Like the unabashed tourists they were, the family of four from Wyoming gathered for a group photograph to commemorate their vacation in Los Angeles.
If the family had gone to New York they most likely would have posed before Rockefeller Center; if Paris, the Eiffel Tower; or London, Big Ben.
In Los Angeles they posed beside a palm tree with the beach and Santa Monica Bay as background.
The fact is, man-made creations do not dominate Los Angeles, as they do in most other cities. One must think hard before suggesting a particular structure that somehow conveys the image of L.A., such as the White House does for Washington, St. Peter's for Rome, or the Golden Gate Bridge for San Francisco.
Certainly not our City Hall, the neo-classical monumental design which is said to have been inspired by the state capital building of Nebraska. The flashy Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood is a unique structure, but could very well be in an Orange County office park off the San Diego Freeway.
Perhaps more appropriate would be the craftsman-styled Gamble House in Pasadena designed by the Greene brothers, Frank Lloyd Wright's Ennis House in Hollywood, the futuristic Chemosphere in the Hollywood Hills by John Lautner or one of Cliff May's many rambling ranches?
While any one of these houses may say "L.A." to those with a knowledge of architecture, most persons viewing photographs of them probably would not be able to locate them.
No, the instincts of the family from Wyoming were correct. More prominent, and in many ways more important than the buildings in Los Angeles are the spaces between them and beyond--the open spaces, the lush landscaping, and the beaches. Accentuated by a benign climate, they mark the Southern California outdoor-oriented life style.
The Wyoming family was posing before the beach at Ocean Park in Santa Monica, and the windmill palm they stood beside is one of many recently planted along a promenade there as part of a welcomed public project in the last stages of construction.
I happened on the family while touring the project recently with two of its principal designers, Douglas and Regula Campbell. We were accompanied by my son, Josef, who tested out one of the two new playgrounds there, and Alexander Campbell, who at 6 weeks of age still has a few months to go before becoming a field inspector for his parents' firm.
Stretching from about Bay Street south nearly a mile to the Santa Monica city line and Venice, the project very much recognizes the vital role of open space in the Los Angeles life style, and how it can be better sculpted to serve people as well as cars.
Funded by the city of Santa Monica, the project's goals involved connecting the adjacent Ocean Park neighborhood to the state beach--without the loss of any of the 2,000 spaces in a sprawling parking lot that in effect formed an asphalt barrier between the neighborhood and the beach.
In addition, local residents wanted the promenade above the parking lot renovated in the style of the city's popular Palisades Park north of the Santa Monica Pier. The residents, who participated in a series of pre-project workshops by the Campbells and the allied architectural firm of Moore Ruble Yudell, were asked to contribute their views to the design of the project. The final design was the work of the Campbells and the Moore Ruble Yudell firm.
Also on the neighborhood wish list were a couple of new playgrounds and a renovated Crescent Bay Park, then a forlorn, four-acre expanse at Bay Street and Ocean Avenue that over the years had been trashed by derelicts.
Key to the imaginative design solution that evolved was "capturing" land for the promenade and its plantings by narrowing Ocean Avenue from about six lanes to two and four lanes. Where there was a raw sidewalk and street is now a soft, linear park.
"The street had what is called excess capacity and didn't have to be as wide as it was," Doug Campbell explained. "Also by narrowing it, we made it safer and more scenic."
To better link the neighborhood to the beach, tree-lined and landscaped pedestrian paths were laid out in the parking lot, which was imaginatively redesigned so that no parking spaces were lost. The paths also have had the effect of softening and providing shade for the parking lot while discouraging speeding.
Of particular interest is the mix of native and exotic plants, including along the pedestrian paths ground cover of wild strawberries and ice plants, and broad-leafed evergreen trees, for color and shade. And, of course, there are the new, marvelous, ungainly palms marching along the Ocean Avenue promenade, providing tourists such as the family from Wyoming a recognizable prop for their photographs and local residents a sense of place, and pride.