Schooled in iconoclasm

Times Staff Writer

IT'S not a bird. Could be a plane. The collective Angeleno imagination will have 2 1/2 years to conjure an appropriate image for the irregular-looking assemblage of gray- and sand-colored structures in concrete, plaster, glass and steel that will soon begin to rise downtown above the Hollywood Freeway. However the city eventually decides to define the strange shapes on its new public arts campus, given the estimated cost of $208 million, it had better be Superschool.

The pressure of such expectations could be enough to make some architects want to duck into a phone booth -- and stay there. Remember the early 1990s, when the Walt Disney Concert Hall project was halted for years amid soaring construction bids and doubts over whether Frank Gehry's structure could even stand up? Gehry sensed judging eyes wherever he went in his hometown and told friends he was thinking of packing up and leaving. And he wasn't even playing with the taxpayers' money, for the most part.

The new arts high school at the end of Grand Avenue, just east of where it passes over U.S. 101, is Wolf Prix's baby, more or less. It's seen as a springboard toward the revitalization of downtown, with Grand Avenue recast as L.A.'s real-life boulevard of dreams. It's a public school for arts-minded students from families who can't afford to bail out of the troubled Los Angeles Unified School District; therefore, Prix's campus could become a leading indicator of whether a nation with a large and growing chasm between the rich and everyone else is still capable of providing extraordinary public education that can inspire and nurture kids regardless of whether they have economic advantages.

If Prix, a founding partner in Coop Himmelb(l)au, a Viennese firm with long-standing L.A. ties, hears any nervous chatter inside his head over what's at stake, he's hiding it well.

He's a large, affable, fit-looking man who loves rock music, is reputed to have learned English by listening to Bob Dylan records and wears an ensemble of sunglasses, double-breasted suit and tieless shirt with the top two buttons undone. He's meeting the press at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, upstairs from the former hangar for testing jet engines where he has just delivered a presentation on architecture as "radical craft." In essence, Prix's talk (no French pronunciation here; his name rhymes with "fix") described a progression in which he and Himmelb(l)au co-founder Helmut Swiczinsky set out as young men to "remodel the architectural way of thinking" and, having won a reputation as radical experimentalists whose work existed mainly on paper, began to perfect their skills as salesmen for forms that they might actually get to build.

As they learned to persuade the commissioning classes, their buildings began sprouting in Europe during the late 1980s, and lately they have succeeded in persuading some of the continent's deepest pockets to take a walk on the architectural wild side. Other than a $30-million expansion of the Akron Art Museum scheduled to open next year in Ohio -- now, that one looks like a bird -- the L.A. arts high school will be Himmelb(l)au's first building in America. It will rise in a city where Prix taught for a decade at the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc) and where the firm established an office in 1988. Prix says he loves L.A. and owned a house here for five years until a professorial appointment at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna forced him in the mid-1990s to choose his hometown as a full-time base.

Coop Himmelb(l)au was formed in 1968. The name means "Blue Sky Cooperative" -- Prix and Swiczinsky, who tends to stay behind the scenes, independently seized upon the same term that Walt Disney's crew of Imagineers used for unfettered brainstorming sessions in which practical-minded naysaying was declared verboten. Up in the blue sky, ideas seemingly preposterous from a grounded point of view might prove workable, after all. More recently, as it has moved from unbuilt and therefore unproven theories to major commissions, the firm has wrapped the 'l' in its name in parentheses to suggest a German variant: Himmelbau -- or "Build the Sky."

Himmelb(l)au's first big hit, in 1987, was a glass-and-steel-encased lawyers' conference room atop a traditional 19th century office building in Vienna. It looks as if a giant beetle has scaled the side of the structure and is about to topple onto the roof. Two years ago, Himmelb(l)au spent more than $1 million on a short film, set to a soundtrack by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, that Prix used to dramatize a radical architectural idea for BMW's board of directors. It was a masterstroke of salesmanship that Prix delights in talking about, and it landed Himmelb(l)au the job of designing BMW Welt, a huge, glassed-in auto showroom and new-car delivery compound under construction in Munich, Germany, that, from a certain angle, appears to be enfolded in the embrace of an asymmetrical, monster-size mushroom. In Coop's biggest coup yet, in January it won a competition to design a towering headquarters building in Frankfurt for the European Central Bank. On winning that commission, Prix vowed that Himmelb(l)au would fashion a "symbol for Europe."

