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Critic's Notebook: Lucas Museum puts LA in old role

Christopher Hawthorne, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

LOS ANGELES -- "The erosion of Exposition Park's public open space continues." So wrote urban planner Alan Loomis nearly 15 years ago, in an essay published by the Los Angeles Forum for Architecture and Urban Design.

That was before the Natural History Museum, born as the county museum and long the park's anchor cultural tenant, ditched one expansion plan and built another; before the architecture firm Morphosis added an elementary school, wrapped in its signature slashing forms, near the northeast corner of the park; before the University of Southern California took formal control of the Coliseum, with plans to modernize it; before the space shuttle Endeavour arrived at the California Science Center, with a new glass pavilion planned to house it; and before Welton Becket's Sports Arena was demolished to make way for a soccer stadium.

With the news Tuesday that George Lucas will be building a billion-dollar museum of "narrative art" just west of the Coliseum, choosing that site over a competing one on Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay, the balance in Exposition Park has tipped once more from open space toward architecture, from protecting to building. The museum -- a long, white, aerodynamic form that will seem to float above the surface of the park -- will be designed by young Chinese architect Ma Yansong and is expected to open in 2021.

You could argue, in other words, that a lot has changed in Exposition Park in a generation or that nothing has. Even as more trophy buildings and cultural attractions are squeezed inside its 160 acres, connected by the Expo Line to the regional rail network, it retains its traditional usefulness for the city in both political and emblematic terms.

It is a wellspring Los Angeles mayors can always dip into when making their most ambitious civic pitches. (Let's get one of those retired space shuttles for our very own! And the NFL -- again! And a third Olympics!) It is also a stage where the region's oldest morality play, the one casting Southern California as a paradise lost, a region whose beauty and natural resources are perennially threatened by overzealous development, is mounted, like the "Ramona" pageant, again and again.

What Exposition Park isn't, in either case, is a carefully guarded open space, though it sits in a part of the city, just south of USC, that is woefully park-poor according to every available metric. Instead, it's a near-perfect symbolic landscape for a city that has typically been more interested in appearing nimble and forward-looking than meticulously planned -- more interested in choosing the City of the Future label than the City Beautiful one.

The pitch Mayor Eric Garcetti made to Lucas and his wife, Mellody Hobson, had everything to do with a streamlined political and construction process. This was in large part meant to distinguish L.A. from San Francisco and Chicago, cities where Lucas had already tried and failed to get the museum approved. (The Treasure Island proposal was a second Bay Area attempt.)

But it also played to -- and in the end confirmed -- certain ideas Los Angeles has about itself, that it's a city without a robust culture of civic engagement, that builds first and asks questions later, that pounces on opportunities like the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art rather than debating them.

I'm not wowed by what we know of Lucas' collection. It seems to promise an awkward marriage between Hollywood memorabilia and easy-to-swallow figurative art by Norman Rockwell and others. (The idea that the museum's arrival will boost L.A.'s cultural reputation is -- to be plain -- a joke.) The building proposed to house it has more potential but will have to overcome a certain sleek placelessness in the initial designs.

Nor do I think we should put much stock in the argument that Lucas isn't really vacuuming up open space because the land he'll be building on is now covered with parked cars. Surface parking lots are easily converted into usable green space; and demand for parking is set to dramatically decline over the next few decades, according to most urban planners. In any long-term calculus, giving Lucas these lots is basically the same as giving him grassy fields.

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