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CRITIQUE : Falling Short IN BEVERY HILLS : Design: Most elaborate public project in city's history fails to reach its ambitious goals.

July 07, 1991|LEON WHITESON | Whiteson is a Los Angeles free-lancer who writes on architectural topics. and

The small, rich city of Beverly Hills is a proud and image-conscious place. Known around the world for its glamour and extravagance, Beverly Hills has long lacked a civic symbol lavish enough to match its extraordinary private and commercial opulence.

The new Beverly Hills Civic Center is a brave try at the creation of such a powerful civic symbol. The most elaborate public project in the city's history, the center simultaneously epitomizes Beverly Hills' civic pride and exposes its confusions.

Battered by controversy, scarred by budgetary squabbles, delayed by fierce quarrels over its appropriateness, the civic center is ambitious yet not quite accomplished. It is opulent in intention yet mean in execution, and not nearly as urbane as its designers think it is.

Controversy has bedeviled the civic center since the project began in 1982, when a limited design competition was won by a team headed by architect Charles Moore, the 1990 American Institute of Architects Gold Medal honoree.

At the time, many Beverly Hills residents, and several council members, questioned the need for such an ambitious public project in a city of 32,000.

While it was recognized that the aging and inadequate library, police headquarters and central fire station needed new buildings, the scale and the pretension of the grand civic center proposal troubled cost-conscious citizens worried about their city's fiscal priorities.

In 1982 the civic center budget was first set at about $30 million. This estimate was doubled after Moore's team won the design competition and doubled again in the nine years the project has taken to come to completion.

Heated arguments over the center's budget led to the resignation of City Manager Edward Kreins in January, 1990. The matter of money lingers in the ongoing litigation between the city and J. A. Jones Construction Co., the center's main contractors, who are suing one another in a dispute over costs.

According to the city, the center cost $110 million to build. To this must be added the interest payments on two emergency bond issues, plus other charges, so that the ultimate real cost may be as high as $150 million, or more than $4,000 for every man, woman and child in the city.

This is rich stuff, even for Beverly Hills' deep pockets. The final result, now that the dust has settled, is that the center does not quite live up to its high ambitions.

The Beverly Hills Civic Center adds a new library, police headquarters, central fire station and parking garage to the historic 1932 City Hall on north Crescent Drive.

Rexford Drive bisects the site from north to south, dividing the library and the police headquarters from City Hall and the fire station.

Moore's main strategy to unify the dispersed buildings of the new complex was to slash a bold axis diagonally across the site.

A series of elliptical, or oval, courtyards and colonnades links the center's main entrance on the southwest corner of the center at Crescent Drive and Burton Way to the northeast edge on Santa Monica Boulevard and Civic Center Drive. Apart from this elliptical axis, a low bridge over Rexford Drive joins City Hall to the police headquarters, and to an elaborate system of overhead walkways leading to the library and the parking garage.

Varying in scale, level and character, the ovals frame an intriguing hall-of-mirrors perspective that creates a sense of mystery and visual excitement.

The eight-story tower of the old City Hall, crowned by its tiled cupola and gilded peak, dominates the complex and sets the tone of the buildings that surround it. This historic shaft, which contrasts Spartan concrete surfaces with a baroque style of Spanish decoration, is copied in the plain walls and elaborate colonnades of the new structures.

The new buildings take many clues from the old City Hall. They are, like the bulk of City Hall, three stories high. The size and spacing of the window bays match those of the existing building, and the decorative elements are inspired by the Spanish Colonial Revival details of the original.

However, since it is now almost impossible and certainly very expensive to recreate the finishes of the 60-year-old City Hall, the new materials are cheaper and simpler. Painted concrete replaces cast stone; simplified geometric modeling replaces curlicued plaster ornamentation. Simple colored tile accents on the arcade arches and along the caps and edges of the vertical window bays echo the richer mosaic of the City Hall's dome.

In the original design the forecourt to the 560-car garage housed a theater and a cafeteria. For budgetary reasons, these facilities were cut from the complex, leaving a bare arena covered with Tarmac and bounded by blank stucco walls.

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