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Arts Park Theater Design Poses a Major Risk : Striking design alienates environmentalists, but brings panache to project in search of artistic credibility

June 25, 1989|DAVID WHARTON

Thom Mayne is growing agitated. He's beginning to wave his hands.

"It blows my mind," he says.

Mayne and partner Michael Rotondi head the Morphosis architecture firm of Santa Monica. Their avant-garde style--as evidenced by the cancer-care center at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and such Los Angeles restaurants as Kate Mantilini and Angeli Caffe--has earned them numerous awards and an international reputation for radical work.

" 'Unique' is a better word," Mayne says. But he quickly adds, "It seems that a lot of our work produces controversy."

Morphosis again finds itself amid uproar, and that is why Mayne is agitated. Two weeks ago, the firm won a competition to design the theater for Arts Park L.A., a proposed cultural center that would be built among 60 acres of rolling hills in Sepulveda Basin.

Arts Park would include a museum, open-air amphitheater, arts center and workshops. Three other firms were selected to build those structures.

But it is Morphosis' proposed theater that has attracted immediate attention.

Most of the five-story, 10-acre structure is subterranean, but its uppermost structure juts aboveground in a splay of grids, fins, elevated walkways and "thrusting circulation bars."

The model incited sharp debate among the competition's nine jurors. Several said they were awed by its architectural merits, while another argued vigorously that the design clashes with the basin's natural surroundings. The Sierra Club, which has filed suit to block Arts Park, reacted angrily when the Morphosis model was unveiled June 9.

"My impressions were basically . . . 'Star Trek.' It doesn't seem to go with the land," said Jill Swift, president of the Angeles chapter of the Sierra Club. "When I looked at it, I had the distinct feeling of power-line easements that go across the Valley. It crams down our throats another building that is out of place."

At the eye of this storm, the theater represents potential risk and potential triumph for Arts Park.

The complex would be built on public land controlled by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Federal guidelines mandate that all construction in the basin blend with surrounding greenery, and the foundation must gain Army Corps approval for its project. The competition juror who voted against Morphosis, Sheila Murphy, is an Army Corps official.

Plus, the federal approval process includes public hearings, so widespread opposition could block the project.

On the other hand, the theater's striking design brings panache to a complex that is looking for attention and about $50 million in donations. Morphosis' international reputation lends credence to the project.

"When you are proposing to do what we are setting out to do in this community, it's monumental, and you're going to have all sorts of reactions--delight and dismay," said Linda Kinnee, executive director of the Cultural Foundation, the private, nonprofit group that is trying to build Arts Park.

The foundation--composed of car dealers, bankers, executives and art denizens--has been working eight years in its quest to build facilities that would lure world-class symphony orchestras and ballet troupes to the San Fernando Valley. The organization and its proposed complex are no strangers to controversy.

Community groups have long worried that Arts Park would bring traffic and noise to their neighborhoods.

Furthermore, Sepulveda Basin is the last large block of green space in the Valley, so the foundation's desire to build anything there has met opposition. Special-interest groups, like Fans of the Basin, are fighting to save the open space. The Sierra Club has argued that the project is better suited to a commercial area.

"The basin has a skyline and horizon and expanse. Now it is going to 'mimic the discontinuity of 20th-Century culture,' " said Swift, quoting from a Morphosis-written text that accompanies the model. "I can get on a freeway and see that."

Two designs that lost to Morphosis would suit the basin better, Swift said. A model by Suzuki-Ramsey, of Newport Beach, depicts a theater rising gradually in clusters of rounded, grass-covered roofs. The New York firm of Henry Smith-Miller, which designed a third entry, consulted with the Sierra Club before preparing its model, which houses all of Arts Park's structures under one roof.

"The environment, community, social issues . . . we believe the design of something goes hand-in-hand with all these issues," said Henry Smith-Miller. "This is one of the most important projects in the United States, and we thought it would be worth our effort to bring these issues to the forefront."

The Sierra Club and other opponents say that the selection of Morphosis' theater amounts to a slap in the face, evidence that the Cultural Foundation is ignoring environmental concerns.

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