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BEST OF 2006 / ARCHITECTURE | CHRISTOPHER HAWTHORNE

Landmark feats

December 17, 2006|Christopher Hawthorne | Times Staff Writer

IT was a year for stunning stand-alone buildings, including memorable U.S. debuts for Jean Nouvel and the Tokyo firm SANAA; as a result, no one could argue that the era of iconic architecture had run its course. But it was also a year in which a number of developments -- in New Orleans, at ground zero, even a PBS series on green design -- kept cropping up to remind us that architects have a long way to go to solidify connections between their field and planning, transportation and environmentalism. And precisely because its leading firms have been able to strengthen those links, landscape architecture held onto its position as the most vital of the design disciplines. The 10 happiest developments of the year, in chronological order:

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Gail Goldberg named L.A. planning director. OK, so L.A. isn't San Diego, where Goldberg worked in the planning department for 17 years. And maybe the job here is in some sense an impossible one. But Goldberg shows signs of bringing not just order but much-needed savvy and a sense of the long view to the city's post-sprawl landscape.

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Ken Smith named master designer for Orange County Great Park. There were some cold feet there at the end, but ultimately the directors of the Great Park Corp. came to their senses and tapped Smith, a smart, cheeky New York designer with little built work to his credit, to tackle the most significant design project in the state: a new park at the site of the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station in Irvine. His team's talented lead architect, Enrique Norten, remains a wild card, but otherwise Smith's plan is taking shape with remarkable speed.

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The Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis. Nouvel's first American building, an ungainly stack of purple geometric forms rising on a riverfront site, acknowledges theater companies' growing need for restaurants, gift shops and other amenities to attract the public at times other than 20 minutes to 8 in the evening. But by lifting its two main auditoriums high in the air, and connecting them to the lobby by impossibly long and thin escalators, he also reasserted the fundamentally romantic appeal of theatergoing: escape from the mundane and the everyday. Bonus points to the French architect for designing such an unphotogenic building in a media-obsessed age.

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Glass Pavilion, Toledo Museum of Art. Another American debut, this one by the Japanese firm SANAA, produced one of the quietest, most affecting buildings of the year: a single-story home for a deep collection of glass art, itself wrapped in fluid, curtain-like walls of glass. Philip Johnson's Glass House meets the age of high-design museum architecture, with sublime results.

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USC and UCLA hire new leaders for their architecture departments. Both schools turned to Asia, and chose surprisingly young architects, in an effort to find fresh leadership. UCLA's new chairman is Hitoshi Abe, a 44-year-old from Tokyo who will surely change the priorities of a department that, under Sylvia Lavin, had been focused on New York and Europe -- and the computer. At USC the dean is Qingyun Ma, who is just 41 and runs a successful practice based in Shanghai; he takes over from Robert Timme, who died last year.

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The 10th International Architecture Exhibition, better known as the Venice Architecture Biennale. The more-jaded-than-thou set may have complained that the exhibition, in its focus on urbanization, left out architecture altogether. But the focus of curator Richard Burdett's show, smartly organized if a little wonkish, is really the only story in architecture at the moment: how to deal with the fact that by 2050 three-quarters of all humans will live in cities.

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State park competition at the Cornfield site in Los Angeles. If only all competitions for L.A. public projects could unfold the way this one did. First, Thom Mayne and the landscape firm Field Operations helped broaden the discussion about the future of the site, which is squeezed between downtown and the 5 Freeway, by proposing a land swap that would produce a new Dodger Stadium next to Chinatown and build housing in Chavez Ravine. Then the state parks department awarded the commission to another finalist, a team led by George Hargreaves and including architect Michael Maltzan, whose scheme was both large-minded and thoughtfully detailed.

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Griffith Observatory. The second installment, following 2005's update of the Getty Villa, in what is sure to be a long series in this ever-more-crowded city: The infill restoration. There isn't much to write home about in Pfeiffer Partners' new underground spaces, which flow inexorably to the Wolfgang Puck cafe, but Brenda Levin's revelatory work on the original 1930s building gives Angelenos a reason to ride the (shuttle) bus. That alone signals its importance -- even if the buses are slow and overcrowded.

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