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September 21, 1986|Allan Jalon

Much planning has gone into the details of the Orange County Performing Arts Center--from ther arch that dominates the building to the to light bulbs that cast their glow. Attempts have been made to build on the mistakes and unrealized goals of other arts centers around the country.

The center's trademark, which towers over the entrance to Segerstrom Hall, is a 120-foot-high, 180-foot-wide arch. The idea of incorporating an arch in the design grew out of architect Charles Lawrence's plans for the Kentucky Center for the Arts in Louisville. That design called for a performing arts center on one side of a downtown thoroughfare and an art museum on the other side, with an arch linking the two. The plan would have included a suspended walkway, says Marlow Burt, the Louisville center's executive director.

Alas, a new governor took office in 1980. He cut funding for the arch and the idea. Dropping the idea of a walkway, Lawrence has adapted the arch to the Orange County Performing Arts Center, using it as inspiration for the Grand Portal at the end of Town Center Drive.

Ironically, the thought of having a sculpture project through an external glass wall was a vision of Richard Lippold as he planned his artwork for the Jesse H. Jones Hall in Houston. But it didn't work out because of a technical problem.

The obtrusive metal grids used in the middle 1960s to hold up large glass panels blocked the visual flow of Lippold's work.

"He put up a piece of the sculpture to see whether he could carry the design outside, but it just didn't work," Lawrence recalls. The piece, "Gemini II," was used, but all of it remained indoors.

"Here, 20 years later (in Orange County), he's working on another piece of sculpture and it is working," Lawrence says of Lippold's efforts in creating "Fire Bird," a work that pierces the center's front glass wall.

Lawrence says that much has been learned in recent years about building with glass.

In Orange County, Lawrence used discreet metal joints that bolt glass panels to all-glass beams and to one another. He says the joints look like jewelry and enable him to use glass as an airy counterpoint to the building's masses of granite. The joints were developed by Pilkington Bros. Ltd. of Great Britain. Thus, Lawrence's structural goals became wedded to Lippold's sculptural one: The uncluttered glass also provides a clear field for the indoor-outdoor flight of Lippold's bird.

Lawrence first used the Pilkington system when he designed the Edwin J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall in Akron, Ohio. The New York Times' Ada Louise Huxtable confirmed Lawrence's taste for the refined glass joints after attending the hall's opening. She wrote that the "crystalline delicacy juxtaposed to solid walls makes a facade of great visual elegance, in which boldness and delicacy strike a breathtaking balance."

Robert D'Angelo, managing director of the hall, agrees with Huxtable's appraisal, but his perspective is less lofty. Standing at the base of the 95-foot-high wall recently, he looked up and said, "I can't clean it."

But that would be possible, D'Angelo says--with $30,000 worth of scaffolding. In fact, he says, the highest layers of dust will be attacked this summer for the first time in 13 years.

D'Angelo includes all that crystalline delicacy on his list of "things that architects sometimes do to managers." Akron's problem led Lawrence to install a pulley system in the inner rim of Orange County's huge windows. The system is designed for the type of scaffolding that window cleaners use for skyscrapers.

Spatial expansiveness is common in large performing arts halls, in which architects reach for the monumental. The high ceilings of Akron's Thomas Center contributed to critic Huxtable's judgment that it was "a splendid space."

Again, she was looking at aesthetics, for which D'Angelo says he pays a price. He frowns when he talks about the ceiling's dying light bulbs.

No one had thought of how they would replace them. To this day, dead bulbs simply stay in place, far above-- and unreachable from--the lobby.

Once again, the Orange County center's operators need not worry. Their light fixtures have hatches that open into an attic. Reaching down and changing a light bulb should be a cinch.

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