12/10/2010 02:30 pm ET Updated 4 days ago

Spectacular New Arts Center in... Northridge?

valley exterior

The most beautiful new performing arts center in the country is about to open in... Northridge? Most of us who live on the Westside of Los Angeles (including Beverly Hills) are somewhat snobbish about "the Valley," despite the fact that many millions of us live in the San Fernando and San Gabriel Valleys. I know that from time to time I have been guilty of such a foolish emotion... until now.

Readers know that I am something of an architecture buff, recalling my recent stories about the breathtaking Resnick Pavillion at LACMA and the Mullin Automotive Museum in Oxnard. I'm even helping some friends in their endeavor to film a remake of Ayn Rand's seminal novel about a rogue architect, The Fountainhead; if I had not become a film producer and food writer I think I might have become an architect. I was somewhat skeptical when PR maven Caroline Graham invited me to join a lead architect and landscape designer of the new Valley Performing Arts Center in Northridge, promising me it would be an astonishing surprise. But the fact that I would be doing the walk-through with old friend Ed Begley, Jr. clinched the deal. (The actor and environmental patriot played a policeman in a film, Buddy, Buddy, which I co-produced and was directed by Billy Wilder.)

pamela, ed adn Kara

Landscape Designer Pamela Burton, Ed Begley, Jr. and Lead Project Designer Kara Hill.

But Northridge? All I knew about that community was that it was the epicenter of the giant 1994 earthquake and was the site of Cal State Northridge, a fine university. It proved to be an easy voyage from Beverly Hills driving north on the 405 Freeway for about 25 minutes.. and then I had one of the most transfiguring experiences of my life!


Interior of hall during preview performance by Moscow State Symphony.

I once went to a lecture in London by the world's preeminent woman architect, Zaha Hadid, the fiery, controversial and brilliant Iraqi-born creator of some extraordinary museums and auto science centers. Afterwards I had an opportunity to meet her, and she said about 25% of all architect workers are women, although some 30% are not licensed. This year's winner of the prestigious Pritzger Prize was Ms. Kazuyo Sejima, one-half of the Japanese firm Sanaa Architecture, with a strong focus on museums and educational centers. I confidently predict that when the Valley Performing Arts Center opens its doors to the public on Janury 29th, in a posh black-tie event, a brilliant new star will be shining in the architectural firmament, a woman of enormous talent, charisma and chutzpa... Kara Hill.


Architect Kara Hill has been working on this exciting project for ten years!

Ten years ago she began working on this project as a member of a prestigious architectural firm, Gary Reetz' HGA, and, although she left them a few years ago to go out on her own, she retained her status as Lead Project Designer on this job. "When we started we had an adventurous and ambitious plan and a budget to match, but as economic conditions worsened we had to work assiduously to tailor the center to our shrinking resources... and in so doing I think the team of Gary, Jamie, Rebecca and I came up with a much more efficient and, yes, exciting center."

It is not often that this loquacious reporter is at a loss for words, but I find it daunting to try to convey the beauty and grandeur of the Valley Performing Arts Center. As you drive west three miles on Nordhoff Avenue from the 405 Freeway, you will reach the lovely campus of Cal State Northridge University. Standing tall and glistening on a corner of the campus is a massive and yet ethereal glass-and-marble edifice which seems to float in the air amidst a shimmering water pond base. I was struck by the fact that just across the street from its loading dock is... a green orchard of fruit-bearing orange trees. So California, so... right.

Dr. Jolene Koester began her appointment as the fourth president of Cal State Northridge in mid-2000, and the subsequent decade has been challenging and rewarding, she told me. "VPAC (Valley Performing Arts Center) was originally budgeted at a much larger figure, but will end up costing about $125 million... which is something of a miracle considering the grandeur and state-of-the-art green configuration of the complex. About 60% of the funding thus far came from federal, state and county funds, some of it allotted as post-earthquake repairs, with the remainder from private contributions by individuals, corporations and foundations." She laughingly informed me that naming rights to many of its components are still available. (The Jay Weston Film Center has a nice ring to it... will work on that.)

window cleaner

An obvious question is how will they clean all of the windows? With this cherrypicker!

She pointed out to me that Cal State Northridge is a big contributor to the long-term economic success of valley residents, in that it provides a great, affordable college education to many who would not be able to ordinarily go. "Our music program is world-class and we send more students on to graduate programs than almost any other state university."

The 166,000 square foot center of several buildings is built around its 1,700 seat performance hall, but it truly is a complex of many art-and-entertainment elements. A dramatic, raise-able glass curtain visually gears VPAC's interior to the university's campus life. I used to know a music industry mogul named Mike Curb, and it is evident that he has contributed a mighty part of his fortune to the arts here, giving the first major gift to the VPAC campaign. His other gift led to the naming of the Mike Curb College of Arts, Media and Communication, with its Dean, Robert Bucker, also becoming Executive Director of the center, overseeing the booking of talent into the hall. (He obviously has his finger on the pulse of the arts world, 'cause I see he has booked such diverse talents into the Spring season as the Russian National Ballet dancing Swan Lake on Feb 8th, Arianna Huffington (yes!) on Feb. 13th, Joel Grey and Marvin Hamlisch on Feb. 25th, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa on March 12th, Rosanne Cash on March 19th, and the China Philharmonic Orchestra on April 16th. Shirley MacLaine will speak on May 7th, and - wow - An Evening with Patti Lupone and Mandy Patinkin is set for May 21st. (Mandy Patinkin played his first film role for me as a cheeky NY taxi driver in my production of Night of the Juggler, starring James Brolin.) And on opening night my favorite jazz singer, Monica Mancini, will be among the star performers.

It will take another Huffington post or two to do full justice to the uniqueness and magnificence of this arts complex. Jamie Milne Rojek, the VP and project manager for HGA Architects Engineers, showed me some of the marvels of the acoustical system overseen by David Conant, the many ways it can be 'tuned' and configured for various artistic entities. I stood on the vast stage and could clearly hear landscape architect Pamela Burton talking to me from the balcony!

So here is a memorable architectural and cultural landmark for the entire San Fernando Valley, and I promise that I will never again make fun of its residents. They are the lucky ones to have this treasure coming into their lives.

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