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O.C. roiling in Great Park expectations

October 16, 2006|Christopher Hawthorne | Times Staff Writer

IF the participation of Thom Mayne and Michael Maltzan in the competition for the Cornfield site in Los Angeles suggests the degree to which top architects are drawn to landscape design these days, the latest version of plans for the Orange County Great Park is a reminder that integrating those architects into a larger team -- and a broader vision -- can be tricky. In the moments before a group led by Ken Smith presented its preliminary master plan Thursday afternoon in Irvine, the lead architect on the team, Enrique Norten, was hardly taking pains to hide a sense of sharp pessimism about what he's been able to contribute so far.

Norten has been a somewhat peripheral figure in the Great Park process: He has seemed content to keep a certain distance from Orange County both literally and psychologically. And it doesn't help matters that Smith's master plan, as became clear Thursday, has evolved far more in recent months in its ecological and infrastructural features -- and its connections to new and existing development -- than in its cultural or architectural elements.

Smith's scheme includes a cultural terrace at the center of the park where Norten will presumably design a complex of museum buildings. In early plans, Norten and his firm, TEN Arquitectos, introduced the notion of burying those buildings in the sides of the man-made canyon that Smith envisions snaking through the park.

It's an idea with remarkable potential -- and, ironically enough, one that suggests a seamless integration of architecture and landscape design. The renderings Norten presented Thursday, while merely architectural sketches, were more than alluring enough to confirm that. They showed a sharply contemporary interior sunk into a berm, with a grass roof creating a kind of rolling gable above.

The problem is that nobody on the Great Park board, to say nothing of the design team, knows precisely what kind of museums will fill those buildings. And as any first-year architecture student can tell you, you can't design a building if you don't know what and who is going to fill it.

There has been talk of trying to create a contemporary art museum at the park, but those plans are made more difficult -- if not doomed -- by the Orange County Museum of Art's relatively advanced efforts to build a new home near the Orange County Performing Arts Center and South Coast Plaza in nearby Costa Mesa. Those plans are sure to complicate fundraising for the Great Park museums, not to mention efforts to define their mission.

That uncertainty has left Norten and his staff with only one real element of the Great Park to sink their teeth into: a bridge spanning one section of the lake that would also serve as a botanical garden. Punched through with circular windows, the white bridge promises to be a powerful architectural gesture -- a linear piece of connective tissue that would guide visitors across the lake and provide a climate-controlled home for a variety of plant species at the same time.

But it was difficult Thursday to shake the impression that Norten and his firm have thrown all their energy into the design of this relatively small feature while they bide their time awaiting a more substantial challenge.

On the whole, however, Smith's design, with contributions from Mia Lehrer, artist Mary Miss and restoration ecologist Stephen Handel, is coming into sharper focus than even admirers of his initial plan could have anticipated. This is especially true in terms of the entrances and thresholds that will lead visitors into the park, including a stronger axis where it meets Irvine Boulevard. Working from the outside in -- an approach that makes sense for a park in the geographical center of a quickly growing and changing Orange County -- Smith is bringing clarity and a sense of connection to what had been mostly a promising, rather sprawling collection of design gestures.


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