A major objective of the proposed plan for the San Fernando Valley administrative center in Van Nuys is that the concentration there of various government facilities will lend the sprawling, amorphous area a needed focal point.
And within that objective is the hope that the facilities will be distinctively designed so that residents can point to them with pride, something struggling Van Nuys and its environs are very much in need of, and which public architecture at times can offer.
It is this hope that has stirred some debate over the proposed design by the architectural firm of Daniel Dworsky & Associates for the Van Nuys Municipal Courts building, which, at 11 stories and totaling 280,000 square feet, will make it one of the more prominent structures in the area.
Descriptive comments have ranged from "a giant slot machine" and "a mystery cube" to "a big footstool for a big mister squat." A problem could be the rendering (above). Whatever, the design concerns those who see the building as an important public gesture to a community too often belittled.
A look beyond the rendering, at the plans, indicates a cohesive, functional interior in which the Dworsky designers have resolved well a demanding program that included court rooms, detention cells, waiting areas, offices and a complex circulation system. But for the building to be distinguished, it should do more than just work well.
The Dworsky team sees the structure as a sort of giant, framed window, with the public areas behind clear glass and the fire stairs clad in a light granite. Lit up in the evening, the public areas should be quite dramatic when viewed from the mall below or from a distance.
However, on the 10th floor, the glass expressing the public area is recessed, creating an effect in the rendering of a slot. Accenting the effect even more is the heavy band of granite hiding the penthouse level. The band does give the structure a top, but a heavy one that in the rendering seems to weigh down the mass.
Whether this will become the prominent civic symbol for the Valley will be decided in a few weeks by that ultimate architectural review board, the county Board of Supervisors, which must approve the final design before the estimated $41 million in construction funds are released.
One would have hoped for something more exciting architecturally; something light that soars above the surrounding blandness. But then again, perhaps a giant cube with a big picture window is more appropriate to the Valley and when constructed, will also in its way soar. Perhaps.
Soaring Also . . . as promised is Cathay Manor, a towering, 16-story, 270-unit senior citizens housing project at the northeast corner of Sunset Boulevard and North Broadway in Chinatown designed by Maxwell Starkman and Associates under the direction of the city's Community Redevelopment Agency.
One can rationalize the out-of-scale tower by noting that it is providing the maximum housing units that the 1.5-acre site can handle, which is what the community wanted to help meet the desperate need for senior-citizen apartments in the area. By putting so much on such a limited site also helped keep the rents to affordable levels, another community request.
One can also forgive as a heavy-handed gesture to the local community the tile-roofed arch in a Chinese motif off of Broadway. And one can excuse as a design prerogative the building's fenestrations and busy touches of color--making the structure seem heavier than it is.
So the building does look like it would be more comfortable located in Hong Kong. Perhaps it is indeed a harbinger of the future scale and style of residential Chinatown, creating reasonable housing near places of employment.
However, I am unable to excuse the high concrete wall at the Sunset Boulevard corner. It is an urban design outrage. Lost is a wonderful opportunity to create some commercial space on one of the city's potentially busiest corners, and perhaps generate rental income to provide social services to residents and help reduce rents further, while also aiding pedestrian life and the security it lends a street.
And if for some arcane bureaucratic reason commercial space could not be developed, at least a sitting area could have been designed to allow the residents to gather, rest, talk and, most important, watch the passing street scene and be watched by it in the best tradition of an urban space. Now all we have is a raw wall, inviting graffiti. Indeed, graffiti would be an improvement.
Improving urban space . . . , indeed, the entire urban scene in Los Angeles is what Daniel Libeskind would like to do. The energetic dean of the school of architecture at Cranbrook Academy of Art, an outpost of design in Michigan. Libeskind is leaving Cranbrook in a cloud of controversy, and is considering establishing some sort of architecture and urban design institute in Los Angeles, hinting at various funding sources, including, the Getty Trust.
Though similar efforts also are perking at various established architectural schools here, Los Angeles could use all the help it can get in the never-ending effort to raise the local design consciousness. And Libeskind seems like the sort of person who can give the effort a little push, if not stir up some healthy debates. It is the stuff of which columns are made.