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In 2012, Zoltan Pali teamed with Renzo Piano to design the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Museum in Los Angeles. The project, built inside and behind the Streamline Moderne May Company building, is located on the corner of Wilshire and Fairfax Avenues. This spring, the Academy dropped Pali from the project. AN West editor Sam Lubell sat down with the architect to discuss what happened, and to see what’s next for him and his firm, Culver City–based SPF:architects.
Sam Lubell: Originally three teams were shortlisted to design the Academy Museum: Morphosis, wHY, and you.
Zoltan Pali: I understood why I was on the list. We had worked with LACMA’s then-president Melody Kanschat in 2007–2008. We had done a design for the interior of the May Company building, turning it into gallery spaces and offices. We had permits, and we were going to go to construction. But the financial debacle pulled the rug out from under that. And in between all that, every now and then Melody would call me to look at something, and ultimately we did the below the canopy restoration at the May Company.
We had gotten to have a good working relationship together. So we submitted the proposal and then we did an interview. And we did well. I got a phone call saying that I did well, but at the same time, would I be willing to team up with Renzo Piano.
That scenario wasn’t in the Academy’s original plan.
Correct. And so, you know, having named my son after him, what was I going to do? Of course I said yes.
The thought at the time was a collaboration where Renzo would complete the master plan that he had started for LACMA, and then we would do what we were originally going to do inside the building. Ultimately we decided to sign a memorandum of understanding that basically said that we were co-architects, 50/50. It seemed like a perfect arrangement, actually. We started work, and it was balanced.
But we recently came to the conclusion, after this much time and after where things were, that, you know, we needed to step back, step aside, and focus on other things. I can’t say it wasn’t disappointing, because obviously it was.
So obviously there’s a reason why, and it sounds like there were differences. Artistic differences? Or was it a clashing of cultures? Or was it a little bit of all of the above?
I wouldn’t say a clashing of cultures. I mean, maybe it would be a clashing of architectural cultures. Renzo was flying all over the world. He doesn’t have a whole lot of time, so he relies on his people. And it seemed like we were getting along fairly famously with them. But I think that, you know, if I was to suggest something, it was not always met with… I think what I expected out of the process was some sort of interesting discourse about what this place is about, and what film is about. How we express that. And that is not where it went. I think you’ve seen the images. And you’ve seen where it went. I don’t think it went to that sort of level of thinking. I think it went to more of an emotive expression.
But, having said that, we were still going to be a good partner, and stay on board. But it just seemed like, from their side, that the tension got to be too much. Grumbling started, and it became uncomfortable. It was a very difficult place, because we had a memorandum of understanding that made us like one office, conceptually. And so they couldn’t really just go, hey, terminate one guy. So we had to “come to an arrangement.” We stepped back, and it was resolved in a businesslike fashion. And I think in the end it’s probably better for the project.
I’m used to looking at things that were never built, and it’s always disappointing. It’s a big part of the profession.
It’s a big part of the profession. You don’t spend two and a half years doing something and expect to just simply walk away no matter what it is. I can tell you, though, that I wasn’t pleased with the design. I wasn’t happy with it. I’m known to wear my emotions on my sleeve, everybody knows that about me. That’s not something I can hide.
Can you go into specifics?
I found it unusual given that I really appreciate Renzo’s work. It’s completely—it’s very tectonic, usually, right? Maybe it will change now. He’s gotten enough criticism about it. Maybe he’ll rethink it.
So the sensibility didn’t match the program?
Right. In my opinion. I could be completely misguided in that, but I was working on the ground enough with the folks in the Academy where people were saying, “What’s up? Can we fix this? Can we fix that?” We tried, but it met with resistance. And so you got the sense that it was becoming a difficult situation.
Were there specific elements you differed on? Was it the sphere?
I’m not a fan of it. I’m not a fan of the sphere. I think that there was a moment when it made sense, but then after more and more time it made less sense. It’s an odd shape for a theater. Difficult at best. You have a programmatic requirement and an element that was not asked for. If I could put it in the best way, I think that that element was making the rest of the project suffer. I think this still wants to be a museum of film, with a theater. As opposed to now, I think, it’s a theater with a museum attached to it.
You mentioned that you wear your heart on your sleeve. It sounds like that’s a good and a bad. Is that something that you think can get you in trouble?
