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Architect of a Dream : Designer's All-Consuming Project Nears an End as Buddhist Temple Rises in the Hills

April 03, 1988|EDMUND NEWTON | Times Staff Writer

Friends and fellow architects tell Anthony Yang they think he's out of his mind. "People say, 'Hey, Tony, you're spending your golden years here,' " recounts Yang, with a combative tilt of the head. " 'Seven years on one job? You must be crazy.' "

The feisty Yang rocks back in his chair in the converted Hacienda Heights barn that has served as his "temporary" office for the past six years, seeming to relish the thought. Tony Yang crazy? No way.

The project that has consumed Yang these seven years, absorbing every moment of his career, is no humdrum pencil-wielder's task. It's centuries removed from the modest Los Angeles apartment buildings and fast-food restaurants he had worked on as a draftsman and apprentice to other architects.

He jumps into his Cadillac for a quick jaunt over to the construction site.

"This," says Yang matter-of-factly, gesturing at the pagoda-style buildings around him, their freshly laid ochre roof tiles glinting in the sun, "is a monumental job."

It's hard to argue with him. Spread out on the Hacienda Heights ridge is a stunning vision from the Far East, an eye-catching hillside memorial to ancient dynasties, with delicate touches of blue, orange and gold. The 10-building Hsi Lai Temple complex, which will soon be the national headquarters of Fo Kuang Shan, Taiwan's largest Buddhist organization, includes an airy main temple with a broad mansard roof and a series of smaller buildings, all echoing the pagoda motif.

The sponsoring Buddhist congregation likes to play down the role of individuals in the lengthy effort to build the $15-million Hsi Lai Temple (translated as "the monastery that has come from the East to the West"), which is billed as the largest Buddhist temple complex in the Western Hemisphere.

"Buddhism is not a cult of the individual," sniffs Steve Frank, the organization's American spokesman.

But the Chinese-born Yang, whose first job in this country 15 years ago was as a busboy, was clearly a key player, both architecturally and politically.

Besides designing the complex (it's modeled after the immense Fo Kuang Shan Temple in Taiwan) and adapting its ancient style to American building codes and construction techniques, the 44-year-old Yang served as point man for the project at numerous meetings with fastidious county inspectors and hostile community groups.

After years of struggle, this is a heady time for Yang. The temple is at last on the verge of completion, the Buddhists are beginning to gain acceptance from the dubious community, and Yang, the object of so much head-shaking by his colleagues, will soon have a completed project under his belt.

"People want to see my portfolio," he says, laughing. "Some think I should have a whole crew of projects that I've done."

There were times when Yang wondered if he would ever see the project completed.

Hacienda Heights, an unincorporated community, was not especially receptive to the idea of, as Yang puts it, a "monster temple" in its midst. There were a few insensitive remarks about Asians and Buddhists ("One student said he didn't like Buddhists because they eat dogs," said Yang) and plenty of opposition at county hearings on zoning for the proposed temple's 14-acre site. The opposition set the project back more than two years, Yang says.

At one point, the Venerable Hsing Yun, the spiritual leader of the sponsoring group, even considered pulling out, Yang says. "He said, 'Tony, I want to give up. We don't want to fight with people,"' Yang recalled. "I said, 'Don't fight with people. Fight for yourself. You have your own rights in America."'

Yang prevailed. While there is still scattered resistance, Hacienda Heights appears largely to have accepted the temple.

"It's gorgeous," said Barbara Lee Fish, president of the Hacienda Heights Improvement Assn. "It strikes me that people travel thousands of miles and pay good money to see something like this."

Yang's career as an architect in America has been in serious doubt at times. An admitted plodder who struggled to learn English, Yang bounced around the margins of the profession for eight years, before the Hsi Lai project came along.

"I am not a genius," confesses Yang, who failed the grueling California Architect Licensing Examination six times before finally winning his license in 1982. "I am not a creative type of person but very solid--a pacer, not a jumper."

One of seven children of an economics professor, Yang was born in Chongqing , China, in 1944--"the Year of the Monkey, meaning that I am patient and hard-working." Five years later, his family fled the Communist takeover of the ainland to Taiwan. The young would-be pilot was diverted by his parents to less adventurous studies.

After graduating from the University of Chinese Culture in Taipei as an architecture and urban planning major, he joined a brother and a sister in Los Angeles. "They said, 'Come over and see if you like it,' " he recalls.

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