The Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and Beyond

While combining pleasure and work surveying cultural tourism in Europe a few months ago, I could not help but wonder if there also were some lessons for my Malibu.

And indeed there was one in particular, a diverting arts and entertainment experience in Edinburgh that for years has been hyped by au courant friends and family.

The Scottish city, of course, is on a completely different scale, if not planet than Malibu, with a very successful history as arguably the world’s leading festival city.

Its International Festival was launched in the wake of World War Two, as a much needed celebration of the creative human spirit. It then flowered into a host of cultural happenings: music, dance, film, art, books, drama, you name it.

Most interesting for me, and harboring some ideas for Malibu, is Edinburgh’s aptly named Fringe Festival. Whatever engages and entertains, be it single performers or ensembles, is material for the decidedly democratic festival.

This year’s was a grand affair, hosting an amazing 50,459 performances of 3,314 shows in 313 venues across Edinburgh, in school halls, university auditoriums, a few aged theaters, churches, under tents, in public parks, private gardens, living rooms and on closed streets and dedicated sidewalks.

Everywhere you wandered in the ancient city there was a peek at a production. Nearly 2.3 million tickets were issued, at modest prices, half price near curtain time, and many free.

The challenge was what to see: an acclaimed company performing an act from a London bound play, a comedy team from Germany doing mime, a Korean dance troup, juggling ballet dancers, acrobatic office workers, standup comics, stand down story tellers,, and buskers everywhere, behind every bench and bush, and on sidewalks and streets, to be sure each spot dedicated and subject to scheduling

It was all doable, because performances were limited to an hour or so, and if you were alert to the buzz, you might score the best of the fest.

The result were wild and wonderful, in part made so because the festival amazingly is open all; absolutely anyone so inspired can stage a show or event, though helping would be having a producer and securing a venue and a time slot. There are no auditions, no second guessing by bureaucrats or politicians. It’s about having the hubris and hustling.

Can something like the fringe on a thumbnail scale work in Malibu?

There are certainly scattered spaces and places that can be transformed temporarily into performance sites, schools, churches, city hall, shopping plazas, parking lots, indeed Legacy, Bluff and Trancas parks. For sure not in the crowded summer, but anytime else, thanks to our weather.

Malibu already has the cache. All it needs is the creativity and flexibility.

If the Cultural Arts Commission can ease its bonds with the city’s innately conservative council and faint hearted city government, and tap its laudable commitment, become transparent, and inspire the city’s many talented incipient residents, it can happen.

Speaking as a former if briefly Disney Imagineer, needed is imagination. It is also what the ever candid Scots in Edinburgh would say.

 

 

A Community Garden as a Central Park for Malibu

Let’s face it, Malibu as the manifestation of a city, a town, a village, or however described, is a mess.

Of course, there is the ocean. There are concerns about water quality, access and views, but it perseveres.

The PCH is a perplexing problem, and will be forever as long as people drive.

The Civic Center is definitely not civic or centered, rather several disconnected shopping malls, and an isolated library and city hall.

And in the marrow of this mess is Legacy Park, my latest commentary heard on 97.5 KBU, and everywhere on radiomalibu.net

An anxious Cultural Arts Commission and entangled City Council are waiting for a team of consultants to come back with a detailed plan for revitalizing the 17 acre expanse. In the interest of accuracy the word should not be revitalizing, because the overgrown area of undergrowth has never been vital and not particularly friendly or frequented.

Less we forget, it is in fact the earthen roof of a city blessed water treatment plant serving the adjacent high-end stores and pricey residences, packaged by avaricious real estate interests and sold to an undiscerning city council. Some have labeled it perhaps more accurately as the leech field, and with derision, Lunacy Park because of the thinking by the city that hyped its approval.

It is most certainly a design challenge, worthy of the consultant team of Hodgetts and Fung with an assist by Calvin Abe landscape architects, which recently presented a rough draft plan to the commission.

Displayed and illustrated by select photographs was an array of sketchy alternatives. They included expanded water features, functional art works, and a web of pathways to the adjacent library, country mart, city hall and the proposed Santa Monica college extension.