It’s interesting. I have analyzed that, and even made others analyze it for me, but I am who I am and I’m not going to change, certainly at this juncture. Will I be more strategic about it? Possibly. Will I be a little bit more, try to be, you know, less reactive? Possibly. That’s an evolutionary thing.
Obviously when I was younger I was even more reactive than I am now. You mellow with age. And you get a little bit smarter, but on the other hand you become a little more confident. And if you have a little bit of success, sometimes you have to draw the line, whereas maybe when you were younger you’d be more malleable.
So I don’t think I’m going to change. It’s part of why people like me. I think those who do like me, it’s because they know that they get, the real me.
The thing that’s frustrating from an outsider’s perspective is that I like to see firms that I think are emerging, that are on the cusp of becoming superstars, for lack of a better word, succeed. And it seems like this was a good opportunity.
Yeah, and you know, I can tell you that from our perspective we saw it the same way. I learned a lot. I got the chance to see how that firm operates, and it has changed how I see things and how we deliver things and how we think about things.
It was interesting that my clients didn’t actually tell me this, but they were all probably thinking, in the end, “Why are you doing this? Why are you worried? You’ll get that project down the line.” What would have happened if I said no when they asked me to partner up? I don’t know what would have happened, that’s a good question. And why was I asked? I can’t tell you what went on in their discussions or why the Academy decided to do it this way. It was in a frenzy, things were happening pretty quickly. I almost didn’t even question it, in a way. There must have been a reason, right? Because clearly they could’ve chosen Thom Mayne. I don’t know what that reason was.
Are you still interested in really getting to the next realm, the next scale of architecture?
Next realm, next scale. Definitely. We’ve been sort of, for lack of a better word, stuck in this. Stuck isn’t the right word, because it’s beautiful stuff we’re doing. I’m happy with the things we’re doing. But we’re trying to go up to the next scale of project and in the end this project and the new Annenberg Center in Beverly Hills are hopefully going to help us go to that next scale.
What is the takeaway from all this?
We may end up teaming up with others, but I’ll be more careful about it. Because inevitably you will have to team up. Some projects are so large that you’re going to have to. Maybe it’s a matter of how you set it up in the beginning, making sure that those things are clear, the roles are even clearer, and so on and so forth. And try to abide by those things.
Architecture, unlike art, is an endeavor that impacts entire communities and requires the approval and consent of the many. But from looking at LACMA’s anointing of Peter Zumthor and Frank Gehry to design its museum replacement and (potentially) an adjacent tower, it would appear that this reality is still being ignored.
First let me be clear that I respect these decisions. Zumthor and Gehry don’t need to prove their credentials to anyone, and the likelihood of two Pritzker Prize winners designing on the same block is an exciting one.
LACMA director Michael Govan is in charge of an institution that receives about forty percent of its funding from the County of Los Angeles, and thus needs to answer to those funders. Yet he chose Zumthor and floated Gehry without even a semblance of public input or awareness. No competition. No public discussion or review. Yes he made the public aware of the Zumthor scheme with an exhibition, a public session with the architect, and in articles in the press, but only after the architect was chosen and the plans were well along. He also announced Gehry’s potential selection without a hint that others could be up for the job or that there might be another public process if that plan—which the museum would undertake with LA’s transit agency, Metro—goes forward.
Outside of the issue of its public funding, a work of such tremendous impact on the community should be both more transparent and inviting with regard to its selection process. In his most recent iteration Zumthor wants his oozing design to curve its way over Wilshire Boulevard, blocking views down this fabled corridor and questionably removing the building from the pedestrian flow around it. Like it or not it’s a bold move. But it needs to be vetted with the public that will be impacted at the stage when the initial design is still in formation. At the point of unveiling it’s too late.
I’m not arguing that the public needs to make the decision over the architect or the design. In my opinion those decisions should be made by experts in the field and by the museum administrators who will use it. (When the public starts to get too involved in the minutia of a project they can stifle creative plans—see the Whitney’s original expansion proposal or the many scuttled plans in the heart of San Francisco.) But they need to share that responsibility with the public, who should oversee what’s happening. To ignore this is not just irresponsible but arrogant.
Richard Koshalek, who led the competition for Disney Hall, the Tate Modern, and for other major buildings around the world, speaks highly of the lessons learned from including public input in various selection processes.
