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A New State Building With a State-of-the-Art Strategy

TIMES ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

Architecture, like the culture at large, is engulfed in a state of anxiety. Only a few months ago, it seemed that a new architectural renaissance had arrived. A range of new creative talents was titillating the public’s imagination; corporations and art institutions were pouring money into ambitious new building projects. Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, fear and economic insecurity have left many wondering if that momentum has finally fizzled.

So the unveiling last week of Morphosis’ competition-winning design for a new $171-million Caltrans District 7 headquarters building in downtown Los Angeles comes as a welcome surprise. Clearly the product of a higher design intelligence, Morphosis’ proposal has a conceptual clarity that is rarely seen in government buildings. It signals that, far from being over, the battle to revive the city’s built environment has spread beyond a few high-profile cultural landmarks.

Organized by Maria Contreras-Sweet, secretary of the state Business, Transportation and Housing Agency, which oversees Caltrans, the international competition is the first of its kind for a California state office building. The selection committee, which was co-chaired by Contreras-Sweet and Art Center College of Design President Richard Koshalek, included several members of the local design community--another first. And the talent level of the three finalists was unusually high. With the completion of such projects as the Diamond Ranch High School in Pomona, Morphosis has emerged as one of America’s creative powerhouses. Miralles & Tagliabue ranks among Spain’s most respected firms; Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas has long been regarded as one of the profession’s most radical and inventive thinkers.

Nonetheless, there was plenty of reason for apprehension. Despite grand ambitions, the state government has limited means. Its budget--just more than $200 per square foot--is absurdly tight even by conventional commercial standards. (By comparison, a few blocks away, the federal courthouse, which is scheduled for completion in 2007, will cost about $300 per square foot.)

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Morphosis won the competition with a simple yet cunning strategy. Instead of one design, the firm presented a straightforward plan with a series of potential upgrades. Each upgrade would raise the cost of the building, but it would also produce a much more compelling design. The idea was to issue state officials a direct challenge, to test their commitment to serious design. The state has accepted the challenge. Now it must live up to the expectations that entails.

The building will stand on a critical site between Los Angeles and Main streets just south of City Hall. The city has tentative plans to build a block-long public plaza along the site’s western edge, where the current Caltrans building now stands. (Framed by the new Caltrans, City Hall and the Los Angeles Times building, the plaza is conceived as the heart of a new civic core, similar to a scaled-down version of Mexico City’s El Zocalo. It is part of a broader master plan for the Civic Center that was approved by the city in 1997 but has yet to be formally adopted by the county.)

Morphosis’ chief designer Thom Mayne’s base scheme blends nicely into that context. To break down the building’s massive scale, the bulk of the offices is compressed into a 15-story structure that extends down the center of the block from 1st Street to 2nd Street. A lower, five-story parking garage wraps around two sides, with more offices stacked on top. A small plaza anchors the corner of 1st and Main.

That sensitivity to scale is coupled with a number of elegant formal gestures. The building’s main facades are lined with perforated metal screens that are folded horizontally like gigantic blinds. The parking ramps, which anchor the building’s southeast corner, evoke an enormous turbine engine. A trellis of bougainvillea covers the south facade, creating a surreal layering of natural and machine-like imagery.

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Inside, the building’s design has a degree of social complexity that sets it above the norm. Circulation up through the building, for example, is based on a system devised by the late Modernist architect Le Corbusier in his 1952 Unite d’Habitation housing in Marseilles, in which elevators stop on every third floor, allowing for uninterrupted views through the apartments. In Morphosis’ version, the interstitial floors are connected by large, open staircases. The stairs are conceived as compact social condensers, encouraging interaction between the various departments.

But only as one begins to examine the building’s main “enhancements” does the design truly jump to life. In the first, the massive exterior screens would become part of a more sophisticated environmental system, with deeper, more elaborate folds that would act as sun shields and long, horizontal windows that could be opened and closed from the inside.

