Wide-Eyed Wonder, and Perspective

Nicolai Ouroussoff is The Times' architecture critic

The notion that childhood is a time of innocence seems less and less tenable in a culture saturated by images of inexplicable violence. But there are those who still cling to the belief that we are shaped by our early perceptions of the world, that curiosity and engagement are antidotes to withdrawal and despondency.

The new design for Pasadena's Kidspace children's museum by Los Angeles-based architect Michael Maltzan is built on that conviction. The museum is relocating from its current home in a former junior high school gym to the site of the onetime Fanny Morrison Horticultural Center in the city's Brookside Park. The horticultural center's three existing barn-like buildings will be renovated into 16,000 square feet of exhibition space, while a new structure will house a performance hall, a gallery for traveling exhibitions, administrative offices and a cafe. Together, they will make up a complex of stunning elegance that will contribute much to the city's civic landscape and speak of an unwavering faith in the future.

But what makes Maltzan's design more than just an elegant formal composition is its lack of easy sentimentality. This will be a tough complex, one that asks you to think. Rather than create a cohesive, uniform structure, Maltzan breaks the buildings apart, treating his design as a collection of fractured forms. In doing so, he creates a multitude of unexpected passageways and carefully controlled views to the landscape. The design suggests a desire to break through received conventions, so that the mind can create its own patterns. Creativity too, it tells us, is a violent act, but one rooted in empathy.

The site's three existing buildings form a U that opens toward a low hill rising softly at the park's eastern edge. Maltzan placed the new administration offices, cafe, performance hall and traveling exhibition space along the base of the hill, framing a large interior split-level courtyard at the center of the site. Visitors enter the site obliquely, along a gently rising walkway before reaching a low, elevated plinth that binds the old and new structures together. From here, the path will turn sharply, and the entire complex will slowly open up to the visitor's gaze.

Above the main entry, the long line of a concrete canopy draws the eye into the complex, its far end bending upward and visually marking the complex's main intersection. In a very real sense, this is the hinge on which the entire complex turns. To the left, the plinth leads down into the first of the three exhibition hall buildings. To the right, visitors can walk along a smaller exterior courtyard to the cafe and performance hall, or they can continue forward along the plinth right through the complex and out into a sprawling garden to the north.

Of the various structures, the exhibition galleries will be the most conventional. Skylights run the length of the clapboard buildings, with light spilling down between elegant steel trusses. Inside, each building will have a separate theme--the body, the machine and the natural world. A new cylindrical viewing tower anchors one corner of the galleries, where two of the buildings meet, both visually connecting the older structures back to the new and allowing visitors to survey the surrounding landscape.

But it is the articulation of the new buildings' forms that is the project's most powerful feature. Maltzan's design reveals the inevitable tensions that exist between intimate and communal spaces, between inside and out. In a deeper sense, however, his design evokes a more fundamental conflict between body and mind. By breaking apart the building's abstract forms to allow for freedom of movement, let in light and create a more human scale, Maltzan suggests that the world of abstract reason must always bend to our psychological and physical needs.

Along the elevated plinth, for instance, the lower portions of the buildings' facades are partially cut away, creating the wonderful illusion that the structures themselves have been lifted up to allow you to circulate more freely underneath. The performance hall's roof folds down to create a sheltered entry, its corner resting on a short, skewed column. To one side, the administrative building twists violently to create an entry for the cafe. To the other, glass doors lead into the back of the hall. Each path, in effect, leads to a series of new surprises.

Maltzan uses a similar strategy in the design of the interiors. The hall is essentially a rectangular box, its stage end slightly bowed to give the room a feel of intimacy. Enormous panels will mechanically slide back to open up the corner of the room to views of the sky. In back, a long slot window provides more carefully controlled views from the foyer to the hillside that presses up against the building. It is a dramatic gesture, and one can imagine the sounds of a performance floating out into the courtyard under a cool night breeze.

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This is the subtlest kind of architecture. Maltzan is capable of creating beautiful forms, and many of these structures will be beautiful to look at. But just as important, they make up a powerful series of architectural events: the single column, the line of a cornice, the abrupt turn of a wall--all form part of a subtle architectural narrative. As you move from one space to another, you will become increasingly aware of the physical world around you. And that is the point: Architecture functions here as a sensitizing tool. It seeks to make visible the invisible connections that bind us.

"Ornament is crime," the late Modernist master Adolf Loos wrote nearly a century ago. And like Loos, Maltzan dislikes unnecessary decoration, the wasted gesture. By stripping his forms down to their bare essentials, Maltzan evokes a clarity of meaning that harks back to the best of Modernist design. But he then pushes that language a step further: By breaking apart these same forms he suggests a liberation from the rigid dogmas the early Modernists espoused. This is an architecture that evokes freedom, one that bends to the desires of those who will inhabit it.

In the context of contemporary architecture, which has become increasingly obsessed with how essentially static forms can be made to reflect the delirious speed of communications and technology, the notion that buildings are about the slow pace of the body might seem a conservative one. Maltzan insists on taking the long view of history. He is concerned with evolutionary change, not radical upheaval. His design offers a worthwhile lesson for our children, one that will demand a good measure of patience and thought.

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