“We learned a hell of a lot from the public about what they wanted,” said Koshalek, of one of these many undertakings. He added: “When it’s a public funded institution the public should have the right to be aware of the process and aware of what you’re trying to accomplish.”
No other recent building of this cultural import in Los Angeles was developed without public input or at the very least a competition. In addition to Disney’s very public competition, Caltrans hosted a public competition for its downtown building by Morphosis as did MOCA for its structure by Arata Isozaki. Even Eli Broad held a competition for his new museum in Downtown LA, although he never shared the schemes from the runners up, which was way off the mark.
Beyond being the right thing to do, an inclusive strategy can also be the smartest path to getting a project approved. Without it a museum risks alienating the public before it gets a chance to make proper adjustments. This is a strategy that has backfired in other areas. While President Obama’s health care initiative has provided millions with very necessary care, just think how much easier it would have been to pass if he had made his case more clearly to the public early on? Closer to home, SCI-Arc is still facing some bluster for naming Hernan Diaz Alonso as its new director without involving the student body in a more direct way before the decision was made by the school’s selection committee. While I do support Diaz Alonso as a gifted teacher, and acknowledge that most schools don’t follow these rules, I think for a school like SCI-Arc, founded as an “institution without walls,” the selection process should have been more open from the beginning. Finally, LA’s planning department should make its web site much more robust, allowing the public to access in a much more detailed way all the projects and plans that are being put forward.
In a day and age when the public can be included so easily via technology, and when people express their likes and dislikes on social media every second, it is important to incorporate this kind of openness in the built world; particularly in the public realm. We need to embrace that reality.
Earlier this year, Los Angeles educator and architect Peter Zellner, founding principal of ZELLNERPLUS, was named principal and studio design lead for AECOM’s Los Angeles architecture practice. To many the move was surprising, considering Zellner’s longstanding relationship with SCI-Arc and his reputation for edgy design. But for Zellner it represents a chance to work at a larger scale and to take advantage of new resources, among other things. AN West editor Sam Lubell sat down with Zellner to discuss his new position and the profound changes in the corporate architecture practice in general.
Sam Lubell: You seem to be an unexpected choice at AECOM.
Peter Zellner: It’s reflective of a desire to bring in a strong voice for design in the Los Angeles area. But I think it’s also mirrored by other recent hires such as Allison Williams in San Francisco (director of design for the firm’s U.S. West region) and Ross Wimer (senior vice president for AECOM in the Americas). I’m part of a larger sweep. You’d also find it in other regions like Europe and Asia.
Historically there’s been a need to divorce the design piece from the production piece; a division between boutique firms and larger, service-based firms. For instance, you often have boutique designers producing high quality design and that work being supported by an executive architect. The goal would be to get away from that approach. Our goal is to not just deliver excellent building and engineering services but to also attach that to architecture and design in an integrated and meaningful way.
I believe in parallel there is an ambition now in the development community to align comprehensive construction and management services with great design. There’s a real interest in getting architecture up front. Not just as something to decorate the box, but leading the project by being integrated with other drivers, like sustainability, high performance and high quality building engineering, ecology, and landscape. One of AECOM’s strengths is the diversity of services we offer in those areas.
You’ve mentioned that you were drawn by AECOM’s many resources.
I think it’s kind of mind-blowing. In the work that I’ve been engaged in so far I’ve experienced a very different approach from the ways that most architects deliver projects. Typically you bring in consultants in the later stages of developing a design, or you have a sketch that might be schematic and you have consultants responding to your ideas in a vague way. At AECOM you can have in-depth conversations very early, whether it’s around cost modeling or building engineering or development financing or construction. It’s a very different way of working and it’s something that absolutely attracted me to the firm. It’s the next model of how things are going to be delivered through total integration.
For projects of a certain scale it can be incredibly valuable. There are efficiencies that come out of being able to share tools and data. Efficiency and quality are part of the same equation. If it’s integrated it touches everything and you’re getting optimization around everything that you’re working on, whether it’s a building or an interior or a landscape or infrastructure.
How has it changed your approach?
I think it changes how an architect can think about a project. I’m able to understand my work within a spectrum of disciplines that touch the environment and as a result I can be more intelligent about a project’s design impact. I have more information earlier and different points of view and different skill sets to access so I can continue to ask better questions.