It was very much a laundry list of features, which some felt were too art and urban oriented. Reiterated by several commissioners was that the park should be as natural as possible, consistent with an ecological theme appealing in particular to locals and children. The commission gave its preliminary approval, but directed the consultants to go back to the drawing boards, and return in a few weeks with a more focused plan.

This also gave me some time to walk the forlorn site, keeping in mind its constraints of no structures or ball fields, which had been negotiated away by a past council. The challenge is somehow craft it to be local and green, with a smattering of art.

As I wandered I recalled the sage advice of a landscape architect I once worked with, Dan Kiley, who said a site will tell you what it wants to be. Just pick up some soil, rub it, close your eyes and think how the site be used

The vision that appeared was a community garden, a collection of small plots tended by locals, producing an abundance of vegetables, fruits and flowers, for themselves and for sharing, connecting to the environment, and each other in a singular commonalty, sustaining the park with people and purpose.

As for the art the commission would like, it can mark the gateway to the garden, the seating, or lighting, things that can be used use and delight us. And given its size, there also could be room for a passive, wildlife friendly native landscape, and perhaps a dog park, hopefully better designed than the one at Trancas Canyon. Maybe also a multi use field, if the city could find a legal loophole through the constraints.

But the focus of Legacy I feel should be a community garden.

Think about it; envision it.

L.A. River Continues to Roil

My latest commentary for 97.5 KBU, heard everywhere on radiomalibu.net. and can be read on cityobseerved.com:

The L.A. River continues to roil, as it has since several months ago when it was revealed the irrepressible and much honored Frank Gehry had been surreptitiously anointed to master plan the entire 51 mile expanse of the mostly raw water way.

Seemingly ignored by the powers that be – namely the city’s star struck Mayor Eric Garcetti and the LA. River Restoration Corp. ‘s cipher Omar Brownstein –that the celebrity architect had not been even remotely involved in the last 40 years of dogged grassroots efforts to improve the river, and is known primarily for his singular structures and definitely not city planning nor landscaping.

That the mayor mistakenly identified Gehry the Olmsted of L.A. –he is a legendary landscaper –even embarrassed the usually imperious Gehry, who recently was feted by the equally imperious Getty that once rejected him. How the wheel turns in a capricious L.A. of short memories.

Even as a critic of Frank’s past failures of form over function   –how buildings look rather than work – I warily welcomed him with the hope his involvement might bring needed attention, and funding, to the river.

And optimistically, perhaps he and his noteworthy team, including a famed Dutch hydrologist, might generate some interesting design iterations. Though instead of looking at computer models, I suggested maybe they should tour the river, that if it is to be revitalized, it will happen in a series of small, contextual site sensitive projects.

But Frank apparently just could not be content with the Getty honors, a cluttered of a warehouse of models  exhibited at LACMA, a career-crowning, celebrity studded book by the critic now fawning biographer Paul Goldberger, and the constant veneration of peers and the public.

He succumbed to that constant equation that for me explains much about our celebrity obsession, that personalities in the public eye are the sum of an equation of megalomania, divided by paranoia.

Agreeing to an interview by my alma mater, the ever august New York Times, the paper of record, Gehry proceeded to dismiss criticism of his involvement, and further denigrated its his critics, telling them to “grow up.” He also suggested that if they wanted to help the revitalization they should become worker bees, with the assumption he would be the queen bee.

Meanwhile, Gehry might happily have had a filter put on his mouth, but the diatribe unfortunately keeps echoing.

The long time river advocates no doubt he was referring to include I assume Lew McAdams, who selfless efforts have been absolutely vital to raising the awareness of the river. He is definitely not a jerk; vain maybe. Neither is Mia Lehrer, the river’s principle professional designer to date. She may be covetous, given the convoluted city politics. But not a jerk.

If Gehry needed to identify the jerks to date, let me suggest the vain glorious Mayor and his sycophants, an ever development and headline hungry pack of river rats. As if the revitalization of L.A.River did not have enough challenges.

