Mariners Medical Art Center, Newport Beach, California

Below is my response May 3, 2012, to a proposal that would drastically alter one of Neutra’s best works, Mariners Medical Arts Center. The original project architect was John Blanton, a lead designer in Neutra’s office, an especially gifted designer who while self-effacing, skillfully acquitted Neutra’s intentions. The letter, addressed to the planner in charge of the project, is now public record: 

City of Newport Beach
Planning Division
3300 Newport Boulevard
P.O. Box 1768
Newport Beach, CA 92658-8915
The key question is whether the Proposed Project would impair the historical resource, the Mariners’ Medical Arts Center/Westcliff Medical Arts Building, to such an extent that the resource would no longer be eligible for listing. In my opinion, the Project would result in a substantial adverse change and make the property ineligible based on the below.
. A compatible addition to a historic property should be subordinate to the resource. It should defer in size, be set back from, and delineated spatially from the original. It should not be highly visible from the street. As presented, this two-story addition/alteration is substantially larger than the largest building (A), now partially replaced. The new addition/alteration overwhelms the composition rather than deferring to it.
. With regard to the new volume, its broad overhang, L-shaped massing, and ribboned fenestration appear to be very similar in strategy, materials, and proportion to the existing original fenestration seen elsewhere, so much so that perhaps even an expert, let alone a lay person, could not differentiate between new and original construction. This appears to be an attempt to replicate the original and thus not in accordance with the Secretary of the Interior Standards for Rehabilitation.
. The long two-story addition is directly attached to the building with no feature that alerts the viewer/user otherwise. Dissolving historic Building A into the new distorts the established and distinctive relationship among the three original buildings, one of a hierarchical gradation of solids and voids.
. Neutra carefully articulated three discrete volumes, Buildings A, B, and C, each with a different shape and size and of different shapes and sizes. However, he also unified these three volumes in several ways. First, through a consistent architectural vocabulary. Second, he also unified the composition by extending structure into the setting, sheltering walkways and other features. Additionally, he located water, hardscape, and landscape elements so that they weave through the site, enriching it greatly. Comprehensively, the design promoted well-being and reduced the typical anxieties associated with medical visits and treatments. This well-scaled and intentional balance of asymmetrical elements greatly enhances the setting (an aspect of integrity that was of primary importance both to this project and to the architect). However, this poised relationship is annulled by the attached addition/alteration, whose long monolithic bulk does not demonstrate the articulation of volumes and range of scale evident elsewhere.
I would suggest that the areas proposed to be demolished should be evaluated to determine their importance to the overall development and to its integrity. If found to have  less than significant impact, the addition should be redesigned following Preservation Brief 14, The architect should consider measures to reduce the building mass down to the height of the historic building, break up the proposed long monolithic volume, and create more distance between the new and original structures. Finally, the original composition should be restored, for example, the exterior lighting strips placed on the far side of the overhangs sheltering walkways. These flush-mounted strips are an important character defining feature. They demonstrate the techniques the firm used based on Neutra’s prescient readings in the biological sciences. (In this case, the location near the outer edge made it possible for those inside the offices to have a continuous and wider radius of illumination at night, addressing a genetic “fight or flight” response.)
The Mariners’ Medical Arts Center is the finest example of the Neutra firm’s medical building type in the country. As more and more Neutra and Associates buildings are demolished or substantially altered, this delicate complex becomes even more significant. It succinctly demonstrates how even in an urban area and by exploiting a small footprint, one can effectively introduce landscape to create a very fine holistic setting. Finally, it is a respected and cherished member of the Newport Beach  community, serving generations of patients. It deserves the same rigorous consideration in response.
Barbara Lamprecht, M.Arch.
Qualified Architectural Historian
author, Richard Neutra – Complete Works; Neutra – Selected Projects (2000, 2004)

Mariners Medical Arts Center

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