THEY CAME TO PRAISE LB’S CIVIC CENTER, NOT TO BURY IT—AND YET …By Theo Douglas
In an event that was, in many ways, 40 years in the making, more than 100 paying ticketholders listened Monday night as a panel of local historians, architects, structural engineers and city officials praised our futuristic, much-maligned Long Beach Civic Center.
The discussion was held in the Aquarium of the Pacific’s Ocean Theater, a few blocks south of Civic Center, which could have been seen as a snub—the complex includes City Hall, Main Library and a 286-seat auditorium, easily enough space to have accomodated the Monday night’s crowd.
But Maureen Neeley, former Long Beach Heritage Preservationist of the Year, assured the audience of educators, architects and downtown-ophiles that Long Beach, like many other cities, has always had a difficult relationship with its civic centers. “It’s not unique to any city, any era or any people,” Neeley said. “It’s been going on for decades.”
Civic Center was dedicated in May 1977 after a 20-year assortment of rejected plans, which proposed building it along Long Beach Boulevard; south of Ocean Boulevard; even northeast of Chestnut Avenue and Seventh Street. Neeley pronounces it a “marvel that we came up with something so unique and futuristic. I have to say, ‘Well done, Long Beach, and so glad we’re here.”
City officials at Monday night’s discussion—Councilmember Suja Lowenthal, an urban planner whose 2nd district includes Civic Center; and Councilmember Robert Garcia, whose 1st district contains Long Beach’s oldest historic district—echoed Neeley’s enthusiasm.
Lowenthal delivered glowing opening remarks. “This is really a beneficial discussion about the soul of our city,” she said, calling Civic Center an “incredible space in our downtown core.”
Lowenthal tried to dispel longstanding rumors that City of Long Beach officials have quietly readied plans to demolish Civic Center, while acknowledging that she may have helped start them.
“I may have had a hand in those rumors, since I have been one of those voices calling for a Civic Center visioning process,” Lowenthal said. “Somewhere in the very near future, I do see a better Civic Center. Of course, that would take lots of resources, creativity and ingenuity.”
Nearly four years after the United States entered its deepest recession since the Great Depression, financial resources remain in short supply in Long Beach and other California cities.
“There is no plan, from where the city stands and what the city’s perspective is, no plan or design already in place for a Civic Center,” Lowenthal asserted. “There certainly have been discussions, but there’s no plan or design in place. Any discussion … will occur in public. What we want is a forum where passionate and informed opinions can be exchanged in public.”
Not having the funds to raze Civic Center and rebuild it with a long-rumored public-private, city-developer partnership has prompted some intriguing ideas for creative reuse.
“How can we incorporate the expansion of our Harbor Department into an expanded Civic Center?” Lowenthal asked. “I think they can be a really great partner and an asset in downtown.” Lowenthal noted that she and Garcia had signed a letter to the Port of Long Beach asking it “to be a part of Civic Center” by occupying the architecturally-significant 1960 Long Beach Superior Court building when the court moves to the new Governor George Deukmejian Courthouse one block northwest.
“We have been very public about that, and hopefully it will occur and they will move to the downtown,” Lowenthal said, delivering what may have been the evening’s bombshell soundbyte.
However, this was far from only revelation of the night. There was also a rare reminder that in 1977, the Long Beach Museum of Art Foundation commissioned noted architect I.M. Pei to design a new building for the Long Beach Museum of Art on the Ocean Boulevard and Pacific Avenue corner of Civic Center—only to have the City abandon the project when projected oil monies failed to materialize. Attendees also heard that the curved grassy slope outside Main Library originally was slated to house permanent seating for Municipal Band concerts.
“It was designed with seats originally and we wanted to do it,” said architect Donald Gibbs, who with his father, Hugh, was part of the Allied Architects who designed Civic Center. “But the City Council at the time says, ‘We can’t have the seats because we don’t want anybody gathering there. We don’t want people voicing their opinions.’ The idea of [it being] the city’s living room was one of our goals but it wasn’t politically attainable at the time.”
