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Fielding dreams

Competing bids for a 32-acre park near downtown are all over the map.

October 16, 2006|Christopher Hawthorne | Times Staff Writer

THE competing plans unveiled Saturday for a new state historic park on the Cornfield site, a slender, 32-acre parcel squeezed between Chinatown and the L.A. River, cover pretty much the entire spectrum of approaches to contemporary landscape architecture. That's no small achievement when you consider that this area of design has become the most innovative and richly varied of the disciplines in the last decade, as big cities around the world work to salvage degraded industrial sites and forgotten stretches of waterfront.

Proposals by Mia Lehrer+Associates, a Los Angeles firm, and San Francisco's Hargreaves Associates focus on sustainability, concentrated blasts of architectural innovation and links to surrounding neighborhoods and the banks of a restored river. By contrast, the design by the New York landscape firm Field Operations, working with architect Thom Mayne, calls for almost impossibly grand, macro-level thinking; it proposes a land swap that would build a new Dodger Stadium on the end of the park site nearest Chinatown, among other oversized features.

Such are the benefits of having a local architect on your team who is also a recent winner of the top prize in architecture, the Pritzker: Nobody bats an eye when you announce that instead of 32 acres you are taking on more than a thousand, not to mention giving Frank McCourt's lawyers a reason to put the state parks office on speed-dial.

But perhaps even more important than the proposals -- especially given that funding for constructing one of these visions has yet to be secured -- the event Saturday offered a reminder of how dramatically a single design competition, if well organized, can elevate the level of discussion about planning and urbanism in Los Angeles.

We've had very few forums in recent decades, after all, in which the conversation has meant as much as the outcome or hasn't been a kind of open-mike pageant designed to camouflage the fact that the outcome has already been decided with a couple of handshakes in Sacramento or at City Hall. And in the rare instances when the architectural debates have been meaningful -- on the J. Paul Getty Center, for example, or the Walt Disney Concert Hall -- they have tended to focus on individual pieces of architecture and the personas of their famous designers, rather than efforts to stitch various parts of the city together. That has only exacerbated Los Angeles' status as a city of isolated attractions.

In that sense, there was an exhilarating, free-for-all quality to the discussion Saturday, conveniently sidestepping the fact that the site in question is utterly unknown to most L.A. residents and not much bigger than a high school campus. Instead, teams focused on the complex history of the former rail yard, which the state bought for $36 million in 2001, and the role it might play, as catalyst or exemplar, in a more crowded city.

The tone was set by Mayne and James Corner of Field Operations. Presenting first, they immediately announced that they were tossing out the design brief given them by the state Department of Parks and Recreation along with the California State Parks Foundation and the Annenberg Foundation, which helped organize and pay for the competition.

Mayne is sometimes guilty of architectural impatience: He can be so sure that he has come to the right conclusions about a project or building -- and often he has -- that once he has put in place the big, tough gestures he's known for, he lets his attention slide on the details that can make a design entirely satisfying. The impact of some of his firm's most visually arresting work can change drastically or simply fade at close range.

His collaboration with Field Operations, which is overseeing the acclaimed High Line project in Manhattan, is not immune from that problem: For all its intriguing ground-level elements, it largely seems to have been drawn up inside a helicopter hovering high above the park. Working on a recent edition of L.A. Now, a series of publications he produces with students at UCLA, Mayne had already analyzed the Dodger Stadium site and decided that it ranks as the last, best hope for a dense collection of new residential buildings near downtown. (On Saturday, he called it the Eastside's Playa Vista.) He then convinced Corner to use their joint Cornfield entry to flesh out those themes.

Since winning the Pritzker last year, Mayne has fully embraced his role as a provocative, larger-than-life figure in debates about L.A.'s future, and he is playing it to the hilt in this case. It is exactly what the city needs him to do: to keep us from falling back into the kind of default planning mode that focuses on the short term, precludes meaningful political cooperation and has done so much damage over the years.

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