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L.A. Unified's faulty vision for schools on Ambassador site

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Along one edge of the old Ambassador Hotel site, where the Los Angeles Unified School District has been building a controversial collection of schools, there is a new park dedicated to the life and work of Robert F. Kennedy. Created by artists May Sun and Richard Wyatt and running parallel to Wilshire Boulevard, the park includes a series of quotations from Kennedy, who was shot and killed inside the hotel on a June night in 1968, and a few others.


FOR THE RECORD:
Ambassador Hotel: An article in Sunday's Arts & Books section about the architecture of the schools built on the site of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles said that Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was shot and killed in the hotel. Kennedy was shot there June 5, 1968, but he died the next day at Good Samaritan Hospital. —


Among the lines by Kennedy is one that seems tailor-made to address the controversy that has followed the LAUSD's attempts, adamantly opposed by the Los Angeles Conservancy and other preservationists, to knock down Myron Hunt's 1921 hotel complex and replace it with a new campus costing more than $578 million, a streamlined but conservative piece of work by Pasadena firm Gonzalez Goodale Architects. "The world," it reads, "demands the qualities of youth: not a time of life but a state of mind, a temper of will, a quality of the imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over the love of ease."

For most of its civic life, Los Angeles has been propelled — even defined — by those qualities. They made the city a center for forward-looking, innovative architecture; they also meant that L.A. rarely paused to worry before knocking down aging buildings to make room for new ones.

The way the Ambassador dispute unfolded made one thing clear: That city is gone. Los Angeles is no longer a young city quick to raze its architectural treasures. The growing prominence of institutions like the Conservancy meant that we were at least going to have a broad conversation about the value of the hotel and its architecture.

But that conversation was neither especially sophisticated nor terribly productive. And it led to a solution that was tone-deaf architecturally: After failing to reach any common ground with the Conservancy, the district directed Gonzalez Goodale, in designing a new high school building, to match as closely as possible the size and shape of the old hotel. Other elements of the historic campus, which included contributions from Paul R. Williams and Gordon Kaufmann in addition to Hunt, have been re-created in ersatz fashion, including the old Cocoanut Grove nightclub, which has been reborn as a kitschy auditorium.

L.A. and its cultural guardians, in other words, had the decisiveness neither to save the original hotel complex as a school nor to make a clean break with the past by building an ensemble of entirely new buildings. Instead the LAUSD settled on an architectural path — confused, expensive and a little macabre all at the same time — that suggests that the city has now entered a kind of limbo when it comes to cultural maturity. It is neither young enough to energetically (if blithely) embrace the future nor self-aware enough to fully protect its architectural heritage, particularly when that protection requires significant investment from cash-strapped public agencies.

What other city would knock down a major cultural landmark — a hotel where half a dozen early Academy Award ceremonies were held, to say nothing of the site's architectural and political significance — but then insist that the school replacing it squeeze into the same shape, so that anybody who remembers what used to be there is confronted not with tangible history but a ghostly shell of the original?

That logic is a bit like cutting out a piece of paper the exact size and shape of a dollar bill and trying, with a straight face, to buy a newspaper or a pack of gum with it. The lesson it teaches is that what matters is not historical substance but its flimsy outline.

For all the constraints the firm had to work with, certain elements of the Gonzalez Goodale design, collectively known as the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools, show initiative and strength. Among them is the decision to flatten much of the site's rolling topography and knit the schools into the street grid of the surrounding blocks.

Given that the campus is really a collection of neighborhood schools that most students will reach on foot, that change makes a good deal of sense. It is also an implicit recognition of how this part of Los Angeles has changed since the hotel's heyday. No longer a glamorous and essentially suburban outpost removed from the life of the city, the school site now sits in the middle of a diverse, crowded mid-Wilshire residential district whose families had been sending their children on long bus rides to other LAUSD schools.

Still, shifting priorities and inconsistent leadership within the LAUSD have undermined the architecture, just as they did at Coop Himmelblau's arts high school in downtown on Grand Avenue. Originally, Gonzalez Goodale — joined on the project by preservation architects from Tetra Design — was asked to design separate but adjacent campuses for an elementary school, a middle school and a high school. That allowed for a sense of progression over time as students moved from the smaller and more open scale of the lower grades toward the denser, more imposing forms of the high school. The Gonzalez Goodale scheme was in many ways centered around this progression, which also subtly symbolizes the maturation of the larger city over time.

Then the district decided, even as the campus was under construction, to use parts of it to test a new pilot-schools program, the LAUSD's in-house answer to the growing charter-school movement. As a result, the concept of three separate yet connected campuses has been noticeably watered down. Seven separate schools, with a combined enrollment of 4,200, will fill the finished campus.

As a mediating presence between past and future, the Gonzalez Goodale design manages well enough, and a collection of public art woven into the campus effectively engages the hotel's complex history without having to mimic its architectural forms. The new construction, for the most part, is confidently contemporary and free of ornament, if also decidedly risk-averse. The dominant formal gesture is a series of oversized entryways wrapped in zinc.

Open-air staircases behind colorful perforated metal panels will take students to the upper-floor classrooms, many of which have fantastic views. The classrooms themselves are attractive if straightforward. On the western side of the site, the height of the new buildings feels particularly dramatic. Between the school and Wilshire Boulevard, meanwhile, a large campus green flanked by playing fields makes the sheer scale of the 24-acre site clear.

It's where the architects had to re-create the older design, and where those simulations meet a few remnants of the original hotel, that cracks in the logic of the campus and its attitude toward history really begin to show. The historic tile lining a preserved porte-cochere, for example, has real beauty and presence. The rebuilt spaces — the auditorium as well as the old ballroom, which has become a large library — feel hollow by comparison. In preserving architecture, as in writing history, primary sources make all the difference.

Of course, the attempt to re-create historic architecture is a familiar enough strategy in Southern California to have its own long history. (Hunt's original Ambassador, don't forget, was a lightly abstracted version of Mediterranean Revival.) And there is no architectural task trickier than dealing with cultural and civic memory.

But the full impression given by the new Ambassador campus is not just an attempt to make new look old but an odd mixture of progress and guilt. The final result wraps both ham-handed reverence for history and naked disdain for it inside a single architectural package.

That guilt, it should be noted, came with a big price tag: at nearly $600 million, the new campus is the most expensive that LAUSD has built. In the end, the district's decision to commission elaborate replicas of the hotel's best-known spaces added to the cost of the project without managing to save very much actual architecture. That's a pretty good definition of the worst of both worlds.

christopher.hawthorne@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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