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A Rite Of Passage For Orange County

September 29, 1986|SAM HALL KAPLAN | Times Design Critic

Throughout history, the maturity and material success of city-states have been marked by the construction of grand edifices for the public's use, entertainment or enlightenment.

During Greek and Roman times such structures included temples and coliseums; in the Middle Ages, castles and cathedrals; in the Industrial Revolution, bridges and railroad stations; and more recently, cultural complexes.

In this respect Orange County comes of age tonight with the dedication of a decidedly monumental $70-million performing arts center in South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa. Ringing up the curtain at 7 p.m. will be Zubin Mehta leading the Los Angeles Philharmonic before an expected audience of 3,000.

No longer is the sprawling plaza at the intersection of the 405 and 55 freeways just another commercial, albeit larger, agglomeration servicing with style the acquisitive nature and distinguishing materialism of the county's growing population. The plaza now has the center, and its promise of a new and exciting urbanity; a place to be entertained and enriched, to see and be seen, an opportunity to beat back the specter of a stultifying suburbia that has long hovered over the county's cultural maturation.

Remaining to be seen is whether that promise can be fulfilled in such a manicured and polished setting as the upscale South Coast Plaza, and with a regional mind-set that has not ventured traditionally beyond the supper-club circuit. Hopefully, it can.

And it may, in the process, generate some serendipitous development--perhaps symbiotic shops and restaurants, maybe street performers and an occasional art show; in sum, add a dash of spicy essence of the city in the sweet, syrupy soup of suburbia.

It should be difficult, for the center in effect will be competing with already established attractions in the region for the hearts and minds of Orange County residents. These include Disneyland, Knott's Berry Farm, golf courses, tennis courts, yacht clubs and the beaches; the stuff of the county's early and arrested development, and persistent image.

But even before the opening, the well-detailed center and its graceful arch of red Swedish granite pierced by a soaring iridescent sculpture already has become an architectural landmark in an area desperate for focal points, if not just something for residents to show to visiting adults, or developers, prospective tenants.

While an arts center does not necessarily guarantee culture--that test is determined over time by what is performed there and the reception and ongoing support by the public--it does mark a sort of civic rite of passage.

When communities, be they towns, cities or counties, reach a certain level of development and acquire a measure of wealth, they tend to begin looking beyond the home, market and workplace to seek out "culture."

A century ago in the West this often meant getting an opera company to come to town, and perhaps even building a music hall. And whether the leading citizens liked opera or not, they supported the effort, for it usually imbued the town with an air of sophistication and stability critical to its image and future growth.

The situation is not really that much different these days. Reams of recent academic and consultant studies have shown that "culture" is a major contributor to the vitality of communities. It generates jobs and income, as well as generally raising the quality of life and in turn the desirability of a particular area.

"Cultural attractions add an extra and a vital dimension to communities in their efforts to establish a sense of place, pride and identity," observed Robert McNulty, of the Washington, D.C.-based Partners for Livable Places. "Not coincidentally, they also have been found to add substantial value to adjoining properties."

Partners is a nonprofit organization that has been monitoring nationally what it calls "the economics of amenities," the value of the arts and quality design for communities, publishing reports and providing consultative services.

McNulty added that the positive impact of "culture" has been duly noted by both public officials and private investors, and is being made a critical element in more and more development efforts. Actually, the inclusion of the arts center in South Coast Plaza recently was cited by the Urban Land Institute as a prime example of how culture could aid commerce, and commerce culture.

Other efforts include in Los Angeles the soon-to-be-opened Museum of Contemporary Art as part of the Bunker Hill redevelopment project; in San Diego, theaters and an art gallery in the Horton Plaza retail complex, and in Bellevue, Wash., an art museum in a shopping center. Similar marriages of culture and commerce in the form of "art districts" have taken place in New York City, Dallas, and Winston Salem, N.C.

But few have had the impressive start the Orange County Performing Arts Center is getting: a $70-million facility and another $65 million toward its operations endowment. It should make for an interesting adolescence in the region's generally privileged development toward a civic maturity.

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