Alteration 2 would transform a largely conventional lobby into a delirious play of architectural forms. Punching through the building’s core from the entry plaza, the three-story lobby would be expanded to more than double its height. A towering light well would carve up through the entire structure. Bridges, supported on skewed columns, would crisscross the space, connecting the parking structure to the various elevators. The result is more than a display of architectural virtuosity; it is a dynamic mix of public and private zones. As such, it is a compelling expression of Caltrans’ mission and its role in defining patterns of movement and urban flow.

Alteration 3 is the most ephemeral and in some ways the most compelling. Here, the building’s top nine floors would extend another 45 feet, jutting out over 1st Street. A two-story conference room, encased in glass, would hang from the bottom of the structure, its form hovering precariously above passing traffic. The glass box evokes a subway car or a gondola, a reference to the agency’s ethos of mobility.

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Of course, each of these enhancements comes at a price. The upgraded exterior skin would cost an additional $3.7 million. The lobby tower another $8 million. And the cantilevered conference room $3.6 million more. But the plan comes with a convenient list of trade-offs. According to the contractor’s calculations, the state could cut $5.5 million by eliminating 400 of the 1,142 parking spaces that exceed code requirements. Other savings could come from eliminating the day-care facilities and instead using those at the nearby Ronald Reagan State Building two blocks away. Another possibility would be scaling down many of the interior finishes throughout the building. Mayne’s staff also points out that the governor can increase the building’s construction budget by up to 10%, without going back to the Legislature.

Some might see this as the hubris of another megalomaniac architect. But the point Mayne is making is that good design requires a conscious investment of time, money and creative energy. That fact is born out by the losing proposals.

Koolhaas is capable of remarkable feats of originality, but his Caltrans proposal is less than inspired. Divided into three horizontal zones, the entire structure rests on an enormous, monolithic plinth. The slab-like form of the office building would be raised up on columns, with parking sandwiched between. At the building’s interior, a courtyard is carved out of one end, and a tower rises out of the other.

Koolhaas offers a few compelling ideas. By setting the parking on a plinth, for example, the entire building becomes a display cabinet for Caltrans’ fleet of trucks. And the tower and courtyard would serve as an elegant balance of solid and void. But this is far from Koolhaas’ best work. In fact, the design’s greatest strength may be its use of graphics--done in collaboration with artist John Baldessari--to give each of the building’s floors distinct identities.

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Miralles & Tagliabue’s proposal, by comparison, is even more conventional. Conceived as a series of interconnected office blocks--each a different height--the design’s forms have a certain sensual grace. But the monotony of the exterior--a cost-saving device--and the density of the design, smother the life out of the building.

Mayne’s proposal refuses to accept such limits. Instead, he questions how much the state really values design. Is it simply interested in hiring a name-brand architect, with the status such a hire can confer? Or is the desire to create a more inspiring environment for its workers? And most important: Is the state willing to invest what’s necessary to create a valuable architectural statement for Los Angeles?

The answers will be telling. Some of the design’s enhancements can be rationalized along functional lines. The operable building skin, for example, would clearly make the office a more pleasant place for its employees. The redesigned core, meanwhile, would give the building a symbolic presence it otherwise lacks.

But the suspended conference room cannot be explained away along such practical lines. Its value is found in a more ephemeral place--the realm where architecture attains its conceptual power.

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In his 1992 book “Convergencies,” Octavio Paz wrote of “a rift in the Modern sensibility: our inability to associate beauty and usefulness.” As an antidote, he offers the concept of craftsmanship, which “is a continuous movement between usefulness and pleasure.” It is such ideas that Mayne is exploring here. He is arguing for the elusive, poetic dimension that can raise architecture to the level of art.

Few sites are more critical. The project’s location means that its impact will reverberate throughout downtown Los Angeles. It is a vital link between a series of area communities that for now have, at best, tenuous connections--Grand Avenue’s cultural corridor, the Civic Center, Little Tokyo.

For now, Caltrans should be unequivocally praised for its struggle to engage a higher level of design. And then it should be pushed to do more. The city’s civic well-being demands it.


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