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Soviets Inspect the Grand Design of the Southland : Architects Disturbed by Sprawl but Impressed by Cultural Mix

October 21, 1987|PAUL FELDMAN | Times Staff Writer

After a day of touring City Hall, Angelus Plaza, the Music Center and other old-time and innovative Los Angeles edifices Tuesday, a group of four leading Soviet architects paused outside the Museum of Contemporary Art and gawked at a 43-foot-long Swiss Army knife now under construction.

Unlike many of the other structures they had visited, Yuri Platonov said, the Oldenburg sculpture was as fascinating for its portability as for its size and scale.

"An advantage of this is you can always take it away," Platonov, president of the 25,000-member U.S.S.R. Union of Architects, said--with a smile on his face--through an interpreter. "You can keep it as long as it entertains people, which will probably not be too long."

While the giant jackknife might not have turned the Russian architect on, the visitors, who will conclude their four-day journey to Los Angeles today, seemed alternately awed, amused, puzzled and pleased during most of their whirlwind visit to downtown Los Angeles and Pasadena on Tuesday.

International Cooperation

Hosted by the Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility, a 2,500-member national organization that promotes the concepts of international cooperation and nuclear disarmament, the group has also visited Washington, New York and Chicago.

On Tuesday, they met with Mayor Tom Bradley, deans of local architecture colleges and even an 81-year-old Cuban refugee, who grows sugar cane and avocados on the promenade level of the Angelus Plaza, a downtown senior housing complex.

During the tour, they spoke frankly, wittily and, for the most part, diplomatically about their reactions to Los Angeles.

In particular, the architects said, they found the urban sprawl and the city's lack of a central focus disconcerting. Yet the diversity of Los Angeles' population and architecture more than makes up for it, they added.

"You simply can't have an ordered visual image in your mind here," Platonov emphasized. "But it's wonderful there are so many ethnic groups that enrich the culture of each other."

So Spread Out

Indeed, said Alexandre Koudryavtsev, head of the Moscow Architectural School, Los Angeles is intriguing because it is so difficult to capture in a single image. While other cities may be instantly recognizable from a photograph, Koudryavtsev explained, Los Angeles is so spread out that it is impossible to visualize without a visit.

"I like to make a beautiful picture of a city but it's hard to make a beautiful picture here," he said. "You consider Los Angeles as a city? I think not. I think of Los Angeles as a great territory with an urban style of life."

The issue of sprawl also surfaced Monday, when the group met for a luncheon discussion with Orange County architects, after their obligatory visit to Disneyland.

At the session, Platonov recalled, one of the Americans compared the spread of planned communities to a sweet substance, molasses. Platonov, however, disagreed. In the Soviet Union, he said, it would be viewed more like an oil spot.

Pleasantly Surprised

On the other hand, the Soviets seemed particularly impressed with the computer design programs at USC and the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. They also were pleasantly surprised at the size of the one-bedroom subsidized apartments in the 1,093-unit Angelus Plaza complex. While designers of the plaza said that the 540-square-foot size of the typical apartment there is quite small by American standards, the visitors said it is still double the space provided per person in the average Soviet apartment.

The visit to Angelus Plaza also produced a surprising chapter in international understanding.

When asked why he had left Cuba, octogenarian gardener Rodolfo Hernandez replied: "Because it's Communist. I don't like Communists."

Nonetheless, Hernandez, machete in hand, provided each of the visitors with a piece of freshly sliced sugar cane.

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