Awash in imagery

Times Staff Writer

Eighteenth century French social reformers called it "architecture parlant." In Los Angeles, it reappeared in the roadside architecture of the '20s and '30s. It is a simple idea: a building whose form serves as a symbol of its meaning.

Among the most memorable examples is Claude Nicholas Ledoux's vision for the Saline de Chaux in Arc-et-Senans, France, which included a proposal for a brothel in the shape of a phallus. A more recent, local version is the Tail o' the Pup, the fast-food stand designed to look like a hot dog.

The new library at the Rose and Alex Pilibos Armenian School in Hollywood lies between these two extremes. Designed by Los Angeles architects Robert Mangurian and Mary-Ann Ray of StudioWorks Architects, the project has a sweet, offbeat quality that is genuinely disarming. And like their earlier work, it is imbued with a seemingly willful naivete.

Mangurian and Ray cut their creative teeth as teachers at the Southern California Institute for Architecture, where they have influenced a generation of Los Angeles designers. As architects, they have built little. Their most important work is a small Montessori school in Milwaukee.

Here, the design's bulging form, propped up on thick red columns, evokes a ship in dry dock, like a child's toy blown up to adult scale. The symbolism is obvious. The boat is reference to the ark of knowledge; its landlocked form alludes to the immigrants' cultural roots.

But the project is also a sincere effort to explore more serious themes: the struggle to preserve cultural memory, for example, and the pull of the American dream. If it suffers from sentimentality, its ability to express such tensions nonetheless makes it a meaningful work.

Located on Alexandria Avenue just north of Sunset Boulevard, Pilibos was founded as a private school in the late 1960s by members of a growing community of Armenian immigrants. A small, one-story classroom building -- its low, streamlined form loosely inspired by the works of Richard Neutra -- was built in the 1970s. A second, four-story concrete block structure was added about a decade later.

The library is part of a larger, $1.7-million project whose aim is to give order to this dreary urban campus, set along a middle-class residential street.

A new gym, also designed by Mangurian and Ray and completed two months ago, was set just north of the original classroom building, framing one side of a large, open courtyard. Made of inexpensive, prefabricated steel parts, the structure has a sleek industrial aesthetic. But it has been subtly tweaked to fit its context.

Large pivoting steel doors -- clad in translucent panels -- are cut out of one side of the structure, linking the gym directly with the outdoor courtyard. Students can step down onto concrete bleachers that overlook the gym floor, which is set one story below ground level. A translucent window is cut out of one corner of the structure. The window allows a soft light to filter in during the day; at night, it emits a haunting glow along the street, a sign of activity taking place inside.

Unifying element

The gym's simple form serves to heighten the library's symbolic impact. The library's exposed belly forms a sort of outdoor canopy, a place for students to gather. The building's "prow" is wedged between the two classroom buildings, visually locking it into place. Two galvanized metal stairs lead up into the library at either end. From there, several small bridges, like gangplanks, link it to the adjoining classroom buildings.

It is a blatantly romantic image. Floating above the surrounding rooftops, the boat-like form is meant as an emblem of cultural pride, giving the school a public presence it has never had. With its storehouse of books, many of them on Armenian history, it also acts as a sanctuary, where the community's heritage is preserved.

These are worthwhile sentiments. In an age when architectural form has become increasingly flamboyant, the architects are clearly trying to reach back to something more atavistic, a form that might trigger both the memory and the imagination. A project that comes to mind is the late Italian architect Aldo Rossi's Teatro del Mundo. Completed in 1979, the theater was built on a small barge. When it was first seen floating across Venice, Italy, its small wooden form, capped by a pointed roof and a gold orb, was a mesmerizing apparition. It seemed to tap directly into the unconscious.

But the library never achieves that level of enchantment. Its form does not reflect its essence as a library; it is the illustration of an idea about libraries. It feels more static and flat.

Indeed, what is most interesting about the project is its fixed relationship to context. The few small, slot-like windows, designed in a variety of sizes and with no apparent pattern, give the building an air of secrecy. The red columns seem overly rigid, as if braced against an unwanted intruder.

This conflicting symbolism becomes clearer as you climb the stairs to the library. The entire interior of the library is sheathed in rough, unfinished plywood. The floor, which is hollow underneath, creaks slightly under the weight of your step. Two long rows of bookshelves carve through the space, creating a series of small, intimate reading areas. Everything, in short, is organized with the compact efficiency of a ship's cabin.

It is here that the meaning of the window pattern suddenly becomes clear. A long, horizontal window frames a view of the Hollywood sign; another window, this one smaller, faces the Griffith Observatory and the Hollywood Hills; a third frames the pointed roof of a Greek Orthodox Church across the street.

The result is a somewhat contrived picture of the American Dream. The view of the church hints at the relationship between mind and spirit. The Hollywood sign is an image of nostalgic glamour; the observatory, one supposes, is a monument to science.

But what is more telling are the parts of the city that have been carefully screened out. There is no sweeping view of the city -- only pre-selected fragments. The chaotic energy of the courtyard is left behind, as is the darker side of Hollywood -- its gritty streets and rows of anonymous bungalows. It is an architecture of control, one that straddles the line between nurturing and claustrophobic.

It is that sense of hesitation -- the reluctance to push ideas to their full limit -- that stops the design just short of first-rate work. The architects have created a humane, comforting environment. But the design is too safe -- more playful than challenging. What one yearns for is a greater sense of the unknown.

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