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Film Hits the Road : Much-Maligned Freeway Stub Will Star in Movie Aimed at Healing Community's Wounds

September 14, 1989|DOUG SMITH | Times Staff Writer

The end of the Glendale Freeway means a lot of things to a lot of people, most of them bad.

To commuters from the north, it's a bottleneck that squeezes four lanes of freeway into two lanes of road. To residents of Echo Park, it's a sterile, noisy swath of concrete that cuts their community in two. To highway planners, it's a public humiliation, a project that they couldn't complete.

But to a young woman from Austria who is working on her master's degree at UCLA, this most awkward piece of engineering has become the hero of a movie.

For her thesis in urban design, Silja Tillner is capturing the last half-mile of the Glendale Freeway on film. The story is something of a fantasy. In a 10-minute production, the miscast road will be transformed into a tree-lined parkway, healing the wounds of a torn community.

Technically, it's as simple as Roger Rabbit. Tillner plans to use the animation technique exploited in the movie "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" to illustrate her vision for reclaiming the infamous Route 2 terminus.

The inspiration came from Tillner's interest in film as a medium for lifting community planning off the two-dimensional plane of paper.

"It's the only possibility to use the element of time in your design process, the time in which you perceive something," Tillner said.

Her thesis coordinator, Richard Weinstein, doesn't consider the technique entirely new, but said he has never seen it applied to a problem of such complexity and difficulty as the Glendale Freeway.

Fell to Opposition

Originally intended to connect to Beverly Hills, the freeway fell to regionwide political opposition in the late 1960s, said Pat Reid, spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation. Dropped from the state freeway plan, the uncompleted freeway was cut off inelegantly in the middle of Echo Park.

Caltrans' plan for the terminus remains provisional. It calls for minor modifications and the addition of lanes on Glendale Boulevard to ease the bottleneck, Reid said.

Tillner, 28, sees the problem from an entirely different perspective, influenced by her training at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna and a previous residency in a whimsical Moroccan village called Fez, where the traditional tool of urban orientation, the map, was of little use.

"You had to use your senses, your intuition," Tillner said. "That is something I find very helpful generally, with the confusion you find in Los Angeles now. The classical tools of town planning have reached a limit."

When she first investigated the Glendale Boulevard corridor as a class project last year, she fell for the hilly, lushly foliated, semi-Bohemian community whose "sensitive interaction between human needs and natural conditions" are still evident.

Tillner hoped to capture that original harmony of Echo Park and juxtapose it with the problem, imposed by outside interests whose needs "exceed the capacity of the land."

The plot, developed in her thesis proposal, begins with the "psychological war between commuters and residents." Film segments show elements that cannot exist together: "freeway off-ramp and elementary school; freeway under-path and entrance to church; family homes next to storage and car body shops."

Then "a radical step is taken--the Glendale Freeway will be cut back to stop at the Golden State Freeway. The operation eliminates the hated object and replaces it with a new one that can be seen as the beginning of a new approach to the environment. . . . The most dramatic step is the freeway bridge and off-ramp, which will be transformed into landscaped, terraced gardens and a community center."

This summer, Tillner and cameraman Dug Ward spent several days filming the freeway from many angles--the steep hills on either side, the desolate bridges that span it and the bitter end where the cars veer aside and the giant slab of concrete stops at a vacant lot.

The filming completed, Tillner has returned to the laboratory, where she is using a technique called rotoscoping to break the film into enlargements of individual frames. On a light table, she traces over each enlargement, producing a cartoon image on which she can let her imagination run free.

This will entail drudgery. To complete the film, she must make about 4,000 drawings. The more enjoyable part has been promoting it.

Warmly Received

Tillner has presented her ideas to community groups that received them warmly. The Echo Park Renters and Homeowners Assn., for example, has long advocated construction of a new highway into downtown sweeping east of Elysian Park from the Golden State Freeway. Tillner's plan would divert traffic right to the new road.

Public policy agencies promise to be harder to sell.

As part of her thesis project, Tillner has presented her ideas to representatives of Los Angeles City Councilman Michael Woo and plans to talk to Caltrans.

So far, those who have received her were more impressed with Tillner's creativity than her evaluation of hard data.

But then, they haven't seen "Glendale Freeway--the Movie" yet.

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