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Sam Hall Kaplan

Circling in on Design for a Square

May 18, 1986|Sam Hall Kaplan

The deadline for the Pershing Square design competition is fast approaching, with only two weeks left for submissions. The hope is that the effort generates an imaginative concept for which the forlorn public space, and the city, hungers.

To do so, the submissions, unfortunately, will have to overcome a program that reads more like a laundry list than a clear vision of priorities; a result, no doubt, of the obvious conflicts that haunt the space. These include its role as a garage roof, gathering spot for "undesirables" and an unkempt front lawn to some very expensive real estate.

Beyond the conflicting program, the challenge is whether the design can overcome the isolation of the space and tap into the increasing flow of pedestrian life downtown, particularly to the east and Broadway.

It will be a challenge, whatever direction the square reaches out to, given the garage ramps that hold the space in a death grip. The ramps literally and figuratively are a hurdle that must be cleared, reduced or relocated so the square can better connect to the city. The development of downtown has reached a point where people and places must count more than cars and convenience.

As for what will be developed on the square itself, we trust that out of the clutter of the program will not come a clutter of structures.

It was Camillo Sittee who pointed out nearly a century ago in his classic treatise, "The Art of Building Cities," that squares should be open and inviting, with the people energizing the space, not objects. What should be cluttered is the surrounding streetscapes defining the square.

Another concern is the competition's jury. While its individual members are quite accomplished, all are either practicing designers or artists. Though valued, their views have to be limited.

Included also should have been a few denizens of the downtown community, in effect the clients. It would have been good planning and good politics.

Still, the hope is that the well-intentioned competition, however flawed, produces a plan worthy of the site, and the city. As its present condition testifies, Pershing Square has suffered enough.

Client Power . . . The important role a client sometimes plays in the design process recently was emphasized by the reputable architectural and engineering firm of Albert C. Martin & Associates.

According to a letter from partners Christopher and David Martin, the firm was not responsible for the design of the Wilshire Finance Building, which was a runner-up earlier this month for a downtown Breakfast Club "lemon." This column in reviewing the awards two weeks ago stated the firm was the designer.

"As the site sign clearly indicates, the design of the building was done by Dr. (Ming Yu) Tsai," declared the letter from the Martins. "Albert C. Martin and Associates did the production documents, as well as the engineering you characterized as 'innovative.' No credit was given for this effort." So noted.

For the record, I always thought site signs were a form of advertising, and not official documents. Being of the old school, it was my understanding that the individual or firm that signs the design documents, as Albert C. Martin & Associates did for the building in question, was the responsible party, the so-called "architect of record."

But apparently not for the twisted tower at 1100 Wilshire Blvd.

Of course, whoever signs the drawings in no way diminishes the role, or responsibility, of the client. The provider of sites and the payer of bills, he, she or it, stands paramount in the design process. Let the blame, or praise, fall as it will.

With this in mind . . . congratulations are in order for Loyola Marymount University of Los Angeles and Ann Bergren of Venice for serving as clients for projects that have garnered coveted honor awards this year from the American Institute of Architects. The projects are the Loyola Law School and the Bergren residence.

The AIA jury declared the school was a "fresh, original and joyful" design, "created from scratch, shaped by its site and urban context, refreshingly non-institutional, yet evoking an ambiance of learning and traditional forms thoroughly appropriate to its purpose."

When viewing the provocative project, which indeed is a delight, one cannot ignore the obvious signature of the architect, Frank O. Gehry & Associates, who shares credit for the effort with Brooks/Collier of Houston.

While respecting the role of the client, the design in this case is frankly Gehry's, executed with a welcomed subtlety of forms and a mannered manipulation of materials, and no doubt deserving of sharing honors with Loyola.

A similar, talented singular signature also is etched in the skillful sculpturing of the award-winning addition of a studio and retreat to the Bergren residence. I suspect the firm hand involved was not that of the client, but of the Mayne & Rotondi Architects and the firm's alter ego general contractor, Morphosis, who are cited in the award.

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