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ARCHITECTURE

When neighbors spoil the view

The new cathedral and posh Disney Hall have others itching to fix up. The county's on the job, but money's a problem.

November 12, 2002|Larry Gordon | Times Staff Writer

The priests who make their home in the residence attached to the new Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown Los Angeles have a lot to be thankful for. Brand new digs and, more important, just outside their door are wonderful sculptures, lovely fountains and an inspirational place to worship.

However, part of the view leaves something to be desired. Some of the residence's windows look directly out onto a steam-belching energy plant just across Hill Street. Pipes, cooling towers, industrial vents and some stained tile and metal walls stare back.

"It's not L.A's most beautiful building," said one resident, Msgr. Terrance Fleming, who recently resigned his administrative position in the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Los Angeles. Then, with the tact of a neighbor: "I hope they would do something with it."

He may just get his wish.

And Los Angeles may get lessons in how much the true nature of any structure can or should be camouflaged and how cities can combine urbanism with utilitarianism.

In more residential areas, when something big, new and shiny goes up, neighbors suddenly look at their own houses with more critical eyes. Paint jobs, re-sodding, new roofs and expansions then are launched.

Call it shame or civic duty, the county government is no exception to that basic fixer itch on a big scale. But instead of a mini-mansion as the goad, the driving forces are the recent completion of the cathedral and the continuing construction of the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Plus, a sense of trying to aid downtown's renewal.

The potential fixer-uppers are that Central Heating and Refrigeration Plant near the cathedral and an Erector Set-looking multilevel parking structure on Bunker Hill directly in front of Disney Hall's swooping stainless steel facade.

The county government, which owns both the plant and garage, hired the A.C. Martin Partners architectural firm in April to generate beautification ideas for those non-masterpieces of functional design. The recently completed designs from the $38,000 contract are not likely to be constructed quickly because of county budget problems. Still, they have stirred a lot of discussion.

"We are exploring things we might be able to do to enhance the appearance of these structures," said Sharon Yonashiro, the county's real estate asset manager. "I think it's the right thing to think about.

"It's part of our new awareness," she added, "of the importance of the urban landscape."

Construction costs are estimated at about $2 million for the energy plant and $1.5 million for the parking structure.

Along with the cost, the biggest challenge, everyone involved emphasizes, is that the power facility cannot be shut down and any new design elements cannot interfere with its operations. After all, the square-block power plant between Broadway, Hill, Temple Street and the 101 Freeway produces steam for heating and chilled water for air conditioning and sends those through tunnels and underground pipes to about a dozen buildings in the Civic Center, including courthouses and theaters. (The cathedral receives the cold water too.) As a byproduct, the facility also generates 30 megawatts of electricity.

All that cannot be made to look like a cutesy boutique, no matter how many flowering vines are planted along its walls or bright paint splashed onto cooling towers. Environmental and worker safety must be maintained and clearance for trucks and cranes kept open. So, the structure can't be wrapped up, a la Christo, to resemble a giant hookah pipe with it puffs of white smoke emitting.

David Martin, design principal of his family's multigenerational architecture firm, offered several concepts for the power plant. After review by county officials, the final version is sort of an artistic peek-a-boo.

In the model, translucent sculptural screens of perforated or woven metal are folded into crisp shapes and cover about two-thirds of the plant's exterior. Along the top, a similar form creates a type of crown. Much more landscaping by the sidewalk could soften the industrial flavor. Everything might glow at night from lights behind the screens.

The original energy plant had some elegance to it, Martin said, but later additions over the past 50 years or so created a hodgepodge. "We are not trying to disguise the fact that it's a power plant," explained Martin. "Our idea was to restore the original and, in a very sculptural way, screen off the various additions to give it a sense of drama in the city."

Yes, he concedes, there is "some whimsy" to his folded screen, some of which would be as large as 70 feet high. However, nothing in the plan would impede the work inside or the steam tunnels below.

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