The Los Angeles Unified School District’s (LAUSD) Central Los Angeles Area High School #9 for the Visual and Performing Arts, which opened on September 9, is a building destined for infamy—and this probably suits its avowedly radical designer, Wolf D. Prix, just fine. The collection of large geometric shapes tilted and torqued like distorted chess pieces, reminiscent of a Russian Constructivist dream, is a powerful waking vision to drivers whistling past on the adjacent 101 freeway, and to denizens strolling Grand Avenue on a night out at Walt Disney Concert Hall or the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
Prix’s firm, Coop Himmelb(l)au, was brought in by the city’s self-appointed civic czar and reigning arts patron, Eli Broad, to transform an early, no-frills plan for a school into a signature campus for the arts. The school occupies a strategic site at the north end of Grand Avenue, LA’s cultural spine. Broad, who was instrumental in getting Disney Hall completed and has since goaded state, county, and city officials into backing the recession-wracked Grand Avenue commercial development, apparently could not abide a conventional building at the top of the boulevard he has spent more than a decade remaking.
Enter Coop Himmelb(l)au. Suddenly, the budget nearly doubled from $87 million to $172 million. The series of low-slung buildings was replaced by a 1,000-seat theater, a cone-shaped library, and a soaring metal tower encircled by a helix ramp that would be the envy of any skateboard crew. The cone, which lists to one side, is clad in bead-blasted stainless steel tiles, arranged in a single, continuous climbing spiral, like fish scales. The four classroom “academies,” simple orthogonal boxes, are punched with enormous round portholes that defeat any sense of scale. The cafeteria, a bunker carved into a hillside, is penetrated by rectangular light shafts that pierce the thick roof and seem to caper this way and that.
Prix said, “We designed an icon for an art school without referring to Gehry’s hall, or Isozaki’s museum, or Moneo’s cathedral. It is just another icon in the area, which you could say is seemingly senseless, but then what is art?” The tower, he said frankly, is a billboard, a “supportive gesture to the arts.” He added, “By giving volumes readable, identifiable shapes, I hope the students will take ownership of the buildings, as opposed to Paris, where students burned the schools and public spaces because they were anonymous.”
Prix carries on in the spirit of the European students’ and workers’ rebellion of 1968—the year he co-founded his practice, whose English translation is “sky blue” or “heaven construction.” He is unabashedly thumbing his nose at the establishment, and there is no better evidence of this than the 140-foot-tall tower that rises above the flyloft of the theater. Inspired by Vladimir Tatlin’s unrealized 400-meter-tall Monument to the 3rd International, Prix’s tower is intended to grab a piece of the city’s skyline and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the cathedral bell tower directly across the freeway. As originally conceived, Prix’s tower would have been taller than the cathedral, but then word came from Moneo’s office that this would not be tolerated, so the school’s tower was built three feet shorter than its nonsecular cousin. Prix calls the rivals “Beauty and the Beast.” Could there be a more direct challenge to the preeminence of religion at the core of a city than a tower consecrated to the speculative, provocative power of art?
Alas, the imagery is stronger than the reality. In Prix’s original design, the tower was supposed to be surmounted by an observation room, not unlike the one Herzog & de Meuron built for the de Young Museum in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Intended as a public space to be reached via the snaking ramp that winds around the tower, the viewing platform would have made the campus a seat of imagination to rival the Observatory and City Hall. School officials, however, objected on various grounds, and all that remains of Prix’s scheme is a latticework of steel so dense as to be impenetrable. And although from almost any vantage the tower and ramp look complete, the ramp itself never touches the ground nor reaches the window in the sky.
So much of the design’s energy is devoted to functionless forms that fundamentally, the school buildings are intended to be experienced from the outside. Once inside, things begin to take on a prosaic, almost barracks-like quality. You can’t help but feel that the out-of-orbit exterior forced the interior to succumb to the typical, highly structured, restrictive blankness that Prix himself decries in school architecture. The classrooms feel confined and airless despite the large windows, and the cafeteria, regardless of its light shafts, is cave-like.
But it is the theater lobby—itself a kind of marquee leaning out toward Grand Avenue in a genuine effort to embrace the public—that thoroughly undermines the effort to connect art to the wider community. Prix speaks eloquently about how “big volumes are liberating and generous,” and the lobby is meant as such. Yet in leaving the steel framing exposed and cladding the walls, ceilings, and staircase balusters in heavy-gauge metal, all sense of generosity is inverted. The metalwork, far from liberating, invokes the omnipotence of prison walls. Back in the 1970s, LAUSD hired the town’s jail architect to build schools. Somehow that spirit has come to inhabit this project, whose outward gestures clearly express a yearning to be free.
A version of this article appeared in AN 09.30.2009_CA.