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O.C.'s Defining Symbol: Hall, Mall or Matterhorn?

September 15, 2006|Christopher Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

For thousands of donors, designers and builders behind Orange County's new concert hall, tonight's opening means an end to years of suspense over when it will be done, what it will cost and how it will sound.

But for those who have backed the Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall as a $200-million symbol of the area's emergent cultural identity, there's another key question outstanding: Will it change what you see when you close your eyes and think of Orange County?

Sydney has its Opera House. San Francisco has its bridge and Transamerica pyramid, St. Louis its arch, Seattle its needle. New York had its Twin Towers and still has its Empire State and Chrysler buildings. Since 2003, Los Angeles has had Disney Hall.

Many of Orange County's highest and mightiest are counting on this Costa Mesa hall as their own crowning icon. But what's the competition?

The Crystal Cathedral, says the new hall's donor, Henry Segerstrom, but not the Matterhorn.

The Matterhorn, says thriller writer T. Jefferson Parker, but not South Coast Plaza or Fashion Island.

South Coast Plaza and Fashion Island, says Los Angeles architect Eric Owen Moss, but not the Crystal Cathedral or any part of Disneyland.

"Definitely the pier in Huntington Beach," says surfer and Internet site administrator Vincent Goza.

In fact, if you ask a dozen residents and observers of Orange County to name the area's three signature buildings, you're likely to end up with 20 nominees -- let's not forget those wooden blimp hangars in Tustin -- and no clear winner.

These mixed signals may reveal a healthy diversity in a county with more than 3 million people in nearly 800 square miles. Or they could be a sign that, along with its scenic beaches and rolling hills, Orange County has some serious architectural identity issues.

"We're such a young place, we haven't had time to create those icons," said Elizabeth Armstrong, deputy director for programs and chief curator at the Orange County Museum of Art.

"We need to start taking more risks in Orange County," said Cynthia Mabus, president of the American Institute of Architects' Orange County chapter. The new concert hall "is a very nice building. And they did a great job in getting Cesar Pelli to do it, no question. But I would hope that when similar public-oriented structures come along, they take more risks."

George Bissell, a Newport Beach architect who has been practicing in the area for 49 years, agrees that Orange County has always struggled for identity. But he calls the new concert hall "spectacular," superior to Frank Gehry's Disney Hall because Pelli designed it "from the inside out," not "outside in."

Ann Gray, publisher of LA Architect magazine and an architect herself, is another believer in the new Pelli building -- not because it's such an icon but because it isn't.

That area around South Coast Plaza "is a jumble. If you tried to put in a big, giant iconic structure, it would just be a mess," she said. Instead, "I'll take 'lovely' and 'contextual.' "

There is no law of cultural tourism that requires iconic architecture; the Hawaiian islands, for instance, seem to get along without it, as do Alaska and Wyoming, to name a few.

Yet legions of civic leaders, looking for tourist dollars and attention, have lately been scrambling after marquee architecture, hoping to find a sequel to Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, which looks a lot like Disney Hall but was completed six years earlier. Built for about $147 million, the building brings an estimated $38 million yearly in taxes and indirect economic benefits to the region.

Scores of similar edifices have now gone up from Shanghai to Kuala Lumpur, all in pursuit of what's known as "The Bilbao Effect."

"The upside, of course, is you get lots of attention and buzz and hopefully tourist dollars," Gray said. "The downside is that you could become a laughingstock."

So what are Orange County's icons? Let the argument begin.

"You can't avoid the Crystal Cathedral, even if you may not like it," said architect Bissell, speaking of the 128-foot-high Garden Grove church designed in 1980 by Philip Johnson. Henry Segerstrom and longtime Corona del Mar architect Ron Yeo named it as well.

Thriller author T. Jefferson Parker, who lived in Orange County from the late 1950s to the late '90s and has set 11 of his 13 novels there, also chose a house of worship -- the 1806 Mission San Juan Capistrano -- along with the 1930 Hotel Laguna in Laguna Beach. But it was Disneyland's Matterhorn, which went up in 1959, that prompted a specific memory.

"I was 5 when we moved there," Parker said, "and we'd be driving down the 5, and I remember seeing the white peak of the Matterhorn off to the right there and thinking, 'Oh, man, I'm gonna like Orange County.' "

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