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Architecture | THE YEAR IN REVIEW

A glimmer amid the bleak reality

Major works open to great acclaim, but economic and security concerns redefine the world of architecture.

December 22, 2002|Nicolai Ouroussoff | Times Staff Writer

Architecture is back. Or so one would think, given the vast number of high-profile projects that have opened recently. This year alone, major works by such architectural luminaries as Tadao Ando, Frank Gehry and Steven Holl have drawn widespread public acclaim. Critics have cited them as evidence of the profession's renewed creative energy.

Perhaps even more encouraging, an emerging generation of young architects, such as UN Studio and Greg Lynn, is beginning to get its share of public recognition, and this group is broadening the talent pool beyond the dozen or so celebrity names that are on every major client's short list.

Beneath the surface, however, the picture looks more bleak. Economic woes after Sept. 11 and the shifting national mood have put a number of major projects on hold. Security concerns have threatened to transform some aspects of the public landscape into high-tech fortresses, signaling the emergence of a new architecture of surveillance and fear. And despite the best efforts of a few visionaries, first-rate architecture has yet to have a meaningful effect on how everyday people live. For the most part, it remains the plaything of a small circle of relatively wealthy individuals.

Nowhere have such contradictions been more evident than in the continuing battle over the future of the ground zero site in New York. When the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. unveiled a series of preliminary design proposals for the site in July, the result was a public outcry.

The proposals looked like any conventional urban development. The public wondered how the agency could take such a dull, bottom-line approach to a project loaded with symbolic meaning.

The agency has since gone back to the drawing board, hiring a range of highly respected talents and asking them to come up with more compelling visions for the site. It remains unclear, however, whether the results will survive the Machiavellian political process that has long been a hallmark of such large-scale developments in America.

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Nicolai Ouroussoff's events of 2002

Below are some of the notable events that have defined the last year in architecture -- a year that has seen it share of dramatic turns.

Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. The museum announced the selection of New York-based Steven Holl to design a major $300-million renovation and expansion of its dilapidated Exposition Park home. Over the last two decades, Holl has established himself as one of the country's most ingenious talents, with a series of works whose awkward, poetic quality often attain a haunting power. His Natural History Museum proposal, although still in preliminary design stages, is loaded with promise.

Los Angeles International Airport. With a $9.6-billion price tag, the preliminary master plan for a redesigned LAX -- which would require the demolition of the airport's central parking lots and the creation of a new transportation hub miles from the main terminals -- is shaped almost entirely by security considerations. As a model of how post-Sept. 11 anxieties are beginning to affect the built environment, the plan evokes a new architecture of fear.

Maslon House. The demolition of the Maslon House in Palm Springs was a major blow to the cause of architectural preservation in Southern California. Designed by Richard Neutra, a pillar of Los Angeles Modernism, the house was an irreplaceable landmark -- an exquisite composition of steel and glass. Its destruction now stands as an emblem of how fragile that legacy can be.

Pollari Somol House. Designed by two relatively unknown talents, Robert Somol and Linda Pollari, on a limited budget, the house's sleek, corrugated metal and concrete forms are a compact expression of one L.A. couple's struggle to realize the great suburban dream in an increasingly dense urban landscape. The kind of project that can give even a jaded architecture critic hope for the profession's future.

Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. Designed by the celebrated Japanese architect Tadao Ando, the museum building proves that not only can art and architecture coexist -- they also can feed off each other. The building's ability to evoke a range of emotional experiences -- without disturbing a sense of harmony -- makes it one of the great museum spaces of recent years.

Ground zero. No one could have predicted the public outcry that resulted when the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. unveiled its six original master plans for the site. But the result was a dramatic turnaround in a process that was heading toward disaster. The agency agreed to start over from scratch -- a rare instance when a democratic public process was able to challenge business as usual in the development world, and demand a higher standard of architecture in the process.

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