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City Council: Resident’s 45-foot-tall sculpture deemed a structure, subject to City height restrictions

Chris Bashaw, Editor
9:06 am PDT June 14, 2016

It looks like a tower of clay pressed by human fingers – with sculpted fingerprints to boot – but the Malibu City Council decided on Monday, June 13, that sculpture “Big Clay No. 7” is a structure, and it’s too tall to exist in Malibu.

Standing at 45 feet tall, the bronze-and-aluminum sculpture was deemed by a 3-1 vote as a structure in the City of Malibu, and subject to City codes for structures.

Such codes limit structure heights to 18 feet with some variances allowing for up to 28 feet, but “Big Clay No. 7” stands at nearly 30 percent taller than the maximum structure height a variance allows.

While its height was an apparent deal-breaker, discussion about whether or not the sculpture is a structure and applicable to height restrictions laid out in the the City’s codes dominated the night’s discourse.

Representing Malibu resident William Bell, who owns the sculpture and displays it on his property, attorney Ken Ehrlich said the sculpture doesn’t qualify as a structure because it can be moved.

“I’m not saying not structure because it’s art, I’m saying it’s not a structure because it’s conceptually moveable,” Ehrlich said. “You don’t sit on it or open door and live in it. It doesn’t do anything for you but let you appreciate it. We believe labeling it a structure is beyond realm of City zoning.”

Opposition to the sculpture mainly came from neighbors of Bell, who complained about view obstructions due to the artwork’s size, as well as a glare the copper-and-aluminum structure gives off when sunlight hits it at a particular angle.

Ehrlich insisted the tip of the structure is visible from most vantage points, “but it’s not as if it dominates the view of the surrounding area,” he said.

One such resident who disagreed was Marc Gurvitz, who lives near Bell’s residence along the 27000 Block of Pacific Coast Highway.

“I had a very nice ocean view when I moved out here 25 years,” Gurvitz said. “Now every room in my house, that’s what I’m looking at now.”  

Gurvitz then criticized Ehrlich’s insistence that only the tip of the sculpture could be seen from most surrounding locations.

“It’s insulting to say you can only see tip of it. I can see the whole base,” Gurvitz said. “It’s an eyesore when the sun hits it, and it’s staggering how much light it gives off. I think it’s insane and just not appropriate.”

Speaking in favor of letting the sculpture remain in place was John Mazza, who serves on the City of Malibu’s Planning Commission, but spoke for the Malibu Arts Foundation.

Mazza lamented that the biggest problem concerning the sculpture is that Malibu has no codes or regulations for art installations, which prompted the Malibu Planning Department to interpret the sculpture as a structure. 

Although the Council ultimately sided with the Planning Department’s interpretation that the sculpture constitutes a structure, Mazza – in a staccato rhetorical question – said he felt otherwise.

“Is this a structure?” he asked. “Does it have a roof? How will you determine [the roof’s] size? Is it flat roof or pitched roof? Can and does it follow building code as a structure? Does it have pipes? Electricity? This is not a structure. This is art.”

Councilman Skylar Peak, who voted against denying Bell’s appeal to let the sculpture stay on his property, said the situation was “frustrating” because art is not addressed in the City’s codes.

Bell and his attorneys, however, are applying for a Zoning Text Amendment that could change the law in town to allow the sculpture — and other works like it — to stay.

Details of the possible ZTA weren’t discussed at City Council, but City Attorney Christi Hogin said it could be another six months before the City’s Zoning Ordinance Revisions and Code Enforcement Subcommittee reviews the proposed amendment.

“Big Clay #7” was created by Fischer and on display at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art six months before Bell acquired the artwork.

The sculpture stands bolted to a 400-square-foot concrete base on Bell’s property.