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For `Ark' to triumph, let kids go with the flow

June 24, 2007|Christopher Hawthorne | Times Staff Writer

"THERE is a kind of play common to nearly every child," the British architectural historian John Summerson writes at the beginning of "Heavenly Mansions," his appealingly idiosyncratic essay on miniature buildings and the roots of Gothic architecture. "It is to get under a piece of furniture or some extemporized shelter of his own and to exclaim that he is in a 'house' .... This kind of play has much to do with the aesthetics of architecture."

The same kind of play -- and the fascination it produces in children and adults alike -- is in many ways the inspiration for "Noah's Ark," the new 8,000-square-foot permanent exhibition opening Tuesday at the Skirball Cultural Center. The curving, 17-foot-high ark and its contents are the work of architects Alan Maskin and Jim Olson, of the Seattle firm Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen, and puppeteer Chris M. Green.

The ark is made of unpainted fir and divided into halves that are separated by a long walkway. It is crammed with ropes and climbing structures and animals that recall several strains of folk art as well as the work of midcentury designer Alexander Girard. It includes a number of small, house-like structures and other snug places that tap into the productive mix of design and miniaturization that Summerson describes.

As a piece of architecture, it is a remarkably effective study in scale: a collection of little houses inside a bigger house (the ark) inside a gigantic house (the museum itself, which was designed by Moshe Safdie). Olson and Maskin have carefully arranged the two halves of the ark to represent the passage of time: The first bay looks deliberately unfinished, the second, weathered. And in the way it turns the materials of everyday life into museum-quality objects, it represents a welcome respite from the world of plastic and pixels that engulfs most American kids these days.

Again with the educational angle

AS I learned when I brought my 3-year-old daughter along on a tour of "Noah's Ark" a couple of weeks ago, the exhibit is an amalgam of other influences too. Disappointingly enough, it manages periodically to tamp down the sense of discovery it's seemingly designed to celebrate.

The leaders of the Skirball seem to have decided that for "Noah's Ark" to really work as an educational space -- and, presumably, to satisfy the expectations of its various philanthropic funders -- they can't simply let the kids run free through the space and wile away their time climbing the rope ladder or feeding pretend carrots to stuffed hedgehogs. They have to corral them every few minutes into groups that will allow the museum to measure the amount of instruction the pint-sized, Croc-wearing visitors are getting.

After having spent $5 million and five years preparing the exhibition, and having given over a large section of the museum's square footage to it, the Skirball apparently thought there was too much at stake for its future and its redefined mission to simply open the space, staff it and let the kids have at it.

This is an issue with all kinds of facilities being built for children around the country. Because there is now so much grant money earmarked for educational programs, every new museum includes an over-designed area for kids -- a shiny, happy ghetto stuffed with art supplies and tiny chairs and smiling "facilitators" who show them where the markers are kept. These rooms say to children that the rest of the building -- the rooms where the art is kept -- is not for them.

It may seem churlish to raise this point. But there is an architectural component to this change in philanthropic emphasis that has not really been talked about much -- and, indeed, the "Noah's Ark" exhibition as a whole is a byproduct of the shift. To be fair, such installations are also being built to satisfy the priorities of a whole generation of parents -- of which I'm a member -- who have trouble with the idea that there could be such a thing as a museum, restaurant or public activity that our children are not yet old enough to enjoy. Since we are now bringing kids anywhere and everywhere, anywhere and everywhere are having to adapt.

The last four or five years, meanwhile, have seen a mini-boom in permanent and highly designed landscapes for children. Frank Gehry, it was announced this month, is designing a playground in Battery Park City in Lower Manhattan. On the other side of Manhattan, David Rockwell, whose firm is best known for restaurant design, is working on an ambitious play space near the South Street Seaport.

And one of the most vital genres of contemporary landscape architecture, believe it or not, is the skate park. You could write a dissertation on what it means that the subculture of skateboarding, which once defined itself by its creative disrespect for rules or regulations of any kind, is being steered into sanctioned, controlled facilities, some quite beautifully executed.

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