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STRUCTURES : Fusion of Forms : The North Coast Executive Center seems a hybrid of fragments from separate buildings, brought together in harmony.

May 30, 1991|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There it sits, singular, humongous, cutting a bold image across the eastern Oxnard skyline--so far a sparse one.

Across the freeway, Oxnard's twin peaks in the financial plaza--the Union Bank and Ventura Bank buildings--adhere to traditional skyscraper aesthetics, symmetrical vertical spires. But the North Coast Executive Center, coming up on its first birthday, is a different sort of architectural beast. The closer you look at it, the more its unusual charms emerge.

A wide, six-story, 110,000-square-foot structure, it looks stately in a gently postmodern way, with a self-conscious blending of curves, flat planes and right angles of blue-green tinted reflective glass surfaces and bands of travertine. It also looks a bit lonely, an isolated citadel at the end of the sparkling new boulevard, all dressed up with palm trees and nowhere much to go. Therein lies the beauty and the slightly surreal air of the place.

The building represents the first phase of the ambitious, $500-million development plan that has been long awaited by some, long dreaded by others. As early as 1986, the development, the largest commercial land development in Ventura County history, inspired fear, loathing and optimism--depending upon your source. As one concerned Oxnard citizen said at a preliminary public meeting in 1986, the plan seemed like "another step in the Los Angelization of Oxnard."

The Town Center plan involved turning the former farmland into an elaborate new complex with an office building, hotel, restaurant, stores and other buildings. At present, though, the future looks hazy, as problems relating to traffic flow have stymied its forward progress.

Ironically, the Town Center development's woes amount to an advantage in terms of appreciating the building from a strictly architectural standpoint. Whereas office structures are often deposited in already congested areas where their architectural virtues might be lost in the thicket, this structure enjoys the luxury of space. For the time being, anyway, the only peripheral visual distractions are strawberry fields and the dry Santa Clara River.

Once you strip away the aura of controversy surrounding the project, it's possible to ruminate over the building's formal riddle. Newport Beach-based architect Arthur Strock's design involves a successful fusion of forms that must have looked good on the computer drawing board, and which also translates nicely to the real world.

A building with no strict front or backside, it gives the appearance of a hybrid of three of four fragments from separate buildings, brought together in harmony. But just enough tension exists between the visual elements to keep life interesting. Strock describes the design as "a series of clamshells pulled apart with a cube interposed between the two halves."

Complex architectural ideas such as this can have an additive appeal, or go over the brink. "The risk is chaos," Strock said. "That building was not an attempt to clone a piece of (post-modernist architect) Frank Gehry's work, and that's not a criticism. His is a different program."

Considering its multiple personality factor, one's perception of the building changes depending on where you stand (or the vantage point of your car at a given moment).

From one angle, it looks like a broad, shimmering green silo. From another, its walls evoke a conventional squared-off design. From yet another, a tall slender oblong form juts into a rectangular midsection of the building, like a football wedging its way into a geometry lesson. Strock has created a building that makes a sculptural statement.

From inside, on three empty, unfinished floors, the view is dramatic. The arcing southwestern face of the building offers a panoramic view that tells the story of Oxnard with a swivel of the head. (Architecture, being the most concrete of art forms, is never really allowed pure appreciation, without attention paid to its context).

Across the humming freeway lie the flatlands where numerous housing developments are under way. The skyscrapers of the Oxnard financial plaza tower over the Wagon Wheel Junction. Look further south and strawberry fields--growing less and less forever--at last come into view.

As arguable as the Town Center development's merits and debits are, the North Coast Executive Center, as an architectural example, is in a kind of blissful state.

The future is speculative, in more ways than one. As Strock notes, the structure "has to stand on its own and be a viable piece of architecture even if nothing is ever built there. At the same time, it has to anticipate, in a constructive way, its neighbors.

"Hopefully," Strock says, "20 years from now it will be identified as a product of its time and place--no architecture is really timeless--but it won't be looked on as the architectural equivalent of a '58 De Soto, or a one-night stand that gets tiring with a repeat performance. We tried to create a stylistic durability."

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