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A stasis symbol

Pelli's stately concert hall soothes where it could have dared, but fits OCPAC's campus.

September 12, 2006|Christopher Hawthorne | Times Staff Writer

AT age 79, the Argentine-born, Connecticut-based architect Cesar Pelli is inevitably described in newspaper and magazine profiles these days as diplomatic and genteel. In his design for the $200-million Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa, which opens Friday night, he and his firm have produced a building that brings the very same adjectives to mind. In other words, if you are optimistic enough to believe that classical music -- or architecture, for that matter -- is an evolving art form with the capacity to provoke as well as merely soothe, you will likely find it enormously disappointing.

The 250,000-square-foot building, which work crews have been racing to prepare for Friday night's performance by the Pacific Symphony, resembles a high-end hotel lobby or a luxury-car showroom, spaces in which every visible surface is used to promote a buttery handsomeness. Its undulating glass facade wraps gently around a foyer lined with white Spanish granite floors and rich yellow-beige carpeting, and topped with a glimmering silver-leaf ceiling. Beyond that is the auditorium, a stately, old-world and surprisingly tall room with 2,000 seats upholstered in deep red velvet.

The building is the latest addition to the 20-year-old Orange County Performing Arts Center, which also includes the South Coast Repertory theater and, redundantly enough, an earlier Segerstrom Hall -- a stolid mass covered in red granite that was designed in the 1980s by Caudill Rowlett Scott, a Houston firm. The center is practically joined at the hip with South Coast Plaza, the high-end shopping mall owned by the family of developer Henry Segerstrom, who donated $40 million for the new facility.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday September 14, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
South Coast Repertory: An architecture review in Tuesday's Calendar section of the new concert hall at the Orange County Performing Arts Center said South Coast Repertory is part of the OCPAC campus. It is independent of OCPAC.

Pelli spent much of the 1960s and '70s working in Los Angeles, first for the firm DMJM and as a lead design partner for Gruen Associates. He also has significant experience in Orange County, and he knows this site in particular quite well. He designed an addition for South Coast Rep that was finished four years ago, and the new concert hall stands in the shadow of the 1992 Plaza Tower, a 21-story stainless-steel office building Pelli designed for Segerstrom's company.

If there's one way the new design succeeds, it's in relating to and helping define the OCPAC campus as a whole. When a new 46,000-square-foot plaza by Peter Walker and Partners connecting the two Segerstrom halls -- and holding a huge Richard Serra sculpture called "Connector" -- is completed later this year, OCPAC will qualify as one of the more walkable performing-arts campuses in the West. And it's a short trip on foot from the plaza to Isamu Noguchi's stunning sculpture garden "California Scenario," which Segerstrom commissioned more than two decades ago to fill the courtyard of an otherwise forgettable office building.

Putting aside the lack of public transit links to the complex, which can be traced both to the fact that the entire campus has been privately financed and that it has always relied on its location right next to the 405 Freeway, OCPAC arranges a remarkable variety of cultural and commercial choices in a manageable space.

But to what end? And for whose benefit? As the Economist noted in a profile of Segerstrom earlier this year, among his strategic obsessions is keeping South Coast Plaza's image "properly burnished." That means expensive ongoing renovations to the mall itself, including plenty of travertine. It also, apparently, means hiring architects for OCPAC who won't upset or question the perfectly smooth transition between shopping and consuming culture and back again.

In the sense that it works better as a piece of a planning puzzle than as a work of architecture, the new hall is essentially the opposite of Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall, to which it can't help but be compared. Disney Hall's exuberant architectural forms, an effective complement to the energy that Esa-Pekka Salonen and Deborah Borda have brought to the L.A. Philharmonic, give the hall an informal charisma -- not to mention a personality distinctly of its time and place. But the building's relationship to the street is imperfect.

Disney Hall is hardly the only example of performing arts architecture that benefits from a fresh, forward-looking attitude. In designing the loosely joyful, asymmetrical Berlin Philharmonie, finished in 1963 and a clear model for Disney Hall, Hans Scharoun seemed to bury for good the notion that world-class symphonic music could be performed only in self-consciously "distinguished" pieces of architecture.

And the Brooklyn Academy of Music has mixed bold examples of historical preservation -- bringing old theaters back to life without making them at all precious -- and new architecture as it works to create an ambitious arts district near downtown Brooklyn.

The new Segerstrom Hall's own problems in that department may be lessened when the smaller, less formal Samueli Theater, a multipurpose hall, opens in October.

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