Unexpectedly Making History
We don’t know we’re part of history when we’re in it. We’re just living our lives and dealing with what is laid before us, with glimmers of leadership and inspiration offered to add innovation and meaning to our existence. Then years later someone notices that history has been made.
This happened last week with Steve Kellenberg, Al Treviño and Bill Watt presenting their takes on how one of our local landmark projects came to be. We’ve taken Fashion Island and Newport Center for granted, a nice place to visit and shop, but this time it was presented as part of history. It has now been more than 50 years since it was started and now we can see the significance of the project’s concept, begun with just a sketch.
There were so many opportunities for the project to have gone in directions that would have made it more ordinary. The whole Ranch could have been urbanized by selling it off bit by bit. Kellenberg, now senior vice president of The Irvine Company’s design studio, told how the board of The Irvine Company, after looking at the sprawl that was nipping at the borders of the Irvine Ranch in the early 1960s, said, “There has to be a better way.” They decided to plan the Ranch as a whole and Fashion Island was one of their early projects.
Fashion Island/Newport Center’s plan came from a small sketch, but a big idea: creating a focal point, a central urban image for Newport Beach. A ring road defining that center filled with an outdoor shopping mall, high rise offices overlooking the center and the coast, framing the center on the inland side, low-rise commercial and civic buildings on the ocean side.
Treviño, a Harvard landscape architecture graduate, was one of the first planners hired by The Irvine Company in 1965. “The engineers didn’t like the circular road; they said it would never work,” he remembered. There was pressure to build an enclosed mall like so many nationwide (and like South Coast Plaza). But Treviño encouraged the company to consider an outdoor center that would take full advantage of the southern California climate and the ocean view.
He suggested classmate Pete Walker of Sasaki Walker Associates for design of Fashion Island. (Walker, still designing, has had a stellar career that has recently culminated in the design of Twin Towers Memorial in New York.) I relish the memories of the Walker-designed courtyards—first the circular fountain with inward-spraying jets outside Robinson’s, followed by a shady copse of formally pruned Ficus trees, the water garden with stone steppers and koi, and last, the large tiled plaza with the skydiver sculptures towering above. Then there was the return to the parking lot below where one could stand looking out over Newport, the bay and ocean beyond. For years I used slides of Fashion Island in my landscape design classes illustrating the design of a “sequence of experiences.” What if a less talented designer had been selected?
Kellenberg pointed out that there were design guidelines for the early office buildings ringing the center, the light colors and the strong exterior structural members were intentionally chosen. And it could have all gone terribly wrong if the installation/construction had been less than precise, as supervised by Watt.
In more recent years came the art museum, city hall and library complementing the commercial and office uses to create the envisioned town center. From a concept sketch of a big idea came a long-term vision implemented well. It’s significant that its history is now noteworthy and we’re grateful that some of those who made history came to tell the story.
A different kind of history is being made all the time in Laguna Beach, where both Kellenberg and Treviño live. Laguna is the result of many small ideas artfully and organically juxtaposed. There’s a place for both big and small, we just have to know when one or the other will be the right choice, decisions that are ultimately judged by history.
Landscape architect Ann Christoph is a former Laguna Beach council member.