It’s a way of refining the process of inquiry. You’re not guessing, so it gets you closer and faster to a different and better solution. For instance, I was just with our San Diego group and I found out that we have an urban archaeology group, a botany group, and an ornithology group. In a recent instance some of our team members working on the LAX light ribbon wanted to know whether birds would actually roost in a portion of the project. We were able to get an accurate answer from our experts. I don’t know that there’s any company that has this range of expertise.
Are you worried about moving to a corporate environment?
I’ve worked in large organizations and I’ve taught in large universities. The transition from a boutique to a larger firm isn’t a surprise. There are benefits to both sides of the equation, and you can hybridize the cultures. That would be one of my ambitions. I like the idea of bringing the best qualities of a small design practice to a large firm while getting rid of the worst qualities of both: like a lack of resources or applicable knowledge on the small side or reduced nimbleness on the big side.
Do you want to improve the level of design?
Yes. One part of that is driven by the type of work you do as well as finding the right opportunities in order to reinforce and build up a meaningful design culture. The standard for any project should be always produce something of intelligence and quality. From talking with many senior members at AECOM I know my hire is about enhancing this ambition.
What strengths do you bring?
I’ve been very fortunate that the few things I’ve managed to get built have received a fair amount of attention and have been well publicized. I bring a certain sensibility and profile and reputation as a designer and as an academic. But on the other hand, because I’ve spent the last few years jumping between academic, professional, corporate, and boutique cultures I think the other aspect of my hire is that I have flexibility and interest around linking up different cultures.
I also have a wide set of interests that scale from cities down to furniture and I’ve had opportunities to be a connector of communities. I’m interested in very broad urban things and I’m very interested in specific design problems. At AECOM I’m being exposed to a lot of things I didn’t know much about, like land use economics or how equity works in a very large project. I think I bring a general enthusiasm for any topic around architecture and a willingness to engage individuals across a broad spectrum in terms of looking at what a building can be. It’s not just aesthetics and it’s not just about a building being a finance vehicle. Maybe that’s what makes me a little special, because I’m a pretty broad thinker and I am not opposed to trying to understand a problem from multiple angles.
Will the knee jerk reaction against corporate architecture change?
Maybe the definition needs to change. Once upon a time Mies van der Rohe was a corporate architect. We tend to forget that. He did a lot of work for corporate America. We need to look at what we think avant garde architecture is and what corporate architecture is. We’re now in a very strange moment in our culture where we have agreed to these really overvalued definitions that say this type of architect does art and this type of architect does commerce and we can’t mix the two.
Why is there so much bad corporate work?
How we look at the problem of being cost effective is wrong. Something gets designed and when it runs contrary to construction economics the design gets value engineered. Getting around issues like cost and sustainability and structural performance or local politics early enough should allow architecture to rise to the occasion, not to become a thing that is sadly overlooked and is a poor byproduct of the usual processes.
What about ego? It would seem that it has to be subsumed in a corporate firm.
One of the mythologies of the avant garde is that the great artist does everything alone and with unique tools and skills. Today everyone uses the same tools and everyone works in specialized teams. From that perspective there’s no difference between the corporation and the avant garde. They run in parallel. Maybe only aesthetics vary. There’s a lot that the avant garde can learn from the other side of the equation, for instance how to get things done effectively and vice versa. There’s a false dichotomy in our culture between the people who come up with ideas and the people who deliver things. In a hybridized condition one could imagine a sort of corporate avant garde.
Now you have a generation of designers who can come up with great shapes but have no idea how to deliver them. They just get to hang things in galleries. There’s an unfortunate unwillingness on some parts of the academic avant garde to engage the world. I’m interested in being engaged in the world. I’m not interested in sitting in the academy complaining about why I can’t get work.
What’s been the reaction at SCI-Arc?
Many have seen it as a weird move. Some have seen it as gutsy. But a lot my friends there are looking at the world and asking what will it take to be more involved? I don’t see my generation’s mission to turn everything over. We’re in a different time and I don’t think things work like that anymore. We’re at the end of a time that was about a very reactionary repositioning of architecture in opposition to certain established cultural, economic, and political forms of production. The fact that our group at AECOM was just involved in a multi-stage competition against teams like Morphosis shows that to some degree we’re all in the same place. We’re all part of a larger system. The question remains how to be effective within it.
