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Finding the Things That Bring a Rather Pedestrian Mall to Life

June 03, 1993|AARON BETSKY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Aaron Betsky teaches and writes about architecture

The most beautiful facade of any parking garage in Southern California is undoubtedly the south side of the structure at Santa Monica Place.

It is a huge scrim of bluish chain-link fence, into which a lighter color has been woven to spell out the name of the mall in letters three stories high. Because the chain-link is translucent, you can see the cars that are stacked behind this sign. Their grills are proudly displayed on thin concrete slabs. The screen gives this full-block mass of retailing an image that is, in its very abstraction from the stores, also a piece of pop art.

The giant sign's scale and translucent quality make it an ethereal exclamation at the scale of the city. When you are in the garage, that same sign screens out the sun and casts intricate shadows all around you, while allowing you to look out at the Civic Center and the ocean.

Santa Monica Place itself is a more or less standard mall--which is to say that it is a warehouse divided into narrow slots for stores and cut through by a tight corridor. The mall lies buffered by its parking garages as the traffic tries to wind its way around and into its blank forms. Once inside, you are cut off from the outside world so that you can concentrate on shopping.

To his credit, the architect, Frank Gehry, did try to do a few things differently. To the north, the mall erupts into a glass shed that invites the Third Street Promenade into its corridors. The western entrance is equally exuberant. Its fragmented frames disintegrate this hulk into the smaller scale of Second Street, while giving you a place to view the ocean.

Inside, Gehry broke the rules by putting the "anchor" stores, Robinsons-May and The Broadway (bunkers he didn't design), diagonally across from each other, so that the two main corridors pass by them and open out to the street.

Rather than hide the simple, almost industrial nature of the building technology that goes into making these kinds of places behind layers of stucco, he let the columns and metal roof become a white order punctuated by skylights and clerestories. He then used stairs, elevators and escalators to make the place come alive with the movement of people, putting these circulation devices at angles to the corridors and over blue-tiled fountains. He designed the central space as a stage-like frame, also set at angles to the walkways, so that you feel as though you were in a separate, clearly defined space. If it is desirable to make shopping malls an alternative to the real street out there, he seemed to be saying, "let's at least make it look simple and clear."

I guess that simple doesn't sell. Two years ago, the owners asked Communications Arts of Denver to renovate the 10-year-old mall.

These image packagers decided that what was needed were the same pastel pinks and snazzy zigzags that adorned surf wear a few years ago. They slathered every surface with hot colors, suffocated the airy glass shed on the north with two rounded bustles and filled the central space with a slithering snake of stone that is continually inundated by water so heavily chlorinated that the whole courtyard reeks of it. They even dressed up the simple white columns with curlicues that, if you look closely, turn out to support wall sconces.

Now Santa Monica Place is just another shopping mall whose confused forms blend seamlessly into the fashions displayed within its frames. It also seems to be an extension of the popular postmodern playground that is the Third Street Promenade.

Yet, I miss being able to look up from the gaudy displays at the sunlight as it hits a simple white wall. I miss the sense of space. I miss the grand form of the shed at the end of Third Street, and I miss the views of the blue ocean framed in white. At least I can still delight in the big sign in front of the parking garage--at least until they decide that it, too, is too obvious and cover it with whatever version of architectural smiley-faces is then in fashion.

* Santa Monica Place: 315 Broadway, Santa Monica

* Architect: Frank Gehry

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