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ART REVIEW: Eyeing the What Might Have Been in Santa Barbara

Ambassador Hotel, project,'George Washington Smith

Ambassador Hotel, project,’George Washington Smith

'Automotive Center, project,' Eisner-Stewart and Associates Art, Design ^Architecture Museum, UCSanta Barbara photos

‘Automotive Center, project,’ Eisner-Stewart and Associates Art, Design, Architecture Museum, UCSanta Barbara photos

Re-posted from the Santa Barbara Newspress
July 5, 2013 12:14 PM

By Josef Woodard, News-Press Correspondent


When: through Sept. 7
Where: Art, Design & Architecture Museum @ Jane Deering Gallery, 128 E. Canon Perdido St.
Gallery hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tues. through Fri., 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Sun.
Information: 966-3334, janedeeringgallery.com

If there is a single exhibition, thus far, that illustrates the symbiotic links between the unusual double-occupancy programming of the Jane Deering Gallery, for five months a year, and UCSB’s Art, Design & Architecture Museum in that downtown space the rest of the year, look no further than the current fare, “Unbuilt Santa Barbara.” Drawn from the legendary archives of architectural prints, plans, drawings and other materials at UCSB, the show, co-curated by Christina Chang and Christina Marino, nonetheless takes aim squarely at the architectural lay of the downtown Santa Barbara landscape.

Well, more to the point, cleverly laid out in the show’s title, the designs seen in the gallery belong to the vast archives of well-laid architectural plans that never came to concrete fruition, and thus remained in the realm of the theoretical. A handy map on display in the gallery designates where the prospective plans — by architects including the notable George Washington Smith and others — would have been made public. And depending on a viewer’s familiarity with the civic topography, what we take for granted as representing Santa Barbara’s architectural identity, the speculation on “what might have been” asserts an enticing aroma of possibilities in the gallery.

To expand on the University-meets-community angle, “Unbuilt Santa Barbara” is a sister show to another show opening at the AD&A Museum on campus on July 13, “Unbuilt UCSB.” And yet, with the caveat that the UCSB component is sight unseen at this point, the subject of Santa Barbara’s architectural life, especially given the city’s dramatic Spanish Revival design and deep civic and architectural history, is at least potentially the more dramatic architectural story.

A good place to start in this show, and speculator’s game, is with the most imposing piece in the room — a large model turned vertical on the wall — Michael de Rose Designs’ 1981 “Model of fountains and plazas, south State Street at Stearn’s Wharf.” Knowing what we now know to be the tourist-magnetized juncture where State Street ends and Stearn’s Wharf beings, it is a strange experience to gaze upon this very different alternate plan, a symmetrical layout of four plazas flanking the high profile intersection.

Also rooted in that central Santa Barbaran locale, the show features drawings for Richard B. Taylor’s proposed Bicentennial Memorial Fountain, with a symbolic female “Spirit of Friendliness” perched where, ultimately, Bud Bottoms’ dolphins have long frolicked in freeze-frame. The fountain would have been a very different, and more classic-cum-generic presence, had the iconic female form taken up residence there.

Given the prominence and national reputation of George Washington Smith, who did end up creating many a fine building in town (including the loveably tranquil chapel at the Santa Barbara Cemetery), our eye naturally gravitates toward his work on display here, wondering “What if?” From the 1920s, we see his drawings for the City Hall and a YMCA, in Spanish Colonial mode. His 1924 design for the Ambassador Hotel, down by the beach and a replacement for the famed Potter Hotel that burned in 1921, basks in an exotic elegance and restraint.

For an example of a shocking lack of restraint, or contextual propriety, Barnett G. McDougall’s imagined design for the seaside Biltmore Hotel, circa 1924, is an imposing Gothic Revival hulk, a massive fortress-like edifice in stark contrast to the lyrical, completed Biltmore we know and mostly love.

Appropriately enough, the exhibition places due focus on the distinctive narrative by which the city’s dominating Mediterranean motif came to distinguish Santa Barbara’s downtown — making it unified, or homogenous, depending on who’s talking. The project actually dates back to before the 1925 earthquake, which created a blank slate upon which to make the architectural plan doable, back to the efforts of the Community Arts Association, involving influential preservationist Pearl Chase, architect Bernhard Hoffman and planner Charles H. Cheney. The 1920s-era drawings of potential facades along State Street suggest the wellspring of architects feeding into the transformative Spanish-flavored reinvention of downtown.

Jumping up several decades, “Unbuilt Santa Barbara” also offers glimpses of other unseen and unrealized schemes for reshaping the look and feel of parts of downtown, from the ’60s to the ’80s. Elaborate, semi-Utopian-looking plans for an Automotive Center at Mission Creek by Eisner-Stewart and associates, for instance, is a vision that remained on the drawing board, one of the countless gleams in architects’ eyes for what might be, but never was.

Somewhere between the appeal of the drawings and ideas themselves, hanging on these gallery walls, and the prospect of how the visions could have altered our civic sense of self lays the peculiar allure of this show.