The Max Factor Building—built in 1974 by A.C. Martin & Associates as an extension to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles—has never really been well-loved. The forlorn hospital complex is made up of a trio of institutional towers placed atop a pair of parking structures that are arranged around what should be a courtyard but is actually a five-lane boulevard that delves underneath the main tower. In a 1992 review of complex for The Los Angeles Times, critic Aaron Betsky described the black glass and limestone-clad structures as an example of “purposeful blandness” and labeled the hospital an “anti-urban bunker of bad form.”
Flash forward to 2017: The towers remain unchanged in their appearance but stand renewed along the podium terraces that flank either side of Gracie Allen Drive, where AHBE Landscape Architects and Ball-Nogues Studio (BNS) recently completed work on new healing gardens and a pavilion, respectively.
According to Calvin Abe, principal at AHBE Landscape Architects, the terraces had been a forgotten public space at the hospital for many years, a fact Abe hoped his interventions could shift by reorienting the way patients and visitors arrived at Cedars, as they made their way from the parking structure to the hospital proper.
Benjamin Ball, principal at BNS, explained that the neglected terrace “had not been given much consideration as public place for the hospital” when originally designed, a fact worsened by its sensitive location sandwiched between air intake grilles and operating rooms. The arrangement meant that any construction activity would have to be undertaken rather silently and without generating much dust. To boot, the site’s existing structural arrangement meant that improvements would need to be vigorously studied in order to guarantee that new loads were being resolved without disrupting the podium’s original structural grid.
As a result, the project team came to consider the site as more of a performative skin than a static structure. The surface-level project tries to heal the “epidermis of the complex,” as Abe explains, referring to the outermost public region of the hospital, by “grafting a piece of living, breathing landscape above the existing parking decks.”
To achieve this goal, the firm re-designed the two terrace areas as a series of multi-functional outdoor garden rooms—what they call “portable gardens” due to the fact that the structural requirements forbade permanent installation of these new planters. Even so, Abe was able to soften the edges of the terraces with wide swaths of tall grasses, wooden boardwalks and benches, and ancillary, succulent-rich beds framed in three eights inch thick stainless steel sheets.
Along the north arm of the terrace, sinuous benches made from kiln-dried Brazilian hardwood pop in and out of their surroundings, sometimes nestled into supple berms, at other times sitting proudly under the sun above the boardwalk. The planted areas are mirrored in a more minimal and integrated fashion across the way, where the edges of the wide, wavy beds seamlessly transition from stainless steel border to wooden bench and back again.
The north arm of the terrace is organized as a tripartite band of terraces, with a large wooden boardwalk sandwiched between the grassy precipice and succulent bed. At the center of the run, the path bulges out to make room for BNS’s pavilion, a looming husk crafted by humans and CNC machines out of woven networks of stainless steel tubes.
Ball explained that his team wanted to contrast the prototypical architecture of the medical towers with a sculptural pavilion that could stand out on the improved terrace. To counter the geometric, stone-clad exposures of the towers, BNS designed a multi-lobed shade structure that would be inspired by self-supported concrete shell structures but be constructed out of CNC-shaped steel tubing. “We tried to develop a language that could only be achieved using this type of machine-shaped caged shell,” Ball explained.
Ball described the pavilion as having “no hierarchy in terms of structure,” a quality that would instead be lended by the pavilion’s billowing forms, which themselves were finessed by the quotidien requirements of the structure’s lateral loads. The billowing form wraps over the walkway on one side and frames a smooth, J-shaped bench underneath a parallel and transversal lobe. When seen from the boardwalk, the structures appear squat and wide, a quality that disappears entirely when the pavilion is viewed from the opposite edge, where the shells rise proud of the boardwalk and slip past one another.
BNS, working with local fabricator Hensel Phelps, worked to meld into reality a form that not only faithfully represented the computer-generated mass—Rhino and Maya were used, among other programs—but that also reflected what the CNC machines could ultimately produce. Ball explained that the design and fabrication teams had to work iteratively to establish limitations for the structure, adding that the back-and-forth process ultimately “outlined the aesthetics of the project—It created the rule book, not the other way around.” The structure was eventually fabricated off site, assembled in its entirety prior to installation, and finally craned into place.
Ultimately, the structure came within a two centimeter tolerance of the digital model, due in equal measure to the digital tools and the highly skilled craftwork of the fabricators. Ball explained finally: “To get a project like this to look polished and highly crafted, you need hand skills.”