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ARCHITECTURE

When the Water Gods Get Angry, Little 'Temple' Aims to Appease

February 13, 1992|AARON BETSKY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Aaron Betsky teaches and writes about architecture and urban design.

There are three monuments in the Pan Pacific Park. The most traditional one is a brand-new, somber and somewhat pompous memorial to the Holocaust. It stands on high ground at the far northern edge of the park, its brooding form demanding attention.

Slightly off to the side is the propped-up facade of the Pan Pacific Auditorium, the 1935 automobile showcase that has become an icon of Streamlined Moderne optimism. It sits forlornly behind a fence, its charred forms reminding us of how we used to dream.

The strangest form in the 27-acre park, though, is a checkerboard pattern of concrete tombstones that rises up the western edge of the basin. This phalanx seems to be protecting a colonnade built into the slope. Steel gates prevent you from entering what appears to be a funerary temple.

But if you walked up to the fence this week, you could make out the sound of rushing water. What you heard was the water of Los Angeles rushing to the sea, its tremendous force channeled underground. The mysterious structure is the most powerful monument in the park, for it is a reminder of the way we have fundamentally transformed our landscape.

Pan Pacific Park, at Gardner Street between Beverly Boulevard and 3rd Street in the Fairfax District, is in fact a catch basin that has been duded up as a recreation area, and the little temple is the mouth of the spillway. It was completed in 1983, just about in time for the drought, and has yet to be pressed into service.

Should an even more torrential rain make it necessary, the spillway will be opened and a rush of water will emerge to fill the whole sunken park with the runoff from the hills. Parks officials say loudspeakers would give a 15-minute advance warning.

The park is a visible piece of a vast system of flood control and drainage that most of the time, like the immense engineering projects that provide water to us from hundreds of miles away, remains invisible. It makes you realize that we live on top of and at the end of an immense network of pipes, culverts, reservoirs and gullies, and that the area of the park once looked very different.

The sloping plane was once covered with scrub oak and other sparse vegetation and cut through by seasonal small streams and little rivers. At this time of the year, the fickle streams would overflow their banks, turning much of the area into a swamp-- la cienega, the early settlers called it.

Now we have gardens planted with flowers, trees and plants. Our landscape is well-watered, stable and predictable. But nature always threatens below the surface, which is why the county has built a giant system of interconnected drainage basins.

In the 1970s, county officials decided to use some of these basins for recreational purposes and landscaped them into parks that could be inundated in an emergency.

The shape of Pan Pacific Park is dictated by this need: It is cut below the level of the streets below it, forming a wide, empty swath carved out of a dense residential neighborhood. Its curving, sloped banks are meant to contain water. Luckily, this simple act has provided us with a powerful amenity: a great sweep of open space whose undulations release us from the grids, which are out of sight as we stroll through our sunken park.

Unfortunately, the Recreation and Parks Department hasn't made the most out of this great opportunity. Pine trees and lawns dominate a landscape of baseball diamonds, jogging trails and undefined slopes dotted with the concrete columns and metal roofs of little picnic pavilions. There is little variety, no sense of scale; and little attention has been paid to reminding us of the actual nature or purpose of the place.

Pan Pacific is a nice, bland amenity. The worst part is the spillway, whose strange form lurks at the corner of the park without explaining itself. This should be a monument to our achievement, our hubris or chutzpah, in obliterating nature and replacing it with a carpet of humanity.

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