10.31.15

 

For an Independent Malibu School District

In that thin strip of a seaside rural village labeled Malibu where I live, the struggle continues to nurture an idiosyncratic identity., and the subject of my latest KBU commentary

No, I am not referring to Measure W, and whether the city should impose constraints on proposed development in its fractured civic center.

As I have commented in the past, planning and development in Malibu has been politically vulnerable, bureaucratically bungled, and frankly haphazard. Major surgery is needed. Not band aids.

More critical and immediate in my opinion is the future of our public school, whether enough signatures can be collected by November First to advance the drive for a separate school district. 4,500 signatures are needed.

The group known as AMPS, advocates for Malibu Public Schools, will be circulating petitions for signatures all this week and next weekend at the shopping centers. Or you can sign on–line. Just contact them at www.ampsmalibu.org. or call 310 734 2021.

The 20 miles of beaches may lend Malibu an identity; the ocean sunsets a touch of romanticism; the backdrop of mountains drama; a resident celebrity a hint of enigma.

But it is the public schools, Webster, the Point, Cabrillo, Malibu middle and senior highs, that are the soul of the city, where one senses its egalitarian spirit. Democracy perseveres here.

Yes, there are problems– I like to think of them as challenges –but more pervasive is their vitality.

My opinion is Influenced by being a parent of four children who all attended public schools, be it in New York, Santa Monica, or for the last several decades, Malibu.

Wherever, the schools were integral to our sense of community.

They were our principle concern; their ranking, their scores, the buzz among parents: All weighed heavily in finding homes in select neighborhoods. In our case, it was north of Wilshire, 30 plus year ago, Point Dume nearly 20 years ago..

Beyond the personal, there are many reasons for an independent Malibu School District:

It will prompt local accountability.

No longer will Malibu be a step child to Santa Monica, separated by a long stretch of the PCH.

No longer will Malibu at best be represented by only one member on the local school board.

And studies have shown that it will actually improve the financing of both districts: NO increase in tax burdens for either city; NO increases in school operating costs

A separate Malibu School District also should have a special appeal to the real estate community, the exclusivity giving them yet another sales point. It most certainly can be expected to give prices a boost.

It’s a rare win win for all, especially the children.

 

 

THE SEARCH FOR THE SOUL OF CITIES CONTINUES, ABROAD AND HOME

My search for what I label the soul of cities, continues, abroad, and home.

For me, these are the prime public places, the existential life of the city, its genius loci.

These are the places people experience and take pride in. Varying in form from city to city, layered with tradition, these places are what I feel lend a city and its people that evanescent quality of soul.

My trip to old haunts included the La Rambla in Barcelona, Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, and the museumplein in Amsterdam.

Others places with rich memories come to mind: Luxembourg Gardens in Paris, the piazza del campo in Siena, and Washington Square park in my hometown of New York.

As for my public Malibu, where I have lived for the last several decades, not so.

To be sure, there were select communal times with the kids on Westward Beach, on the Pt. Dune elementary school lawn, and in the play area edged by the picnic tables in the country mart.

More recently with the kids sadly gone but happily self sufficient, out with my sociable Corgi and irrepressible Shih Tzu, the Trancas Canyon Dog Park and its transient pet lovers have for me lent Malibu a rare sense of place — except when its too hot, or it rains. .

The search goes on, especially with civic center overrun by tourists and luxury outlets catering to their indulgences, and that of Malibu’s one per centers in their weekend safe deposit boxes.

However, take heart, a few miles west are two promising places that I feel lend hope for a more friendlier, public Malibu.

It just is some chairs and tables. a few comfortable couches, in a small field stone apron, centered on a modest fountain, and edged by the clubby Bank of Books, in the Pt. Dume Village center. But, increasingly it is populated by locals, enjoying family, friends and tolerating leashed dogs. Umbrellas and plantings help.

Add to this the venerable Lilly’s and an array of other eateries, and you have, a sense of place, where more often than not you see a neighbor, smiling hello.

It is reason enough to frequent the stores there, if only you could grab a parking space without having to circle the lot several times.

