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An Exposition of civic issues

Concerns about development and preservation arise as plans hit the launch pad at the park, a microcosm of L.A.

May 16, 2011|Christopher Hawthorne | ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

Big changes are coming to Exposition Park.

The Endeavour space shuttle, NASA announced last month, will be moving to the California Science Center campus -- though not to Frank Gehry's cramped 1984 Air and Space Gallery, whose future is, well, up in the air. The UCLA basketball team will take up temporary residence this fall at Welton Becket's 1959 Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena, another candidate for future demolition. And a new Metro light-rail line along Exposition Boulevard, nearly complete, will knit the park into the regional transit grid even as its impact at ground level promises to be something of a disaster.

Then again, big changes are always coming to Exposition Park, aren't they? The 160-acre park has long been a microcosm of Los Angeles -- the fragmented, quickly growing city in miniature. It has continually absorbed not just new buildings but new visions of L.A.'s civic character.

In that sense, the latest developments -- and the promise and anxiety they bring -- look awfully familiar. How to protect or carve out open space, how to fit new transit lines atop a built-out city, how to gauge the historical value of idiosyncratic postwar landmarks: These are pressing questions not just for Exposition Park and the neighborhood around it but for Los Angeles and most of Southern California.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, May 17, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 2 inches; 80 words Type of Material: Correction
Exposition Park: In the May 16 Calendar section, a map of the Exposition Park area that accompanied an article about the development of that area showed the future Metro Expo Line running along Figueroa Street; the line will in fact run along Flower Street. The Jefferson/USC stop will be at Flower and Jefferson Boulevard, not Figueroa and Jefferson, as shown on the graphic. The Expo Park/USC stop will be on Exposition Boulevard at Trousdale Parkway, not at Exposition and Figueroa.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, May 18, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Exposition Park: In the May 16 Calendar section, a map of the Exposition Park area that accompanied an article about the development of that area did not identify the sources of its information. They are Pictometry International, Exposition Park, MTA and USC.

In a paradoxical sense, the park's incoherence has been its only constant over the years. A place that began its civic life, in 1913, as a symmetrical Beaux-Arts garden went on to welcome two Olympic Games, in 1932 and 1984, and to reflect the complicated relationship that USC and South Los Angeles maintain with the larger city and with each other. In the postwar decades, new surface parking lots began to crowd out what was left of the park's open space.

In part to grapple with those inconsistencies, and to plot its post-Olympic identity, the architecture firm Zimmer Gunsul Frasca was hired two decades ago to produce a new master plan for the park. That document, unveiled in 1992, guided a burst of construction, notably the expansion of the Science Center campus, where a new building by ZGF opened in 1998.

It also anticipated yet another wing at the Science Center at some future date, though the announcement last month from NASA that it will be bringing Endeavour to Los Angeles has complicated and perhaps accelerated those plans. Jeffrey N. Rudolph, the Science Center's president and chief executive, told me that he hopes to select an architect for a new wing this summer.

The retiring space shuttle could be displayed vertically, sitting on a replica of its launching pad. That would give the Science Center a chance to build a new tower -- a new landmark for the park visible from the surrounding streets and the freeway. In the short term, Rudolph is considering commissioning a temporary structure to display the shuttle while the new wing is planned and built.

What all of that means for the future of Gehry's Air and Space Gallery is less certain. The public has always been lukewarm about the building. It was not a lavish design to begin with; it relied on Gehry's now-famous informality and fondness for workaday materials. On top of that, construction was rushed to make sure it would open before the 1984 Olympics, and its upkeep since then has been uneven. Rumors began swirling a few weeks ago that it might have a target on its back.

When I asked Rudolph about the fate of the Gehry building, he told me, "I honestly don't know." He added that working with its interior layout "has always been a challenge," and, in terms of its possible demolition, "I never rule anything out." That hardly adds up to a vote of confidence for the building.

In the last few years, despite Gehry's status as the most famous and among the most influential architects in the world, the Air and Space Gallery has fallen into something of a historical blind spot. Very few buildings from the early 1980s -- even those by very talented architects -- look particularly appealing to 2011 eyes.

That, in the end, is among the strongest arguments for saving the building. It will never look as unfashionable, or less valuable, as it does at the moment. A decade from now, its importance as a piece of architecture will be far clearer for the public to see. And as an example of Gehry's transition from small-scale, mostly residential work to larger civic projects -- and of the moment when his jumbled, sometimes intentionally crude aesthetic began to win official respect -- its value and historical importance are self-evident.

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