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CENTER Stage : FROM THE GROUND UP : Center of Power

September 21, 1986|SAM HALL KAPLAN | Sam Hall Kaplan is The Times' design critic

There is the Arch of Septimius Severus in Rome, the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, the Washington Arch in New York and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. All are in the classical tradition, the arch serving as a triumphant symbol and as a portal.

Now Orange County has what could in time become known as the Segerstrom Arch.

It, too, is a portal and a symbol of a triumph, forming the focal point and facade of the new Performing Arts Center and lending some needed style and substance to the South Coast Plaza and the burgeoning surrounding region.

The graceful arch of red Swedish granite and the angular structure behind it embracing the 3,000-seat, multipurpose theater symbolize the foresight--and fortitude--of developer Henry Segerstrom.

With Segerstrom having served as a driving force behind the center for nearly a decade, it is appropriate that he be honored by the arch, at least unofficially. That is a major purpose of an arch.

As for the $70.7-million center project, it displays a welcome respect for function, material and detail, an architectural trinity that these days is often sacrificed for capricious concoctions under the abused heading of post-modernism.

Even the adjacent 1,200-space garage with its light wells, coloring, landscaping and four entrances and exits appears attractive and efficient.

The center and its neighboring 21-story office tower and six-level garage were designed, in a style that might be called monumental modernism, by the Houston-based architectural firm of Caudill Rowlett Scott (now called CRS Sirrine), with the Blurock Partnership assisting. There is nothing modest or mysterious about the center's architectural gestures.

"Given the site and the setting, we had to do something to generate a powerful image," explains Charles Lawrence of CRS Sirrine. "We also needed something to enhance the center's sense of ceremony. In retrospect, the arch seemed quite appropriate. We consider it a grand portal, framing views from the center and of the center from the axis of Town Center Drive."

The arch has become one of the more common architectural details of late; among other things, it marks the entries to the nearby Broadway, Robinson's and Nordstrom department stores. But CRS Sirrine has not used the form merely as a decoration.

Against the sweeping curve and sawtooth corner of the adjacent office tower and of the angles and soaring 75-foot glass wall of the center itself, the arch generates considerable architectural energy. Certainly it is more distinctive than the nearby boxy, boring office structures, no matter how shiny their glass.

Measuring 120 feet high and 182 feet wide, the arch is lent further drama by an iridescent, stainless-steel-and-aluminum sculpture , the "Fire Bird," designed by Richard Lippold to seemingly soar out of the upper lobby, through the glass wall and beyond the portal.

The modernistic center appears to be an appropriate nest for the "Fire Bird," much as the Beaux Arts commercial buildings of a century or so ago served a generation of griffins. Such a blending of art and architecture is exciting and, with the placement there of other sculptural pieces, should enliven the center.

What is subdued and somewhat arbitrary is the landscaping by SWA Group, landscape architects, particularly in addressing the office tower (also clad in red Swedish granite, albeit polished). It is a sort of landscaping that might be called minimalist.

It would have been nice to have softer, more colorful plantings on the approach to the plaza, along with a few pleasant seating areas to help people enjoy the views--maybe even one fountain to cool the expanse and others to drink from. The four bars in the various lobbies of the center will not be open all the time.

Still, the architectural composition of the center engages and dominates.

Also promising excitement are the center's plazas, lobbies and balconies, the places where people will mingle, see and be seen. Though one might have hoped for a grander, larger lobby offering better vistas, and a more sumptuous stairway on which to parade, what is there should do fine, especially as people will have the plaza to spill out onto.

Even the bridge from the parking garage should become a marvelous people place before performances, possibly inviting street musicians and enterprising vendors--if properly encouraged.

At last, Orange County may have a series of stages for a continuing performance of the passeggiata , that wonderful Italian soap opera played with gusto wherever people promenade.

As for attending performances inside the center, the asymmetrical seating arrangement may at first seem disconcerting, but there is every indication that it is going to serve performances well. After all, while attending a performance, one looks toward the stage and not toward the seating.

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