Also coming into its own is the Trancas Country Market, thanks in particular to a friendly Vintage Grocers and its Friday night concert series.

A recent offering there drew an estimated 300 locals, many walking from West Malibu, and turning a modest lawn into a celebratory space, if only for a few hours.

An attraction no doubt was Lenny Goldsmith, a long time Malibu resident and accomplished rock and roller, whose many gigs include the Tower of Power. Here before a hometown crowd he performed with a band appropriately named the New Old.

For me, it was great to hear Lenny, but also see friends and neighbors. It made me feel after a long trip abroad, very much at home, and that is what a public place is suppose to do.

 

 

Enjoying and Learning From Amsterdam

I am back, in Malibu, after a month plus of extended stays in select cities abroad; revisiting some favorite haunts of my maverick past, seeing a few new one, while gathering grist for several writing assignments.

But mostly with my ever curious learned wife enjoying the cultural life and public places of what I consider the soul of the cities.

And, yes, for KBU.FM and the website City Observed. com filtering observations for possible lessons for a more a livable Malibu:

First stop, a most amiable Amsterdam, specifically to experience a restored and rejuvenated Rijksmusum, but also take in several more museums, and of course a performance at the famed Concertgebouw.

Helping was sunny mild weather and diverting, the once every five years tail ships regatta in Amsterdam harbor.

Other than the weather, Malibu it is not.

But there are livable lessons, most apt, traffic. In Amsterdam it is a melange , actually at first glimpse, a crazed crush of cars, trucks, trams, bicycles and pedestrians jamming streets, and sidewalks, going every which way, though somehow, amazingly, flowing smoothly.

If there was a particular unconscious orchestration that turned every street of a very crowed city into a ballet tof sorts, was the alertness of pedestrians, the skill of bicyclists, and the reduced speed of vehicles, all yielding of course to the clang, clang of the constant trams.

Me with my ailing legs loved the convenience of the trams. But in particular I was impressed by the cautious crawl of the all the vehicles, and polite swarm of the pedaling bicyclists, not riding tandem and talking on cell phones as they tend to do on the PCH.

Traffic is not going to be reduced, in Malibu, however new devlopments are restricted or better planned. It just going to keep increasindg, no matter what development consultants say.

But it can be slowed down, by lowering and enforcing speed limits, and in the civic center creating an attractive pedestrian zone.

Amsterdam to be sure has diverting attractions — the streets and canals are engaging, the architecture respectful, the museums marvelous, and so is the beer.

And I also should add the wine, a free glass of which was given to those attending a performance at the Concertgebouw, as if one needed an additional enticement to enjoy one of grand venues of the world.

Malibu doesn’t have a concert hall, or a rich cultural history as Amsterdam.

But it has its beaches, benign weather, and is my home. If only the traffic could be better controlled and calmed,

Jf only.

 

 

 

 

Can the L.A. River Surmount the Current Rising Tide of Bullshit?

Frank Gehry’s anointment to spearhead a new iteration of the master planning of the L.A. River continues to muddy the waters.

I had previously commented that Gehry’s involvement in the river was disturbing for several reasons: his lack of planning experience could be calamitous: further, his recommendations could undermine pending funding, and not the least, his star architect ego and servile supporters could corrupt the river’s hard wrought cooperative spirit.

But some reasoned river advocates are urging Gehry be given a chance; that he could bring needed attention and prompt needed private funding; and he, or more likely the competent team he has assembled, might add something to the effort. So what if there is already an approved master plan that took a decade to craft; it can be improved.

OK, I reluctantly agree, especially if there is a chance it might benefit the river’s revitalization. Let’s see what he does, if anything.

And having observed Frank for nearly 40 years, if his effort doesn’t match expectations, consistent with his m.o. he’ll probably just blame politics, the river corporation, FOLAR and the unappreciative community, someone in his office, and of course the carping media. Anyone but himself.

But I do feel compelled to lend some perspective if not a little needed churlish candor to the prospect of Gehry’s attempt at planning, taking to heart a cue from another commentator, Jon Stewart, who declared in his popular television program’s finale, beware of bullshit.

