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06.26.2014
Crit> Emerson Los Angeles
Sam Lubell sees metallic worms spilling out of Morphosis' new LA campus.
Curving academic buildings are framed by orthogonal residential ones.
Iwan Baan

Construction cranes are filling Hollywood these days as if it were the second coming of Dubai. But most of the new architecture here is a depressing sign of the times—significantly less remarkable than that of that hyper-hyped, hyper-speed, desert metropolis.

One obvious exception is Morphosis’ new Los Angeles headquarters for Boston-based Emerson College, which opened on the south side of Sunset Boulevard last month. Unlike the bland structures around it, it emerges from the block as if a square building had been chopped in half with a meat cleaver and metallic worms were spilling out. So yes, it is remarkable.

Emerson has long had a west coast presence, hosting classes and internships related to the media world. The program used to be based in scattered, banal facilities around Burbank.

   
Iwan Baan
 

The new ten-story facility is a campus and not just a building, and that is what is best about it. It combines residential, administrative, academic, open space, and film and TV production uses into one square block; creating a rich variety of program, human interaction, and visual stimulation. Lots of outdoor spaces connect the building to LA’s great weather, and Morphosis’ trademark roughness gives it a very urban feel, which makes sense in Hollywood.

While it looks complex from the street, the campus arrangement is straightforward. Two rectilinear towers on the east and west sides of the block contain mostly residences. Inside, the void between these blocks is a series of curving structures containing classrooms and administrative spaces, interspersed with large public plazas and stairways. In all, the complex contains about 30,000 square feet of classrooms and offices, 70,000 square feet of student and faculty housing, and 6,400 square feet of ground floor restaurant space.

 
Iwan Baan
 

Walking through the campus can feel a little maze-like at first (for instance finding the entry can take some time), but you get the hang of it. The flanking buildings are clad to the east and west with bands of extruded aluminum sunshades that automatically move according to light and temperature conditions. The dorms inside—suites ranging from three to six beds—are a bit spartan, but that is fine for these artsy students, who are not looking to stay at the Ritz. And as you move higher the views from these spaces are remarkable—at least until something bigger goes up nearby.

But the central buildings and their public spaces are Emerson’s active heart, surrounded and framed by the structure’s hard outer shell. It all resembles a giant stage showcasing Morphosis’ architecture and planning.

 
Iwan Baan
 

Floors two and five contain open-air plazas and floors three through five are connected by a large concrete stair, for congregating and for film and video shoots. The sixth floor plaza, with its two large Sycamore trees, clustered tables, and sweeping views, is by far the most usable. The second floor space — while blessed with futuristic views of the building's complex steel work and its space aged bridges — in some spots feels claustrophobic, with heavy walls rising around it like a prison. It lends fewer chances to congregate, and those that do exist feel less intuitive. The grand stair also feels too hard and bare, but the uniqueness of its design—how many schools would allow an open stair used as a stage set to be built over their buildings?—make up for that.

Metallic plates cladding interior structures seem to move like waves.
Iwan Baan
 

The undulating structures in this core are clad with either smooth, standing seam aluminum panels or textured, silvery, folded aluminum plates. The smooth panels create a shimmering topography while the folded ones create a mesmerizing sense of movement, light play, and dimensionality. It is also photogenic. I dare you to look up at them and not take at least one picture.

The metallic structures vigorously reach and twist their way to the street, and their connection to Sunset Boulevard provides a constant reminder for the kids of where they will likely end up after they graduate. Luckily, glass technology has progressed to the point where the noise of Sunset Boulevard does not seep into these rooms. And from the street they create a Sci-Fi composition (evocative of futuristic Hollywood blockbusters?) that captures the eye and has already drawn more attention than Emerson even anticipated (tours are overbooked).

 
Roland Halbe
 

A steel bridge above the courtyards—intended for emergency helicopter landings—can hold lighting and rigging, making the open space underneath an effective filming or outdoor screening location. In fact, the whole building, which is wired throughout with rigging and with “media hydrants” for A/V and electrical feeds, looks and feels like a set or a sound stage, a smart and novel use that Emerson demanded from the beginning. It infuses the space with LA’s creative energy, making it the “machine for living” (or in this case filming) that architects have long salivated over.

While the heavy surfaces and high walls at times feel ominous, the interplay of structures, the movement throughout the building, and the campus’ utility as a theatrical backdrop makes for a one-of-a-kind experience for students and visitors, complementing constant connections to Hollywood and to the outdoors.

Despite their buildings’ stunning shapes, and their effective sense for drama, Morphosis has proven time and again that it is not just a form maker. While the line between cool and cold is occasionally crossed, the gap between this building and anything built within twenty years of it in Hollywood is not even close.

Sam Lubell