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Who's in charge of our : SKYLINE?

May 17, 1990|LEON WHITESON | Leon Whiteson, a free-lance writer based in Los Angeles, writes regularly about architecture for The Times.

Standing at the window of his fifth-floor office in Irvine's University Town Center, architect David Baab gestures at the panorama of clustered high-rise towers that form a knobby six-mile-long spine across the flat horizon.

Everything that's good and bad about the architectural and urban development of central Orange County over the past 10 to 15 years can be plainly seen from his office window, Baab said.

"The bad part is that, given an almost completely clean slate to start with, we've created a disconnected, strung-out, car-obsessed metropolis populated with bland glass boxes," he commented.

"The good part is that we're beginning to think hard about the need to create real downtowns where people can work, live, shop and play in a pedestrian-friendly environment."

The surprising thing about the view from Baab's window is that central Orange County is well on the way to becoming a linear metropolis composed of a string of high-rise urban centers stretching from Hutton Centre in the north to Newport Center in the south.

This new Southern Californian metropolis, centered around John Wayne Airport and the nearby interchange of the San Diego and Costa Mesa freeways, rivals downtown Los Angeles in area of office space and volume of business activity.

But the urbanization of central Orange County has happened so fast its commercial buildings seem to have been designed in a rush, without much concern for subtlety or attempt to develop a distinctive local style.

"With almost no traditional architectural character to give us clues to the future or bind our hands with images of the past, we should have had the imagination and the courage to create new city centers that are more than collections of mediocre and anonymous commercial towers," says former UC Irvine campus architect David Neuman.

"We should have taken the wonderful opportunity to create a truly local sense of place," he said.

"Expressionless," "boring" and "anonymous" are the epithets most outside critics, and many local designers, apply to the style of the buildings erected in central Orange County over the past 15 years.

Washington architect Joseph Passoneau, invited to critique Irvine's urban development by the Mayor's Institute on City Design in early 1989, described the local scene as "10-story office buildings sitting in the middle of their lots screaming at one another."

Passoneau characterized the design of the typical Orange County office building as "schlock, kitsch and terrible."

Boston architecture critic Robert Campbell added that the architecture in the Irvine Business Complex is "bland and uninteresting. None of the new developments address the issue of how buildings come together to create neighborhoods."

The uninspired character of most commercial buildings in central Orange County is illustrated by the poor showing local design makes in the standard architecture guide to Southern California.

South Coast Metro is dismissed in a brief paragraph, its main attraction being its status as the host of South Coast Plaza, the Southland's largest regional shopping mall.

The Orange County Performing Arts Center, South Coast Metro's proudest new building, has been characterized by critics as "a half citrus ready for squeezing," notable only as "an upbeat note in Orange County's ambitions to be more than a cultural wasteland."

A few Newport Center structures are deemed worthy of mention by the guide, including Fashion Island, which has recently undergone a radical redesign. Only the UC Irvine campus gets major attention by critics for its innovative architecture by some of the world's leading designers. The campus has by far the best collection of modern non-residential architecture in Orange County.

Building upon a 1963 master plan by William Pereira, campus architect Neuman began a program in the 1980s to "change the character of UCI from a suburban college into an urbane campus with an ambition to be academically and architecturally first rate."

To accomplish this new urbanity, Neuman commissioned designs for campus structures by top architects from all over the world. At the same time, UCI's internal linkages, including walkways, bike paths and landscaping, were strengthened to give the whole campus the sense of a small city.

The UCI campus demonstrates that architectural diversity, including even the occasional bizarre or aggressively avant-garde building, is what makes a city visually stimulating. It's the reigning bland sameness of much of Orange County's new commercial architecture that stifles the spirit.

Even some updated, slightly more adventurous examples of the conventional glass box, such as the Atrium on Von Karman Avenue, opened in 1986, continue the anonymous Modernist style that provides its occupants with little sense of being in a particular locality.

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