This is good advice certainly in the current political burlesque, and also I would add in the current planning and design arena. Prompted and polished by a gaggle of marketing and public relation pros, our celebrity architects and their wannabes do seem to have down the crowd-pleasing catch phrases.

Now clichés to the discerning, these include the absolute imperative for design to be “sustainable,’ “user friendly,” and “contextual.” (For how they are used in sentences just audit any urban planning confab.

You have to listen carefully what they are saying, but more carefully look at what they are doing or designing. Sometime it is just the opposite. That is what I liked when I moved on to become a television reporter, where the adage was, don’t tell me, show me.

I remember too well Gehry during the intense competition for Disney Hall hyping his design as the city’s living room, and how it would be open to the community and energize the adjoining streets.

It was one of the reasons why as the critic then for the L.A Times I championed the design, only to see the public garden sited a poor inaccessible three stories up, the critical First Street frontage an unfriendly wall hiding a private patio for the patrons, and the corner stairs a stage for automobile commercials. Street access and egress is compromised, as is the lobby.

Still, the hall is a striking piece of sculpture, an iconic design popular among tourists for selfies and for those who can afford tickets to be seen. Its urban design is not very urbane.

Also I have to be wary of Gehry’s dependence on technology, in particular touting his team’s 3D mapping of the 51-mile waterway, and how it could aid a sweeping master plan vision.

I personally hope Gehry and his entourage spends a little less time at their computers and at self-congratulating conferences, and more time experiencing the river and its adjoining communities.

I am reminded of a lesson from a landscape architect I once worked with, Dan Kiley, who when I rolled out the maps of a park restoration project, suggested instead we walk the site. “Listen and look and it will tell us what needs to be done. Not some images on paper. Beside it always good to get out of the office.” Good advice

 

City Observed Launch

Intro: Here in Malibu, as part of our local news package, today we inaugurate an occasional commentary, the city observed, by long time resident Sam Hall Kaplan, a venerable print and broadcast journalist., teacher, author and activist.

Text: This being my initial commentary, I thought a review of some pending planning issues would offer an introduction to my professional perspective and personal prejudices.

Locally in Malibu, there is a constant parade of proposals before the Planning Commission and City Council that deserve attention, for I am convinced that cities are shaped and misshaped not by the sweeping plans heralded by political pronouncements, but by small projects, weighed one at a time.

For an illustration, we have the city of Malibu spending a half a million dollars plus on a study of urban design guidelines for the Civic Center, now not much more than a scattered collection of suburban mini malls and an isolated library, city hall and empty park.

The over the top retail stores and restaurants are popular among tourists, but not particularly residents. An attractive folksy village, which most residents say they want, it is not.
However conscientious the paid consultants, the study seems headed for a diffused debate, and then the shelves of city hall to collect dust.

More pertinent, and personal, are those seemingly less important planning items, such as an application by the new owners of an oceanside house on Cliffside Drive house to remodel it into a questionable Modernist styled structure.

Unfortunately, the remodel will compromise the blue water views of several homes on the landslide of Cliffside, and therefore is being protested by the streets strident residents, my neighbors. The city’s Planning Department has recommended the commission reject the application at an upcoming hearing.

Other controversies smolder, small and big, locally and beyond: does Malibu need, or want, another supermarket; the dearth of affordable housing in Southern California, the challenge of traffic, mass transit, and street life, and is spending one billion dollars on a vanity redo of LACMA the best way to serve art and the public?

Keep tuned. I’m Sam Hall Kaplan, and this is the City Observed, on 97.5 KBU.FM,.

You’ve been listening to the latest addition to our public radio news team, Sam Hall Kaplan, whose experience includes metropolitan reporter for the New York Times, architecture critic for the L.A. Times, Emmy award winning TV commentator, for Fox News, on air on KCRW, KPCC , among other radio stations, and generally a nosy newsy with a bent for design and planning, in Malibu, and everywhere.

5.2.15