THOUSAND OAKS — Its stark, angular design has been likened to a prison. And the copper curtain adorning its east wall has been called an eyesore, at best. From its inception, the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza has been enmeshed in artistic controversy.
And now another artist wants to help decorate it.
If sculptor Steven Simon has his way, the plaza will one day be topped with a green, glowing, 30-foot tower of recycled computer parts powered by solar energy.
"It would probably look like an antenna for an airplane," said Jane Brooks, chairwoman of the city's Arts Commission.
In a public hearing tonight, the commission is set to discuss Simon's donation of his art, as well as his offer to maintain it for free. If it accepts, the panel could make a recommendation to the City Council to approve the plan. The 7 p.m. hearing will be held in the board room of the arts plaza, 2100 E. Thousand Oaks Blvd.
Brooks described the piece as interesting and "very avant-garde." While it would be a nice addition to a library or park in the city," she said, "it won't be on the Civic Arts Plaza grounds. I'm sure of that."
But Simon, who created the artwork he calls "Component," said a spot as prominent as the city's most visible building is exactly where such a sculpture should go, though he is willing to consider other options.
Aside from drawing attention to the building, he said, the glowing tower would give onlookers a glimpse of an environmentally responsible city of the future, a city powered by alternative fuel.
"It's something I believe very strongly in," he said.
For now, "Component" rests on the hillside of his friend's Santa Paula ranch, where Simon placed it in 1995 as a sort of testing place. There he determined its ability to function in adverse weather and to stay lit at night.
"It has handled it beautifully and perfectly," the Encino artist said. "My research has been answered and I'm definitely quite happy that it's ready to go somewhere."
But such artwork can't be displayed just anywhere. Because steel cables are used to support the tower, the piece could be dangerous to the public and a liability to the city, officials said.
Some of Simon's other solar-powered sculptures are on display in Chicago, Ireland and Mexico. But he said he likes the Thousand Oaks site for its high visibility from the freeway.
In fact, what drivers see as they pass the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, which doubles as the City Hall, is a top concern for Arts Commission members as well.
Brooks said she expects droves of art lovers to travel the coast between the new Getty Center and San Francisco, and she envisions the city as a natural stop for them.
"Thousand Oaks is a unique city so far as the arts are concerned," Brooks said. "And if we had signage on the [Civic Arts Plaza] building, people wouldn't think it's a water plant on the freeway."
Though it may not be the type of signature image that commission members had in mind, Simon said the eerie incandescence of the tower would certainly attract attention from passersby.
Simon said he had been researching translucent surfaces for years before he stumbled on the right material for this piece of art.
"One day I looked up through a circuit board and saw how it glowed when the sun came through," he said. When he noticed that the board emitted light during the day and at night, he realized he had found an ideal medium for his art.
The circuit boards are technologically obsolete, so Simon saved them from a fate of long-term landfill decay. And as far as art supplies go, other people's garbage is very affordable, he said.
"You don't normally make a very tall, 30-foot, prominent sculpture for less than five figures," he said. But it cost him less than $4,000, with an added $5,000 or so in solar gear that was donated by several sponsors.
After the city was notified of Simon's donation, its five-member Juried Art Selection Committee reviewed the offer in November and decided to approve the artwork on the condition that the city maintain the right to determine its location.
"There was no reason for us to say it shouldn't be used," said Robert Levy, the committee's chairman, explaining that the committee's job is to screen art for sexual or political content. "It's a beacon or an exclamation point that could be used as a landmark someplace."
If the City Council decides that place will be on top of the Civic Arts Plaza, so be it, he said. But the decision should be left to them.
Levy's concern is that the copper curtain debacle has caused officials to become too worried about public reaction to embrace new art.
"There is always going to be controversy," he said. "If we listened to it, there would be no Eiffel Tower or Mona Lisa."
Though he has not yet seen the sculpture, Mayor Mike Markey said he has some reservations about placing a 30-foot structure on top of an already tall building.
"I don't think that would really gel," he said. "I might have a safety concern with people driving down the freeway and looking at something that glows in the dark instead of where they're going. There are a lot of things that have to be looked at."
And though she thinks a more subtle locale might be more appropriate than atop the arts plaza, Councilwoman Linda Parks said she really likes the artist's message.
"I don't see it so much as art as educational," she said. "It shows what solar panels can do."
Despite the current disagreement about where the tower should stand, Brooks said the city is generally open-minded about unusual art and is happy to have attracted Simon's interest. "On its own it could be a very interesting piece," she said. "Not everyone's going to like it, but that's OK. Otherwise we'd be a bunch of bumbling yes men."
Simon said he isn't terribly concerned. "If it turns out it is not the right location, I will offer it somewhere else."