One week ago, in the afterglow of his triumph, architect Hani Rashid sipped a celebratory cocktail and gazed upon his inspiration--the heavens above Los Angeles.
"I was looking at these incredible clouds," the 30-year-old New Yorker recalled. The sun was setting, turning the clouds to shades of gold and red, pink and purple. "It's the dream of every visionary architect," Rashid said, "to build clouds."
So far, Hani Rashid's "Steel Cloud" has been designed, but not built. There is a good chance that his avant-garde monument, proposed to rise above a downtown stretch of the Hollywood Freeway, will never be built. Not a single dime has been raised toward its construction, not a single politician or government agency has given it the green light. Even so, "Steel Cloud" has become a cumulonimbus of controversy.
Rashid's audacious design for that improbable location was unveiled Monday as the winner of the international "West Coast Gateway" contest, an endeavor inspired by Mayor Tom Bradley's quest for a monument to celebrate Los Angeles' role as the nation's primary point of entry for immigrants. Selected from a field of 150 entries, here at last, patrons said, is a bold, innovative, horizontal icon for a bold, innovative, horizontal city, a marvel of architecture and high technology to serve as Los Angeles' answer to such signature monuments as the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty.
But in the days since, lay critics have snickered, satirizing Rashid's machine-like design as resembling the crash of an airliner, a giant metal grasshopper, L.A. after the Big One and just plain junk.
"Unbelievably hideous, grotesque and monstrous" is how one newspaper columnist described it.
"It's stressful just to look at the drawings," Councilwoman Gloria Molina said.
If "Steel Cloud" was a stage play, it would have closed after the first curtain. But because it is architecture, Rashid and his partisans seem not the least discouraged. For one thing, they say, there has been a favorable reaction in another important arena--the international architectural community. For another, the controversy here is encouraging.
"It was what we hoped would happen, in a way," Rashid said in a telephone interview. "We're hoping to get something that would cause a bit of excitement and exuberance."
Hostility, Rashid said, is the typical first reaction for "any radical work, anything breaking new ground. . . . But time and again, when those things are given the benefit of the doubt, they tend to prove themselves quite fantastic." The Eiffel Tower and a modern Paris landmark, the high-tech Pompidou Center, are two examples of works that endured vitriol to become popular symbols.
'It's So Bold'
Rashid's complex scheme is a collage of engineering, high technology, film and other elements with such details as a "musical forest" in which the sound of cars whooshing by below would be synthesized into music.
"The worst thing would be a project that has people saying, 'Well, it's nice,' " said Nick Patsaouras, chairman and chief fund-raiser of the Gateway project. "The fact it's so bold has created a debate. . . . I know that the (architecture) critics around the world will receive this project very well. People are interested in talking about it more than once.
"There is no precedent for it, so it will take time for the public to understand it," he said.
Be it ridiculous or sublime, "Steel Cloud" still has many earthly obstacles to overcome.
The cost, projected for the purpose of the contest at $33 million, is widely expected to be much higher. Moreover, that cost does not include the leasing of air rights from Caltrans.
According to the plan, all of the money will be raised from private individuals and corporations. Patsaouras, a longtime civic activist and current RTD board member who raised $2.5 million for Michael Dukakis' presidential campaign, pledges that no public money will be solicited or accepted.
The project will also have to navigate a maze of government agencies and political reviews. Caltrans officials say every aspect of the project would be reviewed to ensure that it does nothing to harm transportation, including long-range plans to double-deck the freeway.
Neither the money nor political approval can materialize unless proponents swing the amorphous beasts known as "public opinion" and "public will" to their favor--especially the latter.
To be sure, Rashid's startling design is not of the love-at-first-sight ilk. Rising from steel girders planted in the freeway median, stabilized by struts, it presents an elaborate network of museums, theaters, movie screens, restaurants, plazas, gardens, aquariums and a computerized library suspended above the freeway from Alameda to Broadway. At its tallest point it is about one-third the height of City Hall. Patsaouras likens it to a squadron of jet fighters; it gives the feeling of motion as it just stands there.