, the professionals will be able to stop pontificating, and for a change, listen to the public, the users of the environments they have designed

It would be a shame if the Forum turned out to be just another public relations effort of the A.I.A. Given the organizations's past history and regional prejudices, one cannot help but be wary.

No pretensions weight down "Richard Meltzer's Guide To The Ugliest Buildings of Los Angeles" (Illuminati, 8812 Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, CA. 90035: $3.95), a delightful if arbitrary collection of his brief, explosive architectural reviews that have appeared from time to time in "The Los Angeles Reader." So what if a few pages have been inserted upside down and the writing is awkward. Meltzer's vision is sharp and his emotions pure. What more do you want from a critic?

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