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Multiple personalities

Renzo Zecchetto's Eli and Edythe Broad Stage appears unresolved. And that's fine.

October 11, 2008|Christopher Hawthorne | Times Architecture Critic

The new Eli and Edythe Broad Stage at Santa Monica College, which will open officially tonight with a program featuring the mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade, is a happily, even confidently unresolved piece of architecture. Rather than try to smooth over the gaps between its various architectural impulses -- and between its wide-ranging technical and programmatic requirements -- it seems content, for the most part, to leave them on display. It's not a bad strategy: The design gains some power from its all-over-the-map variety, and in fact it's in those spaces where it tries to hide its character or engage in a bit of architectural sleight-of-hand that it begins to falter most obviously.

Designed by Santa Monica architect Renzo Zecchetto, the Broad aims for a certain grandness of scale as an object in the cityscape, rising 65 feet at its highest point, but at the same time it is actively humbled by the way it's set in a sea of parked cars. (It's the ironclad rule of Southern California civic design -- the car always wins -- though there has been talk of sinking a garage here below ground and laying a park atop it, which is an idea with so much potential that it will probably never happen.) Inside, its impressive 499-seat auditorium -- which will be asked to handle an eclectic range of performances, including spoken word, art song, orchestral programs and dance -- aspires to both the formal intimacy of an 18th century Italian opera house and the high-tech functionality of a college lecture hall.

On Oct. 26, the Baroque orchestra Musica Angelica will take the stage. Two weeks later, on Nov. 9, it'll be the KCRW political program "Left, Right & Center." In March, the Los Angeles Ballet is booked for three performances. Audiences will likely love the variety, but the stage itself may get whiplash.

It is on the exterior, though, that the design's multiple personalities really assert themselves. The building's most attention-grabbing facade, facing east toward a miniature park by landscape architect Pamela Burton, owes a pretty clear debt to the Argentine Rafael Vinoly and architects like him. A canopy faced in composite-wood panels soars over the entry doors, and above that rises a glass tower. The effect is a bit of formal boldness mixed with buttery, handsome good manners.

The western facade, meanwhile, which holds much of the building's mechanical equipment, is like an enthused mash-up of Charles Moore and Frank Gehry. A stacked mini-mountain of white, wood-paneled and gray-stone boxes, it has a remarkable geometric appeal. On this side the building seems -- all of a sudden -- to have real character, real idiosyncratic charisma. And though it is, in its way, just as derivative architecturally as the east side, it has a lot more to say. Call it the triumph of the back-of-house.

Most visitors will approach the building from the south, right where these two very different design vocabularies come together. The oversized canopy edges around from the east, the stone wraps around from the west, and a smallish vertical window -- a glass seam -- makes a rather unpersuasive attempt to hold them together. The effect is not so much the rupture or tension that Thom Mayne (or Gehry, for that matter) might go for or the fully resolved look a Modernist might seek but instead something less emotional: the meeting of two people who don't dislike one another but don't have much meaningful to say to one another either. A flat handshake.

Zecchetto worked for Moore for 10 years, which explains a lot about the design: not just its patently Moore-like moments but also its willingness to live with contradiction and compromise and its interest in visual complexity and spatial variety. But draped over that sensibility is another, quite different one: an ambition in the direction of polished, upscale good looks, which is about as far from the Moore philosophy as an architect can get. It is always dangerous to guess along these lines, but it seems likely that the architect prefers the western facade while his clients are prouder of the one to the east.

In the double-height lobby -- cooled by operable windows on its western side, which open to bring in breezes off the ocean -- both approaches are again visible. Mahogany veneer walls and polished-stone flooring suggest respectability. But there is also exposed board-form concrete here, along with fiberboard paneling: basic materials unapologetically displayed. And if you look up you will find a remarkable combination of light and dark spaces, regular and eccentric geometry. On a recent morning, sun streamed into the lobby's upper reaches and then was splintered into a complex display of light and shadow.

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