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Dinosaurs Not Extinct in Mall Artwork

September 17, 1989|SAM HALL KAPLAN

The featured attraction of most retail-and-restaurant mall dedications tends to be an entertainment industry celebrity or two, riding a horse, sitting in an open customized auto or cutting a ribbon.

Surrounded by the obligatory local politicians, and competing with a booming band in the background, they stoically shake hands, sign autographs and smile, then leave as quickly as possible.

A few of the usual characters and array of trappings were present in Santa Monica on Saturday to celebrate the opening of the Third Street Promenade, a $10-million effort to breathe new life into three blocks between Broadway and Wilshire Boulevard.

But unquestionably, the star attraction for this event, at least for me, was the dinosaurs, created by Claude and Francois La Lanne. They are to be the permanent centerpieces of the reconstituted mall, shaped by the ROMA Design Group under the shaky hand of the Bayside District Corp., a politicized creation of the city.

The life-size, fierce-looking dinosaurs with stylized heads of bronze and stout bodies of stainless steel framing, on which plant types dating from prehistoric times already have taken hold, emerged out of the primal muck of a public sculpture competition held last year by the Santa Monica Arts Commission (SMarts).

The styles range from a triceratops, with its bony head and three horns, to the curvaceous diplodocus and sharp-toothed iguanodon.

The competition was prompted by the city's belated recognition that to lend the mall some distinction, if not a focus, something more was needed than the architectural and landscaping cliches offered by ROMA.

And what could be better, and quicker, than a dash of public art, be it a sculpture, fountain or fragment, at an additional cost of $450,000?

Actually, it was a gamble, for public art has not necessarily been the panacea that some of its sponsors claim. Just as there are bad buildings, there is also bad art, self-indulgent exercises seemingly dropped on sites without regard for appropriateness. Such efforts have earned the label of "plop art."

Santa Monica has had its share. Serving as the "gateway" to the city is a 42-foot arch labeled "The Big Wave" over Wilshire Boulevard near Franklin Street that cost $100,000.

Some residents feel the money could have been better spent beautifying a few of the city's less appealing streets, such as Pico and Lincoln boulevards, or simply aiding the homeless who ply the Wilshire area.

And then there was a proposed 6-foot carved concrete wall surrounded by a 30-by-50 foot earthen berm that was supposed to be sited in one of the more actively used spots in Ocean Park beach. The project was fortunately stopped by concerned residents, who suggested the earthwork should go in an area that needed to be energized; not in an area that already was popular.

Happily, or should I say luckily, for the Third Street Promenade, the public art in the form of the topiary dinosaurs works, offering verve, interest and humor.

But no doubt, they would work better if in some way they could consume in a dinosaur-sized bite some of the light poles, and with a swish of their tails, topple a pavilion. The ROMA design is banal.

In my opinion, there are too many, too brightly painted light poles, awkwardly mounted with flower baskets and fixtures, competing with proud palm and jacaranda trees. The inappropriately styled benches are badly sited and the market pavilion structures appear out of scale.

Once again the designers have overdone it, at no small cost to local merchants who are footing the bill through a special tax assessment. They should have known better.

It was a century ago in his classic planning treatise "The Art of Building Cities" that Camillo Sitte pointed out that public spaces, such as plazas and malls, should be open and inviting, with objects as statues and sheds minimized so as not to get in the way of people.

He noted that people, not necessarily objects, energize spaces. What should be cluttered are the edges defining the space.

Still, in my opinion, the ultimate success or failure of the promenade will not depend on the engaging public art, the awkward design, the costly parking on adjoining streets or how safe and clean the area is kept (the latter no small problem in Santa Monica these days).

As Sitte wrote, the success of the promenade will depend on the edges, how enticing and lively are the stores, shops and restaurants, but vitalized in large part by people who live and work within walking distance.

In short, success will depend on increasing the density of downtown, and not depending on commuting shoppers and cruising revelers who clog the streets with traffic and duel for limited parking.

Actually, downtown Santa Monica needs to worry less about parking and more about housing.

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