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The Fine Sound and Flawed Design of a Grand Orange County OCPAC

December 20, 1987|Allan Temko | Allan Temko is the architecture critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. This is his third article for The Times on new Southern California cultural facilities.

SAN FRANCISCO — When America gets around to culture, the pioneers used to say, America will make culture hum. Except for places like Texas, there's nowhere the frontier spirit hums better than in affluent Orange County, which finally has symphony, opera, ballet, Broadway musicals, you name it, in a $73-million Orange County Performing Arts Center, known by its awful acronym OCPAC. Victory over any barbarian past is signified by a mightly triumphal arch.

But this isn't imperial Rome. It's the nebulous, non-urban realm of Orange County. The arch doesn't command intense life at the Forum, but at South Coast Plaza, the vast shopping mall and high-rise office development owned by Henry T. Segerstrom and his family, along the San Diego Freeway at Costa Mesa.

Never mind that the arch is a structural fake. Its reddish granite cladding is pure veneer, covering a trussed inner frame of steel, all angles and squares, that has nothing to do with a rounded form. The great forward wall is nothing more than a free-standing screen, an enormous advertisement, cut open in the shape of an arch.

Yet the superficial effect is grand. No less than 182 feet wide and 120 feet high, the great symbolic portal--which turns out to be not a real entrance at all--swells majestically across the front of Segerstrom Hall, the 3,000-seat auditorium that is OCPAC's pride and joy. At night, when the building is lit, the arch acts as a monumental proscenium for the social drama attending the performance, revealing open terraces that are crowded on warm evenings, glittering and mirrored spaces within--spectacularly walled in glass--through which a colossal "Firebird" sculpture by Richard Lippold crashes outward into the void, flashing brightly colored metal plumage.

There could be no better emblem for Orange County, crashing through provincialism to the big-time world of music and art. Gone are the days when local gentry had to journey to Los Angeles to enjoy Establishment high culture, as countrified Russians once traveled to St. Petersburg under the czars. Now Zubin Mehta, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Leontyne Price gladly come here. That Orange County, on its own, has contributed little to the real culture of our time--indeed often opposed it--matters less than the prospects, say, for the Pacific Symphony, which a short time ago played in a Santa Ana high school. The striving young orchestra has graduated to an acoustically daring, ingeniously organized auditorium; despite many architectural flaws, Segerstrom Hall is, functionally, the finest multipurpose facility of its kind in the country.

Like most American halls of this kind that must make some sense economically, Segerstrom is a little too large: 2,500 seats or less would have been far better than 3,000. But even the most distant seats in the unusual four-tier interior, slashed into different levels for acoustical reasons, are not too far from the stage. Sight lines are excellent. Backstage accommodations and rehearsal spaces are lavish. Chairs and aisles are generous and the whole building exudes a comfortable parvenu mood, not least in the well-upholstered patrons' lounge, where even people who are unfamiliar with such things feel instantly at home.

There's no reason they shouldn't be. South Coast Plaza, from which OCPAC is inseparable, is where these people spend much of their material and spiritual lives. If the local worthies are at ease anywhere, it is in this upscale "instant" environment, where a generation ago the only pretension to culture was agriculture. The first Segerstroms, fresh from Sweden, started farming Orange County at the close of the last century; they are still the world's leading lima bean growers.

By the 1960s, however, they realized that a far more lucrative cash crop might be planted in the form of a regional shopping center. After a crude architectural beginning, the center has been much expanded and improved; South Coast Plaza has become one of the nation's largest and most profitable retail complexes. The phalanx of showy department stores still can't be called serious design (although a few specialty shops are exquisite), but the many arched portals in these malls--at once heavy-handed and curiously insubstantial even in an opulent store like Nordstrom--bear a certain cousinly resemblance to the huge arch of Segerstrom Hall.

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