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History Inspires Landscape Designs : Husband-Wife Team Reconciles Present with 'Classic' Era

April 24, 1988|LEON WHITESON | Leon Whiteson is a Los Angeles-based design writer. and

A life-size cement dragon that breathes jets of steam, rolls lighted eyes and can talk through a microphone in its throat dominates the new landscaping of the Santa Monica Pier surrounding the renovated carrousel.

This playful yet powerful presence is typical of the imaginative response of husband-and-wife landscape architects Douglas and Regula Campbell.

Hailed by Architecture magazine as leaders in a "new wave" of California landscapers, Campbell & Campbell were singled out for work that "reconciles a pragmatic view of the present with the nostalgia of the past."

"We are concerned with capturing the elusive idea of place," Douglas Campbell said. "And a sense of place must include a sense of time, of the history of a particular locality that gives clues to a landscape's social and visual continuity."

History and Community

In the landscaping of the Santa Monica Pier Carrousel Park, as in all their projects, the Campbells take great pains to consult both historical records and the local community.

They hold workshops where residents are invited to express their feelings and wishes about the place in which they live to the point of actually sketching out collective design concepts on long rolls of paper.

The aim is to surface shared memories, values and images as well as to give people a sense of participation in the evolution of their environment.

The Campbells' current workload lists some of the most high-profile projects in Southern California. These include the downtown Central Library, the Beverly Hills Civic Center expansion, Santa Barbara Courthouse, Oceanside Civic Center, the Howard Hughes Center in Westchester, the waterfront in Avalon on Santa Catalina Island, Ocean Park Beach restoration and the Imperial Beach pier plaza.

Classic Era Designers

"We draw a lot of our inspiration from the classic era in Southland landscaping in the 1920s and '30s," Regula Campbell explained. "It was a time when designers like Frederick Law Olmsted, Florence Bixby and Helen O'Gorman were active here, in a region stretching from Santa Barbara to San Diego.

"And we pore over such classic treatises as Victoria Padilla's 'Southern California Gardens' to try and understand the way this extraordinary flowering desert we inhabit was created."

Campbell & Campbell, both native Angelenos, set up in practice in 1983, when they won the Beverly Hills Civic Center competition in collaboration with Charles Moore and the Urban Innovations Group.

Regula has a master of architecture degree from UCLA. Douglas graduated in landscape architecture from Pomona College and UC Berkeley.

They work out of a small office in downtown Santa Monica, almost in sight of the steam-breathing dragon.

The Campbells' most difficult current project is the Central Library landscaping.

'Ill-Conceived' Design

Caught between conflicts over the library's design involving the architects, Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer, and the city's Cultural Affairs Commission, and saddled with--in their view--an earlier "ill-conceived" landscape design for the library's on-again-off-again west lawn, the Campbells have struggled to be faithful to the inspiration of Bertram Goodhue, architect of the original library.

"Goodhue's plan for the library and its landscaping was classical and symmetrical," Douglas Campbell said. "Attempts to overlay a free-form expressionistic kind of landscaping would betray that concept, we feel."

The library's west lawn landscaping restores the sequence of stepped pools that link the building with Flower Street. The south terrace planting, facing down Hope Street, includes a series of stately cypress, echoing the architectural columns behind.

Clumps of birds of paradise bushes--Los Angeles' official flower--provide exotic accents.

Along the 5th Street facade of the library's proposed east wing expansion, the Campbells have landscaped what will become the courtyard of the repositioned Children's Wing. The beloved sculptures of Peter Pan and Puss-in-Boots will find a new home here.

Cuts in Budget

"We are troubled by recent cuts in the library's landscaping budget," Douglas Campbell said. "This has now been reduced from $2 million to $1.4 million, excluding the west lawn.

"We feel this is a false economy, considering the prominence of the library. The bulk of the expanded building badly needs some gentling in the hard urban setting it inhabits."

The landscaping of the Beverly Hills Civic Center is also in trouble.

The Campbells complain that the trees--including "every kind of palm that grows in Los Angeles"--have been improperly installed. They say that many of the trees are of inferior quality and that the city planted these specimens without consulting them.

"Frankly, we were freaked out," Douglas Campbell said. "But the city has promised to rectify these errors."

"Landscape, in projects like the Beverly Hills Civic Center or the Santa Monica Pier Carrousel Park, shouldn't only be concerned with visual effects," Regula Campbell said. "Apart from spatial values, there are also the delights of scents and sounds, of the smell of jasmine, say, and the rustle of leaves in the breeze.

"These are ancient subtleties known for centuries that we are only just rediscovering."

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