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CONVENTION 2000 / THE DEMOCRATIC CONVENTION

Staples a Microcosm of Society's Good, Bad

The arena is a monument to civic pride, but the rows of corporate boxes and other elements may not play well with the Democrats' theme.

August 14, 2000|NICOLAI OUROUSSOFF | TIMES ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

Raise the flag. Drop the balloons. The Democrats are launching another new era. And what better place to showcase the post-Clinton vision of America than Staples Center, the arena that in one short year has come to represent all that's right and wrong in today's version of the Great Society?

Since opening in October, Staples has been held up as a $400-million monument to civic pride and as a model of civic dysfunction. Even the recent celebration of the first Lakers NBA championship in 12 years was marred by the torching of two police cars by drunken fans. And it's not just Staples Center's apparent bad karma that should make the New Democrats momentarily uneasy. Social conflict is embedded in the building's architecture. As in most new state-of-the-art stadiums, Staples' three tiers of corporate boxes seem to embody a society increasingly shaped by the yuppie lust for the trappings of wealth.

Seen from the street, Staples is essentially an enormous bowl, with the foyers housed in a lower structure that wraps around its base. The long, low form of the administrative offices juts from one corner of the structure, framing the main entry along 11th Street. The decision to break the design into distinct elements is intended to make the building more sensitive to its context. And it undeniably gives the structure a more human scale. But the gesture also serves to disguise the real nature of a stadium--heroic, muscular, a forum for communal frenzy.

In any case, that kind of touchy-feely design has its limits in a landscape of political realism. For the convention, Staples is surrounded by an additional maze of chain-link fences and concrete barriers that resembles a war zone. The center's once-sprawling parking lots are now an elaborate warren of cage-like lots that will be used by protesters and media trailers. The demonstration sector--designed with the help of the Los Angeles Police Department in the shape of a narrow rectangle that extends away from the arena--is a blunt effort to keep the protests out of sight of the event inside.

The layout of the parking lots also brings to mind what the French theorist Michel Foucault once called the "Utopia of a perfectly governed city," the political dream of a disciplined society. Thirty-two years ago, in Chicago, yippies plotting their demonstrations in Lincoln Park were trailed by bands of plainclothes police officers. Today, even chaos and dissent have their place. The apparatus of social control has come out of the closet.

The metaphors keep rolling. Inside, Staples becomes a model of class struggle. The building, for instance, was designed so that the bulk of the audience sits at the bottom of the bowl, close to the action. But visually, the corporate boxes dominate the space. At least one Lakers' fan bought two sets of season tickets, one that allowed him to mingle with his corporate brethren, the other for watching the game.

For the convention, seats in the corporate boxes will be distributed among the party's biggest contributors. Vice President Al Gore, making his acceptance speech, will be staring into a wall of big money, with the conventioneers scattered at his feet. Compare that image to the cliche of Charles Foster Kane (in "Citizen Kane") basking in the adulation of the mob while cigar-smoking politicians wield their power in smoke-filled back rooms. Here, the cigar smokers hover shamelessly in full view.

More likely than not, those boxes won't be on screen much. And image, as everyone knows by now, is the real issue. The main podium is set at one side of the oval arena. A massive screen, which will juxtapose images of the speakers with various patriotic clips, will rise behind the stand. Opposite, photographers will crouch together on a narrow, elevated stand clad in silver and shaped like the streamlined prow of an Amtrak train--a perfect diagram for our media-driven age.

Of course, Staples Center was not picked as a venue for the convention because of its corporate boxes. But the building's design still offers an intriguing window into the evolution of contemporary values. It is the embodiment of the corporate realms' gradual encroachment on everyday life. It is a product of the exact world that Gore likes to rail against.

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