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It Can Be Done, but Will It Be Inspired?

The State | CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

Ken Smith's ambitious urban park plan needs a way to knit together its populist elements.

January 24, 2006|Christopher Hawthorne | Times Staff Writer

For the last several weeks, a single question framed the increasingly contentious debate about plans for the Orange County Great Park: Is Ken Smith capable of executing a project of this expense, complexity and sheer size?

Now that Smith and his team have been tapped to oversee the design of the 1,300-acre park, it should become clear that the issue has been something of a red herring all along. Despite its ambition, there is nothing in Smith's proposal -- not the man-made canyon, or the open-air aircraft museum or the thickly shaded amphitheater -- that can't be built in a relatively straightforward manner, assuming he finds the right local partners to help carry out the task.

The more vexing question, frankly, is whether Smith's final scheme will be up to the task strictly from a design point of view. That caution may seem counterintuitive, given that it was the creativity of Smith's proposal that won him the job and his lack of practical experience that caused the board to fret about picking him. But while moving and shaping all that earth will be a daunting task, it will also be a predictable one, overseen by teams of engineers. The same can never be said for inspired design, which is elusive to the last.

Still trying to be too many things to too many people, Smith's design needs a stronger singularity of purpose, a way to knit together its populist gestures, such as the old aircraft that will sit on patches of the old El Toro runways, with the crisp modern lines and brightly contemporary elements that predominate elsewhere.

As "master designer" (a regrettable term, by the way, with its Teutonic, Ayn Rand echoes), Smith will have to figure out a way to make his canyon succeed as an earthwork as well as a place to stroll. He will need to coax memorable contributions from architect Enrique Norten and the other designers on his team. In other words, if Smith and Norten remain "emerging" talents, it matters more aesthetically than in any other way.

Another assumption that we should dispense with is the notion that under the leadership of Smith, with his oversized black glasses and impeccable Manhattan design credentials, the park is poised to become a place where the avant-garde invades the world of the soccer mom.

Sure, the park will include a number of traditional public amenities, athletic fields prominent among them. Orange County residents pressed the competing teams to tell them whether those fields would be close enough to the edge of the park site to make quick drop-off and pickup possible, conjuring up an image of minivans idling next to a field of the synthetic plants that Smith employed in a roof garden for the Museum of Modern Art. But the notion that high design and the day-to-day experiences and expectations of the public are, in some fundamental sense, at odds is badly out of date.

To begin with, architects and other designers on the cutting edge have begun making the case with real success that many of the skills they bring to high-profile commissions can be reasonably thought of as, well, practical. Frank Gehry proved attractive to the Related Cos., which is leading the redevelopment effort along Grand Avenue, as much because of his firm's dependable, streamlined work process as for the famous curves of its architecture.

On the other side of the equation, the typical soccer mom (or dad) is surely far better versed in architecture and design than a decade or even five years ago -- and thus brings higher hopes to every new project. The Great Park board may have needed coaxing to take a leap of faith and hire Smith over the safer choice of Royston Hanamoto Alley & Abey, but Orange County residents certainly didn't.

These days, Smith's Philip Johnson-style glasses may make him seem more rather than less familiar to an Orange County resident who shops at Design Within Reach or reads Dwell magazine. Exoticism, in landscape architecture as in fashion, just isn't what it used to be.

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