Cornell Tech's first academic building establishes an inspiring atmosphere for graduate-level research that will foster interdisciplinary collaboration with shared work areas and flexible learning spaces. The dynamic facade features bronze-colored perforated metal panels with strategic openings to the glass curtain wall beneath to control natural lighting and capture views of Manhattan and Queens. A monumental stair tower extrudes from the main structure above the lobby space to unmistakably mark the entrance along the central pedestrian walkway. The expansive undulating canopy does double duty in shading the roof surface to reduce thermal load and supporting an array of photovoltaic panels. At the ground level, an outdoor cafe offers views south to the central plaza and lawn, which will ultimately form the heart of the campus.Four Directions from Hunters Point According to the New York Design Commission:
Whether tucked between book shelves, pushing up through the roof deck, or peeking out of the Q in the library's sign, Julianne Swartz's portal lenses serve to engage, orient, and disorient the viewer. Each lens presents a different optical distortion of the vista beyond-capturing a wide angle of the sky, inverting the Manhattan skyline, or multiplying focal points of the library's garden. Taken together, the portals mirror the fundamental purpose of a library, where visitors seek out information, find themselves transported to new realities, and come away with a different perspective.Sunset Park Playground Reconstruction According to the New York Design Commission:
This sensitive playground reconstruction maximizes play value while respecting the aesthetic established in the 1930s, when Robert Moses included the original playground as part of the Works Progress Administration reconstruction of Sunset Park. Within an enlarged footprint, undulating pathways define the perimeter, separate play spaces by age group, and unite all users at a central spray shower with in-ground jets. By incorporating grade changes, these paths double as play features-challenging children to climb, balance, and explore. The planting palette adds multi-stem trees, shrubs, and groundcovers to complement the mature shade trees and incorporate seasonal interest.Peace Clock According to the New York Design Commission:
Located across First Avenue from the United Nations headquarters, Lina Viste Grønli's sculpture celebrates the legacy of Trygve Lie, the first Secretary-General of the United Nations. The Peace Clock is a 17-foot-diameter brass kinetic sculpture that functions abstractly as a clock. Twice a day, the hands of the clock form the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament Symbol-more colloquially known as the Peace Sign. Inspired by the history of the UN's formation and Lie's dedication to peace and fundamental human freedom, Grønli's clock stands as a reminder that time is both fleeting and infinite, always offering the opportunity to achieve world peace.Joseph A. Verdino Jr. Grandstand According to the New York Design Commission:
Since its inception 60 years ago, the South Shore Little League has been a vibrant community institution, enriching the lives of thousands of children. The new grandstand, named in memory of a young player, is formed by a series of glue-laminated bents clad in a perforated metal screen with white painted supergraphics and a standing seam metal roof. With covered seating for 275 spectators, an elevated press box, a conference room, and protected dugouts, this simple yet elegant structure is a home run!Conference House Park Pavilion According to the New York Design Commission:
Perched at the water's edge, not far from the 17th-century stone Conference House, the pavilion presents a simple yet contemporary complement to the historic structure. Set atop piles to raise it out of the floodplain, the structure forms a light and airy overlook and event space. The pavilion's arched canopy layers translucent fiberglass over naturally moisture-resistant, glue-laminated cedar rafters to maximize natural light while shielding visitors from sun or inclement weather. A series of stone walls set into the upland lawn offers an attractive seating option but also works to control runoff along the slope.New York Botanical Garden's East Gate Entrance, Edible Academy, and Family Garden According to the New York Design Commission:
The redesign of the east entrance literally bridges the gap from the neighboring community to the Botanical Garden's horticultural collections and programming. Visitors follow a winding path through a verdant slope and cross a domestic hardwood pedestrian bridge over the valley to find the state-of-the-art Edible Academy and Family Garden. Employing simple shed structures, the design showcases sustainable features, including a greenroof system, solar panels, and geothermal heating and cooling. With classrooms featuring glass hangar doors for easy access to the garden plots and a decked overlook with views of the Bronx River, the Edible Academy and Family Garden promises to be an engaging and bucolic learning space.Alley Pond Environmental Center According to the New York Design Commission:
