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Sam Hall Kaplan

Students Score Low in Sensitivity

November 09, 1986|Sam Hall Kaplan

The idea behind the assignment to a group of students at USC was noble: "To learn to see buildings/developments as multifaceted responses to social, environmental, aesthetic and economic considerations."

According to the teacher, Dana Cuff, the dozen or so students in the recently launched graduate program in real estate development, which ambitiously combines architecture, urban planning, business and economics, were to each comb Los Angeles to come up with a project he or she felt successfully addressed the considerations.

In short, the students were to be both design critics and economic analysts, with an emphasis on the positive, selecting projects that not only looked good, but also worked well for the users, investors, neighbors and neighborhood.

Always on the search here for such projects, I agreed to join a panel composed of another critic, two respected academicians and two developers to review the choices and presentations of the students.

I also was curious to see where students these self-involved days were at, in particular those interested in careers in real estate development; their selections and the reasons for them in a way being a reflection of a value system that would guide them when actually out in the real world.

In addition, given USC's network, these students could very well be the developers of tomorrow, assembling sites, hiring architects, finagling for zoning changes, forming investor syndicates, contributing to political campaigns and building buildings.

If so, and if dedicated teachers such as Cuff can't, in the short time they have, better sensitize students to the problems, potential and responsibilities of development, our future city and landscapes are in trouble. The presentations and selections were, in general, disappointing.

Among the more recognized egregious projects considered successful by the students was 10 Universal City Plaza, the dark granite and tinted metallic reflective glass tower standing like a sorry sore thumb near the intersection of the Hollywood and Ventura freeways, and Murdock Plaza, a badly scaled and sited, unneighborly office building in Westwood.

Both plazas have to be projects that only the mothers of the architects and builders can love.

Also cited was the Meralta office complex in Culver City and the Skypark shopping center in Torrance, both awkward and cliche-ridden projects of questionable economic success, and the Westside Pavilion, in Rancho Park, and the Maple Avenue apartment complex in Burbank.

While the pavilion is an apparent economic success and the design engaging, it, in no way, can be considered a good environmental fit or particularly friendly to the adjacent residential neighborhood. The Maple Avenue complex also is well designed and detailed, but cannot overcome the raw fact that it replaced six single-family houses in what was once a quiet single-family neighborhood, with 80 units.

To be sure, some of the 13 projects selected were reasonable, if arbitrary, responses to the criteria Cuff had outlined. These included Crocker Center downtown, the new Performing Arts Center and neighboring office tower in South Coast Plaza, the Wilshire Palisades building on Ocean Avenue and a condominium complex at 821 Bay St., both in Santa Monica, and the Atlantic Aviation building at the Long Beach Airport.

However, the reasons cited in the selections were quite hazy, reading more like public relations blurbs than indicating any real understanding or sympathy for the social, environmental, aesthetic and economic issues Cuff had asked the students to address.

The student efforts were further hampered by poor presentations; heaven forbid that in their future careers they will have to go before a community group, a planning commission or a loan committee to argue for a project, the mean test of development. Let us hope that the effort was a learning experience.

It was apparent that no one as a basis of a critical review had put himself in the position of user, the ultimate architectural experience, be it someone who might work, live, or somehow use the buildings, or who might experience it as a neighbor or when passing by.

I often wonder if indeed developers, investors, architects, planning commissioners, politicians or anyone who has a hand in shaping the built environment would put themselves in any or all of these users' roles, how different and how much more livable our city would be.

A good place to start developing this empathy for the user and an understanding and appreciation of architecture and planning and design is in our schools. This of course is what USC's promising real estate development program is attempting, and for which it should be congratulated and encouraged.

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