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Shopping becomes an obsession for many in the days before Christmas, but for several members of the Forum it was the scene of the so-called crime rather than the act itself that held the fascination. Though design may be a repressed manner of acquisition, the potential to redesign that behemoth of internalized public space, the Beverly Center, promised liberation from the plastic bonds of commercialism into a realm of greater public dignity. Last November, in the offices of the original designer of that Center, Ellerbe Becket Associates, four design teams offered three different versions of such a post-consumerist paradise.

Lynn Batsch and Kevin O’Brien offered the most concrete alternative to the enigmatic, turd-like mass of the shopping mall. Through an analysis of Los Angeles forms, they concluded that types have been developed for everything from freeway off-ramps to corner malls, but not for parking. The storage of cars remains completely subordinate to the buildings of which it is part. In the case of the Beverly Center, parked cars merely serve to prop up the rarefied shopping sphere above. Describing their entry as an investigation into the ritual of parking, Batsch/O’Brien produced a prototype for a series of kinetic parking structures to be located on sites around the Center (and, not confining themselves to the site at hand, ultimately throughout the City). These parking machines would turn into carousels and offer consumers a moving panorama of the city for their delectation while creating a mobile display of automotive design (an art much further developed, as Corbu already knew, than architecture) to the city beyond.

Norman Millar and Sheila Klein thought in somewhat more grandiose terms. They wanted to marry the isolationist Center back to the rejected city with a gigantic wedding band of ramps encircling the Center. These rings would contain the pony ride once on site, transportation links with future mass transit, and yet another chance to externalize the experience of being lifted up from the moving miasma of the urban semi-grid into the planned world above. The rings sprouted their own megastructural answers to such pressing urban problems as housing and entertainment. The precious stone in this new urban setting consisted of a tower of indeterminate function, an Angeleno Eiffel broadcasting the surrounding civic achievement from out of its site between the mute blocks of the hospital and the shopping center. This condensed architectural point found its counterpoint in a new urban void created between the Beverly Center and its architectural counterpart, the Pacific Design Center. The whole scheme offered solid and void, point and counterpoint swirling around on the twisting loops of a metaphorical horizontal Ferris wheel binding together the radically chaotic tendencies of our urban form.

Both Michele Saee and Michael Sorkin eschewed such consumable responses in favor of more abstract meditations on the current incomprehensibility of the Beverly Center. Sorkin mailed in a series of xerox collages that formed a fairytale-like narrative proposing the creation of outdoor urban spaces, neighborhood centers, and other formal alterations in the texture of the area in order to weave the isolated bulk of the Center back into the city. Saee took a stance exactly opposite to such optimistc amerliorative planning. Despairing at the hubris of architects who think that their actions have anything to do with the development of an urban reality governed by commercial interest. Saee refused to even propose an architectural solution that might be consumed in this post-architectural arena. He instead presented a series of plywood and xerox collages, developments of previous investigations in the urban form of Los Angeles. He then refused to discuss how their compositions, hidden meanings, or mere presence in the room might form some alternative to the reality of the Beverly Center.

This aggressive non-communication of course elicited the most violent reaction of the meeting, causing some to question Saee’s sincerity, while other agreed with the architect that the whole project was wrongheaded itself, a product of consumer-driven Westside myopia. The debate did bring to life the essential problem posed by the Beverly Center, namely its unquestionable reality, a reality that had defeated both the efforts of the architect who designed the building and the efforts of most critics and is now spreading its megalomaniac shadows in the shape of a host of other shopping malls, hotels and mixed-used developments rising up around it.

The question ultimately raised by the whole “33D6E6″ project then revolves around whether architecture is useless as a conscious critical investigation of the city, and therefore whether architecture can only affirm a status quo set by others, or whether other forms of resistance may be found within the architectural discipline.

 Aaron Betsky

Back to February 1990 Newsletter