Sam Hall Kaplan

Critic's Gift List for the Holidays

December 15, 1985|Sam Hall Kaplan

The holiday season is a time for most critics to survey the last 12 months and come up with a list of the best and, if contentious, the worst of what has been produced in the specialities they cover.

While this might work well for films and plays, it presents particular problems in design. I would hate to see, say, the deserving Crocker Center with a banner draped between its glistening granite towers declaring "One of the year's 10 best--L.A. TIMES."

There already is enough of a problem downtown with billboards, signage and other forms of visual pollution, thanks to the inability of the commissioners of the city's Community Redevelopment Agency to buck strong real estate interests, act with some aesthetic sensibility and institute a responsible skyline policy.

Perhaps the commissioners in the new year will recognize that allowing tacky signage degrades downtown, making it look like an oversized farming center trying to lure some traveling salesmen off of a nearby interstate highway. If they want the skyline to "read" well, a better way would be to encourage distinctive architecture.

With this in mind, and as an alternative to a summing up of the year's best and worst, I have put together a holiday gift list of design items for the Los Angeles area. The gifts, I feel, are modest, certainly within both the constraints of reality and the realm of possibility.

On the list would be prohibiting skyline signage, though without Edward M. Helfeld at the reins of CRA, lending the agency vision and class, I cannot be optimistic. Other items on the list in no particular order of preference include:

--The Getty Trust, or someone committed to the preservation of art coming to the rescue of the Ennis-Brown house in Los Feliz designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, the Blacker house in Pasadena and the Pratt house in Ojai, both designed by Charles and Henry Greene--three world masterpieces under seige. Of course, the Getty is a logical choice, given its endowment of an estimated $2.3 billion dedicated to the conservation of art, as opposed to, say, Michael's restaurant near the Trust's offices in Santa Monica, where the Trust often wines and dines visitors at no modest cost. Perhaps a fraction of this expense can be used instead to maintain local architectural landmarks.

--The owners of the Huntington Sheraton revealing that the landmark hotel in Pasadena can be made safe from possible earthquake damage after all, and that there is no need to tear it down. It would be a conclusion that the owners come to without the city of Pasadena making it next to impossible for the owners to develop the land for a new hotel or condominium complex.

--Mayor Bradley and the City Council joining forces with a sympathetic Board of Public Works under the direction of Maureen Kindell to stop seemingly independent city agencies from continually cutting down trees, narrowing sidewalks and generally destroying streetscapes and neighborhoods so a few cars can make awkward left-hand turns and go a little faster.

--Instead of the knee-jerk widenings by tunnel-visioned bureaucrats, the city with the help of a rejuvenated planning department under new leadership initiating some innovative specific designs to protect the residential integrity of neighborhoods. The plans would include culs-de-sac, landscaping streets and alleys, developing vest pocket parks and encouraging pedestrian activity.

--To serve as a demonstration, enlightened developers in Century City and Westwood underwriting a plan developed by the architectural firm of Appleton & Associates for the Friends of Westwood to redevelop an unsightly stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard as an inviting strip park.

--Showing imagination also, the city and county would begin studying how the Los Angeles River, once a magnificent meandering body of water and now not more than an open sewer, could be restored and reshaped into a scenic and recreational resource.

--And at last, someone seeing the potential in architect Glen Small's so-called "green machine," combining low-cost housing and lush landscaping on a structural frame, give the concept a try by providing the welcoming site, relatively modest financing and immodest direction needed.

--The nonprofit L.A. Family Housing Corp. and the city's Community Redevelopment Agency finding more sites and subsidies for low cost, in-fill housing. The corporation's enthusiasm and the agency's expertise produced a courtyard housing scheme this year that could be easily reproduced next year, if the CRA board would only let the CRA staff do the job it is supposed to do.

--Helping would be the various architectural and planning schools in the Los Angeles region. Recognizing that their respective futures are entwined with that of the region, and that the region could be a marvelous educational laboratory, they would get more involved in its design.

--And in the process, designers experimenting with materials, shapes and forms would not mock the context they are working in, as a few do now, but somehow improve it; that their effort be more concerned with the user and the community than how it might photograph.

Now that isn't asking Santa for too much, is it?

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