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Question & Answer

KATHLEEN L. DAVIS: Executive director, American Institute of Architects, O.C. Chapter : Kathleen L. Davis is executive director of the American Institute of Architects' Orange County Chapter, one of the nation's largest. Before the chapter's annual awards banquet this Friday, Davis talked with Times staff writer Michael Flagg about several matters, including critics who say that the county's development is sloppily planned or, in the words of a Boston Globe architecture critic who caused an uproar in the local architecture business several years ago, "a mess on its way to becoming a disaster."

July 15, 1991|Michael Flagg | Times staff writer

You folks in the local architecture community have come in for your share of lumps from the critics over the years. Do you think the criticism's valid?

Actually, it was interesting that the Boston critic lambasted Orange County--particularly for its car-oriented environment--because the next week or so, on the cover of Time magazine, there was an article about Boston gridlock with pictures of wall-to-wall cars. It's easy to come to another part of the country and criticize but not see the problems in your own environment. And this area is so car crazy; you look out there on the freeway and you can see there's a love affair here with big expensive cars, and people don't know how to give that up.

But doesn't Boston, for all its traffic problems, provide a good example of something this county can't seem to plan into existence: vital, interesting neighborhoods?

I lived in (the planned northern Virginia community of Reston for 18 years before I came out here, and there was a sense of community there that you do not get in Orange County, unless you live in Corona del Mar or Laguna Beach or one of the older communities. Reston was a walking community where you could walk to the town center, which isn't the case with places like Irvine. And the townhouse projects were all designed by different architects; you didn't have a lot of red tile roofs.

Local developers seem to be moving away from those boring, boxy glass office towers. Is architecture here getting any better?

Yes. It's a "B," or a "B-plus." A lot of this is educating the client. I think there's a lot of potential here for better architecture. The architect has to feel comfortable making suggestions to the client. That's not always an easy thing to do because you want to keep your business.

All right then, which local buildings do you think work aesthetically and practically? And which don't?

The Performing Arts Center (near South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa) has been underrated by people outside the county. The AT&T building at the (Irvine) Spectrum looks great at night with the lights on, although it's not so great in the daytime. The Brinderson buildings (near John Wayne Airport in Irvine) are good-looking buildings; they're so angular. The campus at UC Irvine is an outstanding example to the rest of the UC system of what can be done to make a campus less mundane. The Crystal Court (next to South Coast Plaza mall) seems to be a stepchild of the mall. There's no incentive for shoppers to walk over there.

What's AIA doing in terms of raising consciousness about some of these issues of planning and design?

In terms of planning, the chapter has to go out and approach cities and say to them: "We have people with expertise who'd like to be on your planning commission." Traditionally, we've just sat back and let things happen.

Is that a change in direction for the chapter?

There's a little more concentrated effort to get involved than there has been in the past. The public is really naive about what an architect does; they only see somebody who sits down and draws lines. In reality, of course, it's much more complicated. We need to educate people more about that.

Getting back to aesthetics, what about houses: What do you think of the popularity of these pastel stucco, Mediterranean-looking houses you see everywhere?

I think it's here to stay. People feel comfortable with that. It sells. Anything nice and contemporary with clean lines, the developer will lose his shirt on. I think there's a lot more interesting, energy-efficient architecture. But that's another love affair this area has--with a romantic version of the past. The beauty of a clean-lined building is that it never ages. . . .

There will almost certainly be far fewer buildings constructed in the next 10 years than were during the building boom of the last decade. Most architects' firms have already laid off people. Are they likely to stay smaller?

I don't think you'll have fewer architects. You may have architects who are not necessarily in a traditional practice, though. We're trying to train some of the young people to realize that when you go to work now it may not be for a traditional design firm. There's also city government, and there's industry.

How are the firms themselves adapting to this new reality?

Most firms have found that they can produce as much with a leaner, meaner staff. You have to understand that architects are very softhearted. When someone came in and interviewed and looked like they had some potential, quite often a firm would find a place . . . to put them whether they needed them or not. The economy in the last few years has made these firms take a second look and realize they had too many people. . . .

What happened to those people who got laid off? Are they getting out of the business?

A lot of those people who have been laid off have gone out on their own, so you have some new small firms developing. Some of them wondered if they'd be able to get through the year. But now we have people come in who've been laid off who tell us: "There's still work out there. You just need to know where to get it." It's stuff they might not have wanted to do in better times--small remodels, things like that--but it's work.

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