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Arts Park Concept Designed for Failure

June 25, 1989|SAM HALL KAPLAN

The persistent dream of a San Fernando Valley arts park in the Sepulveda Basin moved closer to reality with the recent unveiling of the results of a design competition for the multi-use and multicultural facility.

But the five winning designs, considered together as a concept for the proposed 60-acre park, fail from both planning and architectural perspectives and, if pursued, the arts park dream could become a nightmare, further fracturing an already fragmented San Fernando Valley.

Each of the winning submissions for five proposed facilities has merit as an isolated object, if not as buildings people might use. And two might even be appropriate to the rolling landscape of the site at Victory and Balboa boulevards in a 100-year flood plain.

However, the more important question is whether the park is the best location for a cultural focal point of the Valley and the investment of at least $50 million that the buildings will cost to construct and, no doubt, millions more in subsidies to operate.

The building of isolated cultural complexes in the form, more or less, of Arcadian campuses or sugar-coated shopping centers surrounded by landscaping and parking, was a popular concept across the country when the arts park was first proposed for the basin.

The thought then among cultural planners and municipal officials in various cities was to site these complexes in secured, pristine settings as if they were cultural cathedrals of sorts.

The hope, in part, was to attract back those then fleeing troubled cities to suburbia and beyond, at least to have them return for an evening to park their car, attend an opera or concert and eat a pricey dinner.

But times and theories have changed.

Unfortunately, this was not reflected two years ago when the firm of Skidmore, Owings Merrill (SOM) did a master plan for the park that can be described kindly as banal, nor when the competition was launched last year, paid for in part by private donations and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

There is the issue raised by the Sierra Club and other groups that nothing should be built on parkland, no matter how well intentioned the use. Open space, they argue, is becoming too rare in an increasingly urban San Fernando Valley, where apartment complexes with no back yards are edging out single-family houses.

Of the winning submissions, the only ones that appear to sympathize in scale and style to the park setting is an elegant lakeside performance glen and grove, and a playfully scattered children's center for the arts. The lakeside complex was designed by the architect, artist and landscape teams of Adele Santos, Hodgetts-Fung, Mary Miss, Mark Rios and Charles Pearson, and the children's center by Mark Mack, Douglas Hollis and George Hargreaves.

Beyond the question of how parkland should be used is the growing recognition among planners and urban designers, based on experiences here and abroad, that cultural facilities are much more successful, generate more support and serve the public better if they are integrated into established, central communities.

If sympathetically designed in a community setting to encourage local use, such facilities could provide a focal point, an economic boost and a sense of pride.

The new arts facilities also could take advantage of the existing infrastructure, such as transportation and sewer systems, and support services, such as stores and restaurants. Maybe they even can be located at a substantial savings in a recycled building, perhaps a landmark.

In short, they should not be simply precious architectural objects floating in a park somewhere serving a select population and the egos of their designers, but rather urban design elements mending a wounded cityscape.

It is just these types of publicly accessible, multicultural facilities that the ailing Van Nuys business district is in desperate need of, as noted in a recent public and private planning effort there. Produced was a refreshingly practical report labeled Vision Van Nuys, which identified various sites in the civic center area that could accommodate new public facilities to energize the community and reinforce its planning goal as the crossroads of the Valley.

Interestingly, in many ways the winning design for the performing arts pavilion lends itself much more to a tight location within the existing street grid that marks the Van Nuys District than to a park setting.

The raw, overwrought design marked by thrusting structural elements and a skywalk was conceived by the team of Morphosis, Coop Himmelblau, Pamela Burton and Katherine Spitz as "a response to the relentless uniformity and energy of the grid organization which is so intrinsic to the suburban condition."

It might work in the contradictory context of the Van Nuys business district, but not in the Sepulveda Basin.

The other winners were a plan for a natural history museum and media center, designed also by the Hodgetts-Fung and Santos team, and an arts park center by architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsein, artist Elyn Zimmerman, and landscape architect Cheryl Barton and EDAW.

Both are engaging presentations, featuring exquisite model making that effectively submerges the larger issues of context and appropriateness. In this respect, they also reflect the thrust of the well-intentioned, but misdirected competition.

The San Fernando Valley needs a cultural center, but not as an isolated collection of precious buildings in a park; rather, as accessible architecture that mends instead of rends the community.

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