Set back from the busy thoroughfare of Northern Boulevard, the environmental center is nestled at the edge of Alley Pond Park. The redesigned center nearly doubles the size of the current facility, enhancing the staff's ability to serve the 50,000 schoolchildren who visit annually. While a glazed brick facade presents a buffer to the road, the classrooms have large windows providing views into the park, and access to an exterior deck. The two facade treatments are unified by a sloped standing-seam metal roof, which folds down to drain water into an adjacent rain garden. By incorporating good environmental building practices, the Center's new home is itself a teaching tool, helping the Center achieve its mission to preserve the city's natural landscape.SPECIAL RECOGNITION FOR COMPLETED PROJECTS FDR'S Four Freedoms Park According to the New York Design Commission:
Four Freedoms Park commemorates President Franklin D. Roosevelt and celebrates the freedoms articulated in his famous 1941 State of the Union speech: Freedom of Speech and Expression, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear. Designed by Louis I. Kahn, the project was only realized nearly 40 years after his death. The design capitalizes on the island's thin, triangular tip with a tapered lawn extending from the top of a grand entry stair, flanked with allées of littleleaf linden trees. The symmetrical plan focuses the visitor's gaze toward the threshold of an openair room partially enclosed with monumental slabs of granite, which contain an excerpt from Roosevelt's speech. A master statesman and a master architect have, between them, given us a remarkable public space in which to contemplate these four essential freedoms.LeFrak Center at Lakeside According to the New York Design Commission:
Constructed of rough-hewn granite and cloaked in earthen roofs, the LeFrak Center maintains a respectful low profile within the surrounding landmarked park. The one-story structures are linked with a bridge at roof level and frame an open-air elliptical skating rink and a regulation sized hockey rink. The hockey rink's monumental canopy features a midnight blue ceiling carved with silver shapes inspired by figure skating footwork. In the warmer months, the rinks are thawed out for roller skating, special events, and a water play feature for children. Combined with the restoration of the lakeside landscape, the construction of the LeFrak Center is the most ambitious capital project in Prospect Park since the park was completed in 1867.
Frank Lloyd Wright famously quipped, “Tip the world over on its side and everything loose will land in Los Angeles.” Thus the title of Sylvia Lavin’s exhibit on view at the Graham Foundation in Chicago now through July 26. But the art on display in this exhibit, most of which was previously shown at LA’s MAK Center for Art and Architecture and the school of architecture at Yale University, betrays no looseness of concept or execution—it’s a tight-knit assemblage of work that could only have sprung up from the fertile intersection of art and architecture in LA during the 1960s and 1970s.
The 120 drawings, photographs, sculptures, models, and other media on view at 4 West Burton Place include work from Morphosis, Frank Gehry, Richard Serra, Ed Ruscha, Denise Scott Brown, Archigram, Bernard Tschumi, Cesar Pelli and others. Lavin, the show’s curator, is a widely published design critic, historian, and a head of the Ph.D. in Architecture program and Professor of Architectural History and Theory at UCLA. But she wanted Everything Loose Will Land to reach beyond Southern California.
“I was aggressively on the hunt for a broader geographical context,” said Lavin. “The last thing I wanted was to describe an LA school of architecture.”
Take Grupo 9999, an Italian group of paper architects whose Los Angeles Megastructure (1966) imagines a self-replicating city assembled from modular units. The people among LA’s cultural ecology it seems were equally fascinated by natural systems and machine-loving futurism. That’s true whether you look to Florence-based Grupo 9999 or just down the road to the LA Fine Arts Squad. Victor Henderson and Terry Schoonhoven’s “Isle of California” (1971) uses the staid visual language of lithography to render fantastical visions of a city on the verge of environmental disaster. The utopian promise of America’s cultural frontier also gets a wry treatment from Denise Scott Brown, whose mirage-like city in the Mojave desert lures settlers from the highway with flowery facades and promises of cheap land bought on credit.
That’s just the room Lavin has labeled “ENVIRONMENTS”. The other rooms are “PROCEDURES,” “USERS,” and “LUMENS”—four primary means by which she said architects and artists found themselves working together. In a stroke of artistic serendipity, the show’s rooms are unified by Judy Ledgerwood’s Chromatic Patterns, a site-specific installation of vibrant floral wallpaper throughout the historic building.
