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This Vision of Future Covers Old Ground

Review * The Playa Vista development, billed as 'a new philosophy in urban living,' comes across as an unimaginative attempt to keep the chaotic, vibrant city at bay.

March 12, 2000|NICOLAI OUROUSSOFF | Nicolai Ouroussoff is The Times' architecture critic

Playa Vista, the controversial development that is being marketed as a model for the urban neighborhood of the future, looks a lot like a rehashed vision of the past. With construction set to begin on the first 1,600 homes sometime this summer, the 1,087-acre residential-retail-commercial community is emerging as a parody of small-town America. And like most sentimental dreams, the design forsakes true imagination for the illusion of security and social stability.

Set at the base of the Playa Vista Bluffs just south of Marina del Rey, the housing development will rank among the largest in Greater Los Angeles since the delirious postwar booms of the '50s. If it goes ahead as planned, it will eventually include 13,000 residences and more than 5 million square feet of commercial space.

But unlike the often monotonous tract houses of that earlier era, Playa Vista aspires to laudable environmental and architectural standards. Battered by years of fighting with local environmentalists over the fate of the wetlands site, the project's developer, the Playa Capital Co., has zealously labored to present itself as a defender of the environment, setting aside 340 acres as a natural preserve and even creating a visitors center with exhibits on the site's history. In terms of the architectural design, it has hired 13 teams to realize what it touts as "a new philosophy in urban living."

In fact, the residential development is modeled on the kind of neotraditional town plans that were first devised more than a decade ago by a loose-knit group of architects and planners dubbed the New Urbanists. Their idea was to re-create the comforts of small-town America with a blend of historic architectural styles, cozy front porches and shady pedestrian streets. The best-known of these projects--Seaside and the Walt Disney Co.'s Celebration, both in Florida--are communities shaped by the desire to escape urban chaos and suburban isolation.

Playa Vista seeks to replicate that communal, pedestrian ethos here. And there is no doubt that the project is a genuine improvement over the kind of bottom-line developments scattered across much of Southern California. In an effort to promote a degree of economic diversity, the project provides rental apartments and housing types that range in cost from $200,000 to $1 million. It also seeks to balance residential and retail components with a healthy dose of nature--in addition to the wetland preserve, there are 40 parks in the plan.

But as a model for the future, or even the present, Playa Vista is less than convincing. As architecture, the development never rises above the ordinary. As an urban plan, it rejects the historical role of the metropolis as a place of cultural frictions. What it mostly draws from New Urbanism is its soothing quality, in which traditional streetscapes serve as symbolic barricades against a world in constant social flux.

The development's first phase will include four residential districts, anchored by neighborhood parks and a community center. Eventually, a range of housing types--apartment buildings, condos and single-family homes--will be scattered though 14 districts organized on a standard urban grid. Each district will have a mix of architectural styles, some loosely modeled on the works of legendary architects, others on historical California precedents.

Among the apartment buildings in Phase One, for instance, is a four-story complex inspired by the work of Irving Gill. A master of scale and proportion, Gill is best known as the Los Angeles architect who bridged Mediterranean historicism and a more abstract early Modernism. But his architectural compositions were also a masterful blend of solitude and communal interaction. In Gill's 1921 Horatio West apartments in Santa Monica, for example, the entry sequence leads from a shared central court into a variety of indoor and outdoor semiprivate spaces.

The Playa Vista version lacks that kind of deftness. The plan, by Thomas P. Cox Architects, packs 214 units into a banal housing block. As in most of the development's designs, parking is buried underground and elevators take you up to repetitive corridors, bypassing the internal courts, which are carefully shut off from the street. In a particularly telling gesture, the complex's most flamboyant feature--an entry court marked by a reflecting pool and fountain--leads straight to the leasing office.

Other designs are equally unimaginative. The low-slung, overhanging roof of the KTGY Group's Playa Vista Community Center, meant to be the development's social focus, evokes early Frank Lloyd Wright Prairie-style architecture. But underneath its Wrightian decor will be an array of conventional, box-like rooms. The free-flowing spaces and masterful use of light that make Wright's architecture so potent are nowhere to be found.

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