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Critic's Notebook: Shifting horizons in Santa Monica parks design

Amid the backdrop of the creation of two connected parks near City Hall by the ascendant Field Operations is a fascinating interplay of urban design and public engagement.

July 30, 2011|By Christopher Hawthorne, Los Angeles Times Architecture Critic
  • VIEWPOINTS: Among the planned designs are "overlooks" encased in a basket-like shell.
VIEWPOINTS: Among the planned designs are "overlooks" encased… (James Corner Field Operations )

Standing atop a patch of churned-up dirt on a recent morning, James Corner was surrounded by mismatched palm trees, chipped sidewalks and sagging chain link: a typical slice of Southern California landscape caught unawares, hardly ready for its close-up.

He and I had just walked onto the site of a new pair of connected parks in Santa Monica that his New York-based landscape architecture and urban-design firm, James Corner Field Operations, is creating. Three towering ficus trees, sitting in giant temporary planter boxes and waiting to be relocated, added some scale, but otherwise the area was bare.

"It's fairly modest, as you can see," Corner told me, before slipping off his sunglasses and stepping into the substantial shade under the ficuses.

With their flat terrain and tabula-rasa potential, the two parks, occupying the old site of the Rand Corp. headquarters just west of Santa Monica City Hall, offer little of the romantic, post-industrial drama of the sites where Field Operations has produced its most memorable designs. There is no rusting and useful relic like the abandoned elevated train tracks that form the spine of Corner's most celebrated work, the High Line park on the far west side of Manhattan. There is nothing like the complex history of the Fresh Kills waterfront park on New York's Staten Island, a former landfill that is nearly three times the size of Central Park and became a macabre sorting ground for World Trade Center rubble after the 9/11 attacks.

And unlike a 26-block-long promenade that Field Operations has proposed along the Seattle waterfront, replacing the massive Alaskan Way Viaduct, the scale of the Santa Monica parks will be contained, even intimate. The smaller portion, directly in front of Santa Monica's 1938 City Hall, will cover a single acre, while the larger one — bounded by Main Street, Ocean Avenue, an extended Olympic Drive and a sunken stretch of the 10 Freeway where it becomes Pacific Coast Highway — will be 6 acres altogether. There are backyards in Beverly Hills and San Marino more spacious.

Still, to think of the project, awaiting an official name, as little more than a couple of small parcels waiting to be dressed up by a big-name landscape architect from out of town would be to vastly underestimate its potential, both as a destination in its own right and as a case study in planning and urban design in contemporary Southern California. There is in fact a whole collection of fascinating story lines that intersect in the connected parks, which are expected to open in 2013 at a total cost of $46.1 million.

Most obvious is the question of whether Corner, who is arguably the most prominent landscape architect in the country at a moment when landscape architecture is itself ascendant, can create the powerful results his firm is known for without that backbone of existing infrastructure. In many ways, the Santa Monica sites — open, empty, borrowing political significance from the architectural symbolism of nearby City Hall — offer a setting for landscape architecture in an old-fashioned, City Beautiful sense.

Even if there is little traditional about Field Operations' design vocabulary, this represents a shift from the linear designs that Corner's firm has lately produced. Even its most modest recent project, a reworking of the Race Street Pier in Philadelphia that opened in May, stretches dramatically out into the Delaware River, offering views of open water for three or four miles in each direction.

Another part of the story here has to do with the character of Santa Monica and indeed of an increasingly crowded Southern California desperate for new models of park design as it tries to make up, slowly, for decades spent gilding its private sphere while neglecting the public one. The immediate context for the parks is a web of surface streets and freeway exit ramps, with some low-rise architecture strung along them. The site is also close to a number of commercial attractions — the Third Street Promenade, Santa Monica Place and the Santa Monica Pier among them — that combine consumerism and pedestrianism with outdoor activity, performing that peculiarly persuasive impersonation of public space that is so common (and so lucrative) here.

It's not as though Corner has nothing to work with in Santa Monica: The park sites are two blocks from the beach, completely open to the sun and sky and cooled by breezes coming off the ocean. On the morning Corner and I visited, a tantalizing sliver of blue was visible on the horizon. The parks promise to be crowded from their opening days, given those nearby attractions and the arrival of Metro's Expo Line, which should be rolling into a station at Colorado Boulevard and 4th Street by 2015. And if the city can ever realize a very expensive dream to build a park capping the nearby sunken freeway, the Field Operations design could be a major element in a newly unified Santa Monica.

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