June 08, 2016

Photo Essay: The Lima Bean Field That Became a Hub of the Performing Arts

I'll admit that I give preferential treatment to historic buildings. But my definition of "historic" is a little looser than most "official" historic designations, which started to pay attention to the modernists of the 1960s relatively recently.

At least I extend the meaning of "historic" to include the year I was born, 40 years ago.

Unfortunately, that means a lot of us are leaving out some pretty cool buildings from the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. We just don't know what some of them mean to us yet.

Frank Gehry, of course, excepted.

I guess that's why it never really occurred to me to try to take a tour of the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, which opened as the Orange County Performing Arts Center in 1986. It was too new to be interesting to me. What history could it possibly have, at only 30 years old?

Fortunately, it did occur to someone else, who invited me to tag along on a tour. And when I got there, the first thing I noticed was that there is something so Eighties about the facade of Segerstrom Hall, with its red granite and glass, and Richard Lippold's "Fire Bird" sculpture.

But then, approaching the box office from the carriage-circle drop-off area, it starts to feel like a sweeping Modernist building, like an airport or a train station.

And those curves don't stop once you're inside, reminiscent of the great Art Deco theatres of the Streamline Moderne era.

Architects and designers did have something of a renewed love affair with Art Deco in the 80s.

Upstairs, you can get a closer look at one of the wings of the Fire Bird...

...before venturing into the auditorium, awash in red...

...its upper and lower level sections staggered such that there isn't a bad view in the 3000-seat house.

Backstage, you really get a sense of how state-of-the-art the facility is, although the fly system is still manually operated—both for time, and for accuracy.

There's a lot going on back there while a production is underway.

And in the set shop at any given time, it's hard to tell what's left over from a previous engagement...

...from what's being used in the current production or in preparation of a Broadway touring show to come.

Segerstrom Hall is only one of many spaces in the entire performing arts complex, which also includes the Arts Plaza. At its center is Richard Serra's 360-ton steel "Connector" (2006), which rises anywhere from 64 to 66 feet, depending on who you ask.

The sculpture was commissioned by founding chairman Henry Segerstrom, and features two sidewalk-level openings for pedestrians to peek inside and listen to their voices echo back at them.

It's all part of Henry Segerstrom's vision for a large lima bean farm owned by his family in Costa Mesa, once known as "Goat Hill." The Segerstrom family had been the country's largest producer of dried lima bean—and for his whole life, though famous for being an entrepreneur and philanthropic patron of the arts, Henry introduced himself as "a farmer."

Henry transformed the bean field into a cultural and commercial nexus for Orange County, having first developed the South Coast Plaza shopping center across the street in 1967. The performing arts complex was rebranded with his name in 2011 and still carries it, though he passed away last year.

The Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, designed by architect C├ęsar Pelli, is simply amazing.

From its undulating glass wall...

...and silver-leafed, 80-foot ceiling... the curved promenade of the multi-tiered lobby with its Spanish granite floors...'s a striking complement to its neighboring performance hall, with an even more modern feel. And yet, it feels historic.

Seeing his work, it's not surprising to learn that Pelli once worked with Finnish Modernist Eero Saarinen on the TWA Flight Center at New York's JFK Airport. Pelli is also known on his own merit for some of his other glass-walled, modern architectural designs—like the World Financial Center and Winter Garden in NYC and the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood.

It's hard to stop craning your neck to look up, either at the Swarovski and Baccarat crystal lighting design in the lobby ("Constellation" by Francesca Bettridge)...

...or at the curved concert hall balconies that create the feeling that you're sitting inside a musical instrument, be it a guitar, a cello, or some other.

A silver-leafed canopy hangs over the stage, where the orchestra and chorale (if there is one) are seated. If there's no chorale, audience members can sit on the stage behind the orchestra, facing the conductor.

Bits of blue peek out from behind the light Canadian maple chamber doors along the side walls that can be moved in order to adjust the acoustics of the room...

...particularly the volume and length of sounds coming out of the four concrete reverberation chambers (reminiscent of the echo chambers in the Capitol Records Building).

And then there is the Fisk pipe organ, also silver-leafed over wood, with a maple console, 4322 pipes, and 75 stops. The whole thing weighs 30 tons and utilizes a mechanical action that links the keyboard at the console with valves that control the wind going into (and coming out of) the pipes.

The organ's electric blowers chug along with a total 14 horsepower—somewhere in the ballpark of a garbage disposal, a lawn mower, or maybe a small tractor. The building may be modern, but the musical technology doesn't have to be.

The Segerstrom Concert Hall is pretty incredible to see, but I think it has to be heard to be understood—or, I suppose, believed. Because when it comes to musical performances, how it looks doesn't mean a thing if it doesn't sound good.

I hope to find out myself soon enough.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: The Art Deco Theater Inside Academy Cathedral, Inglewood
Photo Essay: Backstage at Pasadena Playhouse
Photo Essay: The World's Largest Outdoor Pipe Organ
Photo Essay: Capitol Studios Turns the Big 6-0

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