Architecturally, our Civic Center can look monolithic, and at times, downright soul-crushing. But architect Alan Pullman of Long Beach-based Studio One Eleven pointed out that the Civic Center drew its appearance from a long line of influences, ranging from Swiss-born architect Le Corbusier’s attempts to romanticize concrete to the structures designed by Kevin Roche, John Dinkeloo and Associates in the 1966 Oakland Museum and in the 1969 Knights of Columbus Building in New Haven, Connecticut.
Pullman acknowledged he was uncomfortable delivering a critique of Long Beach Civic Center with Gibbs listening, and he relieved the tension by making light of his assessment of City Hall. “Really, it’s a Modern building. It’s a Late Modern building,” Pullman said correctly.
This blend of Modernism with the earlier Brutalism—literally, from the French term for “raw concrete”—can look and sound threatening, even today. When Civic Center began to go up in 1973, however, it was merely on trend.
“It really became the Late Modern de rigueur grammar of city buildings,” Pullman said, entering as evidence a photo of I.M. Pei’s 1978 Dallas City Hall, which resembles an inverted pyramid, and is still in use.
“So many of these were built; they really became what cities were looking for,” Pullman said. “They were fairly cost-effective, but they contained a certain amount of monumentalness.”
Another often-heard critique of Civic Center—up there with “I can’t find the Main Library,” “Where’s the park?” and “The wind makes me cold”—is based on a seismic study of City Hall from the mid-2000s. It projected that people inside City Hall during a major earthquake could have trouble accessing elevators and stairs.
Ken O’Dell of MHP Structural Engineers in Long Beach stepped up to address those concerns Monday night, and in the process answered another question that might have been on some people’s minds.
“Why do you have a structural engineer talking to you about Civic Center design?” O’Dell asked jokingly. “Frankly, I raised my hand when they said I wouldn’t have to pay the $5 admission.”
As for Civic Center’s earthquake-worthiness?
“It’s a building that doesn’t meet today’s [earthquake] code, but what does that mean?” O’Dell said. “A lot of people will say something’s bad if it doesn’t meet today’s code and it must be replaced. If we were to tear down every building that doesn’t meet today’s code, we would be tearing down 80 to 90 percent of Southern California.”
O’Dell expanded on the themes of lifespan and legacy as he referenced the debate about Civic Center’s fitness for the future.
“When you’re making your case, you recognize that the value of what you see here doesn’t stop with what you see,” he said. “The value is in the historic context as it grows—from where it is to where it can go. There is absolutely no reason you can’t move forward with something that comes from the past.”
Across the audience, many heads nodded in agreement. On stage, moderator Rick D’Amato, an architect at LPA in Irvine, concurred with O’Dell–but noted that preserving an architectural relic sometimes demands a bold, far-reaching approach. “They keep trying to throw Band-Aids on it,” he said.
D’Matto returned to a slide of I.M. Pei’s Dallas City Hall, which is surrounded by a plaza just as bleak as Long Beach Civic Center, albeit with a water feature. He followed with a startling photo of the building as it looked one day nearly 30 years ago.
“For one day in 1984, they brought in hot dogs and lifeguards and had a day at the beach,” D’Matto said, describing the photo exactly. “But they never did it again. They keep trying to bring in the public on a one-day basis. They keep doing that instead of stepping back and saying, ‘What’s the big picture? How can we make this building last 50 to 100 years, as we very well can?’ ”
The same questions should be asked in Long Beach, D’Matto said.
“What people don’t realize is, architecture is very subjective, it’s very fashionable,” he said. “We have to figure out how to make Civic Center relevant to today’s sensibilities. I think anything from the past can be made relevant.”
+++++ +++++ +++++
[GreaterLongBeach.com needs support to continue dimensioned coverage of the real news, issues, pasttimes and people of Long Beach and its satellite cities. To advertise or donate---or participate---write to email@example.com]