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CIVIC ARTS PLAZA : Structure Builds on Discreet Diversity : The multifaceted architecture reflects the complex's uses as government center, public meeting place and theatrical venue.


The gradual unfolding of architect Antoine Predock's grand Civic Arts Plaza in Thousand Oaks has been an unusually public process. Butting up against the Ventura Freeway as it does, the project has been a highly visible work-in-progress over the past several months, even more so than Richard Meier's Getty Center hilltop citadel along the San Diego Freeway.

We who haunt the Ventura Freeway have watched the leviathan plaza grow dramatically, from its skeletal stage through the completion of its mammoth cube. From the freeway perspective, it looked as if International style's geometry was married to Pueblo style earthiness.

Then came the peculiar adornments on the cube's exterior: On the west-facing wall there appeared the buckshot-and-cork "pictograph wall," with its images created from perforations in the surface; a large, diagonally placed ladder-like relief sculpture; the thin serpentine windows cut into the thick facade. Later came the copper curtain on the opposite wall, a poetic solution to the problem of identifying the structure's theatrical nature.

The Civic Arts Plaza, which is officially launched this month, is a fine example of architectural problem-solving and artistic evolution. Unfortunately, what you see from the freeway is not what Thousand Oaks gets.

In the way Predock has designed the complex to embrace the sloping site, the positioning of the main theater's massive cube creates a bulwark against the freeway. From the proper low angle, sight lines lead the eye up and over the freeway, connecting the hillside with the other side, as it once was.

From down below on Thousand Oaks Avenue--the plaza's most flattering vantage point--the structure reveals itself more fully. A combination of government center, public meeting place and arts complex, it has been described as five buildings "pretending to be one."

Therein lay Predock's challenge, and also the spur to his creative triumph. Because of its multiple-use function, as a home for city government and arts--from high, low and middling cultural bases--an intricate and multifaceted architectural program seems logical.

Aptly, Predock's cultural/civic complex isn't nearly as monolithic or monochromatic as a cursory glance seems to reveal. Discreet diversity exists, from the variety of geometric forms--rectilinear volumes to a quasi-Mayan pyramid--to the exterior materials used.

Surfaces range from the utilitarian, reinforced concrete parking structure to the beige, sandstone-like surface of the theater to contrasting stone brick exteriors. Throughout, Predock sets up a graceful discontinuity between the elements involved.

All along, the not-so-silent partner has been the freeway--that omniscient force in Southern California life and the very reason that cities such as Thousand Oaks exist. You can try to design around it, and find clever ways to accommodate it, but still you get that steady hum and whoosh.

But, once inside the Civic Arts Plaza, the visitor gets the impression of a self-contained village that acts as a civilized refuge. By that basic standard, the place succeeds: It invites us in and asks that we linger.

While architects are often granted a longer expressive leash and are able to explore more radical ideas in urban centers and other rare circumstances, moderation is often required in outlying areas. Michael Graves' ITP building unveiled at UC Santa Barbara last spring, a subtle variation on the omnipresent Spanish Colonial theme, is among his tamest and least-outlandish designs.

The Civic Arts Plaza, on the other hand, yields to no dominating architectural vocabulary, and disguises its risk-taking tendencies behind a deceptive simplicity.

One of the more inspired architects to have emerged in the stormy era during and after post-Modernism and Deconstructionism, Predock is a maverick with a cause. With offices in Albuquerque and Venice, the increasingly renowned architect tends to marshal a healthy degree of poetry along with the required pragmatism.

He trumpets no particular doctrine other than to follow his own impulses. And, in the case of the Civic Arts Plaza, his impulses have cohered into a piece of architecture that ennobles the region that plays host to it.

From below, the structure rises and spreads its limbs proudly, like a model city laid out on a hillside, suggesting a design that sits comfortably between the primitive and the futuristic. It's far too early to tell, but the subtlety of Predock's vision in Thousand Oaks seems to have a safeguard against the ravages of time and fashion.

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