SAN FRANCISCO — To a proper San Franciscan, assured of urban advantages that go back to Victorian times, Southern California's ambitious new architecture for the arts comes as a shock and an omen. The tide of civilized life seems to be flowing south, like the north's water, economic power and dwindling political strength. The Bay Area lately has done little to match the array of museums, symphony halls, theaters and galleries popping up from Santa Barbara to Costa Mesa to La Jolla, like Olympic venues of the mind.
In a single year Los Angeles has opened a Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), downtown on Bunker Hill, and a major addition to the County Museum of Art on Wilshire Boulevard, conspicuously less handsome than MOCA, but nonetheless an improvement over the original complex that epitomizes all that was shallow and specious in official Los Angeles taste of the 1960s.
How far Los Angeles has come since then, architecturally and otherwise, should be revealed by the most resplendent project of all, the hilltop stronghold of the J. Paul Getty Center at Brentwood, a $2-billion institution four times richer than the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The preliminary concept by Richard E. Meier, which includes a high-tech funicular taking visitors to the crest, is still in too early a stage of design to be judged as architecture but, potentially, the Getty could be the finest cultural facility of its kind in the world. The model shows stone-clad buildings massed, like a modern Tuscan abbey, around courts and fountains cascading down a cleft in the hill high above the San Diego Freeway, perhaps recalling the water gardens of the Villa d'Este near Rome.
For the first time the northerner feels something like envy, or chagrin, at the same time that UCLA draws even with Berkeley. UCLA may build an important museum of its own, far outclassing Berkeley's and rivaling the Fogg at Harvard, if Norton Simon ever decides to move his brilliant collection, replete with Rembrandts, Degas dancers and Asian treasures, from Pasadena to Westwood.
In the meantime San Francisco pretty much holds tight, pleased with the past, content for the present to keep what it has, horrified by the technocratic future passing for "growth" in Los Angeles, which with few qualms roars ahead in the smog. Whatever this laissez-faire commercial mentality has done to overall environmental quality--among other things it has badly compromised the beauty of MOCA--there's no denying the parvenu vitality and enormous wealth pouring forth cultural monuments as from a cornucopia.
One of the most costly so far is the $73-million Orange County Performing Arts Center, with a $60-million endowment, which has suddenly arisen--architecturally flawed, but fascinating acoustically--on what had been the Segerstrom family lima-bean fields in Costa Mesa.
Los Angeles is going to top that with a symphony hall that will relegate the adjacent Dorothy Chandler Pavilion to theatrical uses. Thanks to the Disney family, the philharmonic's new home should be to music what the Getty Center promises to be for the visual arts. Not only is it intended to be the most splendid performance space of our time but its capacity will be reduced from the usual 3,000-odd seats to between 2,500 and 2,800, to avoid the mammoth size and blurred acoustics of almost all recent American concert halls; the less the better. The corresponding loss of revenue is the price of faultless sound and short, clear lines of vision in a relatively intimate room where no one will be very far from the stage.
Lillian Disney, Walt's widow, has donated $50 million for this project, but more is needed since the building will cost more than twice that sum (and, for comparison, three or four times more than Davies Hall, the pseudoclassical 3,000-seat clunker in San Francisco). Yet these days in Los Angeles there is abounding confidence in finding enough money and selecting an architect of the first international rank to do a masterpiece.
That is, if Los Angeles allows him to do his best. So far, not one of the entries in the cultural sweepstakes has turned as well as it should have. The experience of the Japanese architect Arata Isozaki at the Museum of Contemporary Art is a case in point. In spite of bitter kibbitzing by former MOCA trustee Max Palevsky, Isozaki managed in the end to do an inspired building, the most lyrical public building seen in Los Angeles since Bertram Goodhue's Central Library was completed in 1926. But the prospect of truly great architecture, on the order of Louis I. Kahn's Kimbell Museum in Fort Worth, was thwarted by an unholy alliance of Mammon and museum financing--the very deal the city put together for MOCA to receive $23 million in mandatory art contributions as part of the mammoth California Plaza redevelopment project.