As artists and architects alike pushed the image of LA beyond the clean modernism of Richard Neutra, they increasingly found themselves in unfamiliar territory. Carl Andre’s Cuts (1967) was a blueprint for moving work from New York to LA, looking within the context of this exhibit more like an architectural drawing than a sculpture. Meanwhile, the architects of Morphosis acted like artists when they drew up farcical plans for their modular 2-4-6-8 House, a model of which could be folded up from a box of “assembly parts” or mailed around the world.
Designers of all backgrounds experimented similarly with ideas of space, time, and materiality, too, as when Peter Alexander trapped evaporating water in a cloudy resin box—an ethereal event captured in time. A piece of Cesar Pelli’s “blue whale” curtain wall for the Pacific Design Center sits nearby, attesting to a “finish fetish” Lavin said pervades the time period.
Of course the roiling creativity of artists and designers during the 1960s and 70s was more than just a collection of formal and conceptual ruminations. It was often acutely political. Judy Chicago’s dry ice mall installations speak of the same “light and space” movement of Peter Alexander’s resin box, while plans for a Womanhouse (1971) housing female artists are as pointed as they are architectural.
Lavin’s collection is engrossing, and more than a little enjoyable. The mixed media, which includes a video installation and several freestanding sculptures, helps bring the era in question out of the past. A celebration of the artists’ often whimsical humor helps—Alison Knowles’ 1967 House of Dust was a computer-generated poem that the artist’s collaborator Norman Kaplan arranged to have dropped from a helicopter over area campuses and museums.
Well aware that the artist/architect binary is a forced division, Lavin doesn’t make too much of such crossovers for crossover’s sake. Instead such work emerges as a natural condition of creative exploration from the time. But tackling urbanism, environmentalism and individuality in a postmodern city, the work in Everything Loose Will Land doesn’t feel like a geographic or historical oddity. It’s alive, still inspiring experimentation today in points far beyond LA.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
This is the second anthology of essays about the lives and careers of distinguished architects who have practiced in the last 150 years by architectural historian and critic Martin Filler for The New York Review of Books (NYRB). The earlier collection, published by NYRB in 2007, established the form and purpose that Volume II follows. This book deals with a different set of makers, but included once again are Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, and Renzo Piano.
Filler deftly places his subjects in the aesthetic, theoretical, historic, and political life of their time, as well as in his. He pays attention to significant architectural events—the celebrated opening of a new and noteworthy building, a collection of new books with an architectural and urban theme, a well-staged exhibition of the work of emerging talents, the death of a master at the age of 105. Volume II opens with Charles McKim, William Mead, and Stanford White who practiced during the half century between the Civil War and World War I. Among the others are Oscar Niemeyer, Edward Durrell Stone, Eero Saarinen, R. Buckminster Fuller, and Rem Koolhaas. The last essays are devoted to architects relatively new to the scene.
The New York–based husband-and-wife team Tod Williams and Billie Tsien designed the Barnes Foundation Gallery in Philadelphia (2004–2012). This commission came to them by means of an international design competition that solicited portfolios from about 30 firms. There were six finalists: Tadao Ando; Thom Mayne of Morphosis; Rafael Moneo; Diller, Scofidio + Renfro; Kengo Kuma; and the winners—Williams and Tsien. Filler notes that this pair belong to the second generation of high profile pioneering couples that were preceded by Alison and Peter Simpson in Great Britain and Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown in the U.S. His description of the Barnes favors its every aspect while revealing his own mastery of the art of critical praise. He writes, “It must now be included among the tiny handful of intimately scaled museums in which great art and equally great architecture and landscape coalesce into that rare experience wherein these three complimentary mediums enhance the best qualities of one another to maximum benefit. Such institutions include, for example, Jorgen Bo and Vilhelm Wohlert’s Louisiana Museum of Modern Art of 1958–1966 outside Copenhagen, Louis Khan’s Kimbell Art Museum of 1966–1972 in Fort Worth, and Renzo Piano’s Nasher Sculpture Center of 1999–2003 in Dallas.”
Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa are the principals of the Tokyo-based firm SANAA. Sejima was a protégé of Toyo Ito, winner of the 2013 Pritzker Prize, and worked with him before she founded the partnership with Nishizawa who in addition has a separate practice of his own. They are best known in the United States for two exceptional museum commissions: the Glass Pavilion (2002–2006) at the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio and the New Museum (2003–2007) on New York City’s Bowery. Given that they are pioneers in the new generation of Minimalists, Filler takes care to distinguish them from those gone before. The Minimalist master Mies, early and late, whenever he could, built with costly materials, meticulously joined, finished, and detailed. He did so, Filler believes, to compensate for the restrictions of the style itself.
