Solitude and Movement

Nicolai Ouroussoff is The Times' architecture critic

In a cultural climate where instant celebrity is the highest value, most budding architectural talents succumb to the slick and easy. It is an event, therefore, when a young architect creates a work of real maturity.

The Feldman/Horn Center for the Arts at Los Angeles' Harvard-Westlake High School is such a work. Designed by Michael Maltzan, 37, and officially opened May 26, the center--which includes an art gallery, classrooms and auditorium--weaves together the seemingly contradictory impulses for solitude and community in a composition of remarkable formal elegance. Its strong concrete forms evoke a clean Modernist aesthetic distorted by social forces, rather than one that attempts to forcefully shape them.

Maltzan cut his architectural teeth in the office of the much-celebrated Los Angeles architect Frank O. Gehry, where the younger architect worked as the project designer on the controversial original scheme for downtown's Walt Disney Concert Hall. To work for an architect of such dizzying originality, however, can be a poisonous trap. How does one eventually go on to develop an independent voice? One temptation might be to pump up the volume. Yet the power of Maltzan's Harvard- Westlake project comes from its restraint. There are no decorative frills here, nothing but architecture: The pure forms of the buildings, the clean compositional lines--all become tools to create a beautifully complex social space.

The new center stands at a bend along the campus' main roadway, on a hillside on Coldwater Canyon Avenue at Ventura Boulevard, overlooking the San Fernando Valley. The site is awkwardly isolated from the campus. An uninspired '70s-era library abuts the site's western edge, but the main campus is below, at the base of the hill. The only other notable building nearby--the school's chapel--stands across the road, cut off from the rest of the site.

Maltzan's design attempts to bind together these disparate events. The new classroom building frames the site's outer edge, wrapping around an interior plaza like a gentle, embracing arm. Two other forms punctuate the plaza at each end: The gallery building, a curved concrete structure which locks into the old library, and a monumental elevator tower, which frames the plaza's other end. The tower's gently bowed facade twists toward the chapel, creating a gateway to the top of the campus. Along the road, a lone tree and a reflecting pool form a partial barrier against passing pedestrians and cars.

The initial effect is a cool serenity. By emphasizing the buildings' lines rather than the surfaces of the forms, Maltzan slows the sense of flow. The long line of a roof breaks suddenly and then is picked up again before folding back on itself. A thinly elegant handrail turns at one end and then abruptly stops. A single column is pulled back from a cantilevered corner, exaggerating the building's horizontal thrust. The eye follows these gestures rhythmically, pulling you along through the space.

But that mood is intentionally disrupted by the various paths that converge here. A broad staircase now connects the lower campus to the plaza. From there, students can slip between the gallery and the main classroom building onto the plaza or descend into a passage that leads to the lower-level classrooms before climbing back up at the plaza's far end. Meanwhile, the main roadway becomes an organizing spine for future development further up the hill. As such, the plaza becomes a critical circulation point, the hinge around which the campus now turns.

Maltzan makes that tension--between solitude and movement--explicit by distorting the forms to reflect these natural paths of circulation through the site. Stairways twist at midpoint. Buildings are seemingly pulled apart to allow for new paths. The corner of a building juts out over an entryway, propped up on a single column as if cut open. The effect is as if the composition were torn open by the relentless flow of people through the campus.

Once inside, only the gallery interior reinforces this sense of conflict. There--the project's most successful interior--a sharp twist in the pattern of the ceiling beams echoes the geometry of the plaza. Large windows open up toward the road and stairways, always revealing where you were a moment ago or where to go next. But the classrooms--light-filled loft-like rooms that overlook both the plaza and the valley below--are calming and functional. Work here takes place around the edges, in quiet corners. The assumption is that the isolation necessary for creation demands simple spaces.

Many of the themes in Maltzan's architecture can be traced to the work of the Portuguese architect Alvaro Siza, now 65, or still further to Adolf Loos (1870-1933), the Austrian Modernist who was a devout enemy of ornament. Siza, for example, conceives of his buildings as long, cinematic narratives. His design for Porto's school of architecture also arranges a series of buildings along a spine-like plaza. That project--begun in 1986 and still under construction--splits along two different axes that travel the length of the central plaza before folding in on itself, the two sides joining together underneath. Only as you walk through the various buildings does the complex reveal itself.

Like Siza, Maltzan is a thoughtful critic of early Modernism's dogmatic trends. Both take the language of Modernism--the abstract forms, the lack of ornament, the pure geometry--and distort it. Forms break apart. Lines skip a beat. The intent is to reveal the social forces that are trying to break through, to make explicit the inherent conflict between the art of architecture and the force of human existence.

Many older, established talents have not been so patient. They have given in to flamboyant gestures, fussy detailing, meaningless structural gymnastics--terrified that their work can't otherwise engage a public bombarded by Nike ads and booming special effects. Maltzan's is not an architecture of shallow good intentions. It requires us to think more deeply about the conflicts and boundaries that shape our culture. And what better mix for a community of budding scholars? Solitude and contemplation. Community and conflict. All bound to a deep sense of modern history. Maltzan's arts center is a complex, sophisticated architectural work. It does not take short cuts. It is worth our patient engagement.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World