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The Landscape as a Parable

February 19, 1990|LEON WHITESON

Amid the din of traffic and buzz of busy sidewalks, landscape architects Pamela Burton and Katherine Spitz take refuge in the tranquillity of a tiny downtown park they designed on Spring Street.

"In this very urban space we've called upon metaphor, narrative and journey to evoke a special sense of place," Burton says.

To begin with, this new vest-pocket park, named the Broadway Spring Center, celebrates Biddy Mason, a nurse, midwife and former slave who, a century ago, opened a refuge for black families at this location. A mural at the park's entrance memorializes Mason's long and charitable life.

In addition, because the graceful 1893 Bradbury Building backs onto the park, this urban space evokes the memory of Spring Street and Broadway in their social and commercial glory in the first decades of the 20th Century.

Predating the architecture and the street itself is the recollection of the country lane in the midst of a cow pasture that later became Spring Street, once Los Angeles' main financial thoroughfare. Burton explains that the grove of camphor trees in the center of the park "narrates" the site's country lane origins.

A fountain--composed of a series of pipes constructed of copper, stainless steel and concrete--mimics the profile of an oil refinery, a metaphor for the industries that funded the city's early prosperity. The present is represented by the small retail outlets lining the park, businesses that represent Broadway's resurgence as a commercial hub, this time serving Los Angeles' Latino community.

Their imaginative emphasis on metaphor, narrative and journey has placed Burton and Spitz among the leaders of a new wave of younger designers who are rethinking the role of landscape architecture in relation to the city. From their small office in a brick building in the industrial section of Santa Monica, the two women have collaborated with some of Southern California's most avant-garde architects.

Morphosis' Thom Mayne says he "likes the way Burton and Spitz deal with landscape as a set of emotional and intellectual ideas. They're are no longer mere pretty horticulturists supplying plants, but actual conceptualizers of the urban scene, and their concepts are deeply poetic, like the best architecture. Since both Pamela and Kathy were trained as architects as well as landscape designers, they understand how we think and so can integrate their ideas seamlessly with ours."

The architects at Morphosis collaborated with Burton and Spitz on the winning entry for the Performing Arts Pavilion in the proposed Arts Park in the Sepulveda Basin. The plans call for most of the complex to be underground, "to preserve the integrity of the surface plane and honor the urban grid that dominates the Valley," Mayne said.

Working with Barton Myers Associates in the design of the Cerritos Community Arts Center, Burton and Spitz helped knit the architecture with its surroundings by creating "outdoor rooms" such as an Actors' Garden, which expresses its dramatic metaphor in a symbolic "tragic" weeping willow and a "comic" monkey puzzle tree.

"Burton and Spitz create landscapes as parables," said BMA principal Jonathan Hankin. "Their depth of thought is wonderful and adds great resonance to the architecture."

For their entry in the Napa Valley Domaine Clos Pegase Winery competition, with architect Robert Mangurian and sculptor James Turrell, Burton and Spitz devised a Garden of Seven Mysteries that included a "Devil's Chase" and several "Spirit Mounds." The purpose of these landscape elements was "to symbolize the transition between day-to-day consciousness and the states of dreams, disturbances and ecstasies that wine provokes," according to the text that accompanied their submission.

Trained as a painter before she became an architect and then a landscape architect, Spitz is accustomed to the use of visual metaphors.

"We have to ask, 'What are our myths?' That is always the first question," she said. "In Los Angeles we have the myth of the wilderness fused with an overlay of settlement expressed in landscape patterns imported from Spain, Italy, England and Japan. We have to experiment with the tensions this juxtaposition generates, and feel our way through at last to a truly local urban tradition. Developing our own landscape is vital to creating our own sense of identity in this strange and unique environment."

Appropriately enough, Spitz first met Burton in Pistoia, Italy's nursery-garden capital. A native New Yorker, Spitz had worked in a Los Angeles plant nursery while still a student. Burton, who was born in Santa Monica but grew up in the Bay Area, was employed by Frank Gehry as a model builder before she qualified as an architect (and later a landscape architect), and these varied backgrounds seemed to both partners to mesh perfectly.

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