The two small museums consist for the most part of simple, rectangular, flat-roofed forms. The walls have no tilts; surfaces do not undulate, and are without multi-faceted geometric patterns. Most interiors are painted white. The one-story Glass Pavilion is partially enclosed by stretches of mullion-free clear glass. The street facade of the seven-story New Museum is veneered with an outer skin of perforated light grey metal. Filler notes “the remarkable breadth of expression [SANAA] is able to wrest from the restricted Minimalist palette.”
In 1979 Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio established their office in New York City. In 2004 they made Charles Renfro a full partner. In the early years of their association the two were best known as theoreticians and educators in the recondite world of their Cooper Union colleague John Hejduk. They designed exhibitions, miscellaneous installations, and objects, but built little. In 1999 they were awarded a McArthur Foundation grant. This was followed by one of the first significant structures they actually made happen, the Blur Building (2000–2002) on Lake Neuchatel for the Swiss national exhibition Expo.02. What Filler calls an “aqueous caprice,” it consisted of a wraparound cloud of mist more than 300 feet wide, nearly 200 feet deep, and 66 feet high. Water, pumped up from the lake, became a fine spray from 31,500 high-precision, high-pressure water jets attached to a lightweight metal framework placed upon an ovoid platform at some distance from land. The so-called pavilion was big enough to hold as many as four hundred visitors at one time. They crossed from the shore by way of two separate long gangways and were given waterproof ponchos upon arrival. This immense free-form blob of seemingly weightless water made possible by computer technology but never before or since used in such a manner, was the hit of the fair. Filler writes that the making of such a place “has fascinated visionaries for centuries, especially writers in Islamic Spain, who during the Middle Ages fantasized about fountains with liquid domes that one could enter. That evanescent dream was finally brought to dazzling life in this triumph of the architectural imagination.”
New York City’s High Line renovation began in 2004 after a successful five-year public fight to save the defunct early 20th-century railroad cargo viaduct by giving it a viable new use. Diller, Scofidio + Renfro, and landscape architects Field Operations with the Dutch plant specialist Piet Oudolf, designed the linear park that sits atop it. Filler writes, “Seldom in modern city planning has a single work of urban design brought together and synthesized so many current concerns, including historic preservation, adaptive reuse of obsolete infrastructure, green urbanism, and private sector funding and stewardship of public amenities.”
The firm’s architectural and urban transformation of New York’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts (2003–2012) is extensively described and interpreted by Filler. Surprisingly he ends the Diller, Scofidio + Renfro essay by noting, “There was well-founded dismay among their admirers when in 2013 they accepted the Museum of Modern Art’s controversial commission to replace Tod Williams and Billie Tsien’s former American Folk Art Museum building (1987–2001) contrary to a long-standing ethical tradition among high-style architects not to abet the destruction of living colleagues’ work.” It makes a good story, yet the possible existence or effectiveness of such high-minded rectitude anywhere in today’s world of architecture will seem unlikely to readers of a book so revelatory as Filler’s about the hard-nosed realities of successful practice.
When Israeli-American Michael Arad won the competition to design the National September 11 Memorial (2003–2011) at Ground Zero, he was an obscure 34-year-old working as an architect for neighborhood police stations in the design department of the New York City Housing Authority. The Memorial was completed when he was 42. Maya Lin was a leading and appropriate member of the jury that selected his preliminary design from a field of 5,201 entries. She herself was 21 and a student of architecture at Yale when she won the competition to design the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (1981–1982). It was completed when she was 23.
Filler concludes: “The nature of architectural practice has changed enormously in recent decades, yet it remains as much as it always has been in its wild unpredictability. The fates that befall even the most inspired master builders can be so capricious and cruel that one cannot predict whether Arad’s youthful masterwork will be seen in due course as his lift-off point or apogee. But just as the test of time has already proved the validity of Maya Lin’s insights into the wellsprings of mourning in the modern age, Michael Arad’s profound variations and expansions on her themes have in turn ratified him as one of the signal place-makers of our time.”