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Sam Hall Kaplan

A Plus and Minus for Civic Center

September 27, 1987|SAM HALL KAPLAN

The prime consideration in the recent approval by the county Board of Supervisors of a proposal for a private office building in the Los Angeles Civic Center was economics.

Simply put, RCI (Raffi Cohen Industries) and WCC (Westinghouse Credit Corp.) offered the county, in partnership with the state and the city, the best deal if it allowed them to develop the vacant 4.6-acre site on the north side of 1st Street between Broadway and Spring Street for a $125-million office building.

Such a basis for approval is unfortunate, for the county also has an obligation to see that land under its aegis is developed to benefit the public aesthetically as well as financially. After all, government is not supposed to be a bottom-line operation, but a public trust.

However, given the bent these days of the county board and other public bodies, good design tends to occur, not because of government but despite it.

Happily, a case in point is the RCI and WCC proposal. While the board's decision was based primarily on economics, the scheme designed by Helmut Jahn of the Chicago firm of Murphy/Jahn for the 21-story structure shows promise of lending the Civic Center some needed architectural verve.

The scheme calls for a bold structure set back from 1st Street, with the south and north facades accented by a super grid of cross bracing, covering what appears to be in the model a smaller grid of floor to floor scale. The facade is punctured by a 12-story-high opening, forming a monumental entry to the building and a gateway to a mall linking Broadway to Spring Street on an axis with City Hall.

Topping the high-tech geometric concoction like a small hat on a broad-shouldered giant robot made from an erector set is a four-story pyramidal-shaped frame echoing the pyramidal top of City Hall. The shape is repeated in the glass and steel tops of the four food kiosks on the mall and the retail arcade proposed to line the 1st Street facade.

Not indicated in the scheme is the coloring of the building, which is a concern, for Jahn in other such buildings has leaned to a brash and unappealing Crayola look. It just doesn't go well with his lyrical machine imagery. And definitely in need of some sophistication and sensitivity is the landscaping, which, in the model, appears hard and harsh.

But these items can be corrected relatively simply. What is important, and welcome, is the scheme's urbanity. With its base of retail shops and restaurants, places to eat outside, and a child-care center, the office tower, if developed as indicated, should lend the Civic Center new life. Certainly the architecture will give it a boost.

Not very urbane is the 1,400-space garage proposed by the Los Angeles Times on the site of its present parking lot, between Broadway and 2nd, 3rd and Spring streets.

According to the model of the proposed garage, it is a nondescript structure, connected by pedestrian bridges to The Times building to the north across 2nd Street and to an existing garage to the east across Spring Street.

As someone who works on occasion in The Times building and parks in the open lot, I sympathize with the need for the bridge over 2nd Street. It will be convenient, relieve some of the crush in the building's present elevators and not visually impair an already raw side street.

But the proposed bridge over Spring Street is another matter. The street is a major corridor leading into and through a struggling historic district. A bridge over it would be a distraction, and not very neighborly.

If security on the street is a problem, it will not be solved by abandoning the street, but by encouraging more activity there. That is why the lack of stores, restaurants or food stands on the ground level on the Spring Street and Broadway frontage of the proposed garage also is disappointing.

While the cluster of stores and stands wrapping around the southeast corner of 2nd Street and Broadway will be saved, more such sidewalk activity is needed, not less, as will be the result of the ill-conceived Spring Street pedestrian bridge.

The garage, as proposed, shows little imagination and is not a particularly friendly gesture toward downtown.

While in San Francisco recently, I stopped by the Museum of Modern Art there, where through next Sunday, the works of Swiss architect Mario Botta are on view. The exhibit is provocative and just the type that should be shown in Los Angeles, but unfortunately will not be.

A bold designer and a classical stylist, Botta has produced some of the more singular structures in Europe. And yet for all the monumentality and modernity of his designs, whether a small house in the countryside or major office building in the center of a city, the structures appear to respect their settings. Botta's somber forms given additional weight by his preference for muscular masonry seem so, well, Swiss.

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