Compared with that mandate, maybe reshaping downtown L.A. and helping to save the education system really is a cinch. Still, simply as an aesthetic construct, the new high school faces a big challenge: It must hold its ground in comparison to Gehry's concert hall, two long blocks to the west, while also complementing Jose Rafael Moneo's Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. Himmelb(l)au chose to echo the cathedral's bell tower in a 140-foot-high tower of perforated steel, festooned with a big, swirl-shaped sculptural logo that will be the high school's elaborately lighted signature. Prix sees the cathedral and high school tower combo as a quasi-symmetrical gateway to downtown, straddling the freeway in architectural splendor that, one hopes, won't dazzle motorists to the point of dangerous distraction.


A distinctly political climate

BMW and the European Central Bank may be easier and certainly better-heeled constituents than the LAUSD, which -- having famously wasted many millions in the late 1990s by neglecting to notice that it was building another downtown high school, the Belmont Learning Center, on a site plagued by hazardous underground gases -- is under pressure to carry out a massive $19.2-billion, bond-funded, districtwide school-building plan efficiently. As the arts high school begins to rise, so may the political drama of an attempted high-level takeover of Himmelb(l)au's client. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has branded the LAUSD a bloated, insufficiently accountable bureaucracy that deserves to lose its independence and come under mayoral control.

There also has been debate over the role of philanthropic macher Eli Broad in influencing the school board in 2002 to drop its initial plan for a traditional general high school designed by AC Martin Partners, at 450 N. Grand Ave., in favor of an arts-specialty school with a world-class design. Thus, Himmelb(l)au's work becomes a complement to the Broad-envisioned Grand Avenue Project, a bid for downtown revitalization with art and architecture in the vanguard and commerce marching close behind.

Before the school board's 5-1 vote last month approving a nearly $172-million construction bid, there was doubt whether the project would live, given the cost escalation from $87 million in 2003 to $208 million now (the total includes design fees, construction-supervision costs and other expenses beyond the rebar-and-rivets building contract). Ballooning prices for raw materials were largely responsible for the cost increase, but Gary Gidcumb of HMC Architects, the Ontario firm overseeing the building as executive architect, said that some of the increase is a result of the design's curves-and-angles complexity.

Disney Hall was considered to have stretched the envelope of what the construction industry is capable of building. Gidcumb says that although the Himmelb(l)au high school "is not a simple undertaking," its creation will fall "within the range of standard construction techniques."

Prix, who leans forward eagerly while discussing the high school's design, speaks with unmistakable body language when the subject turns to school district politics and cost imperatives. He shoves his chair back several feet and leans back in it as far as he can.

"Karolin is handling the politics," he says, gesturing toward Karolin Schmidbaur, the architect with the Jean Seberg hairdo who heads up Himmelb(l)au's L.A. office and is the firm's point person on the high school project. As they both note, the school board has awarded the contract to Glendale-based PCL Construction Services and the builder has guaranteed that it will complete the campus for no more than the contractual price -- setting the project on its course toward a planned 2008 opening.

"It's a go now," Schmidbaur says.

"It's a go," Prix affirms.

But it's not easy for him to let go of one feature that's a no-go: One might call it the skybox. Himmelb(l)au's original design called for a room at the top of the tower that would function as an event space or a reception hall, a premium, glassed-in room-with-a-view overlooking downtown. It was deemed too expensive, costing on the order of $8 million, says Richard Alonzo, superintendent of LAUSD's Local District 4, which includes downtown.

During the interview, Prix avidly re-argues a case he lost long ago. Renting out the room for meetings and functions, he says, would earn its keep while giving the school another landmark, another tool to secure its place on everyone's mental map of L.A.. Alonzo notes that the tower room also could have been used for staff meetings that the district, for lack of a central meeting place, conducts in hotels for hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. But this plane has flown: Schmidbaur says that reviving the penthouse idea now would mean going back to state officials for another building permit, and the review process would delay construction, which would drive up costs even more.


Defining features

THE school -- unnamed apart from its bureaucratic designation as Central Los Angeles Area New High School No. 9 -- has its share of distinctive touches.

There's the cylindrical, tilting library that from the outside looks like a fez without the tassel -- and inside, like a hive with a skylight 60 feet above the floor. Viewers also will be drawn to huge round windows, like portholes on an ocean liner. Prix wants the city to be able to peer inside and see learning in motion as L.A.'s next generation of artists works at becoming sculptors, painters, dancers, actors, musicians and performing arts technicians.

The tower rises above the fly space of a 950-seat theater envisioned as a complement to the Music Center's nearby venues, a place where leading artists will perform not just for kids but for general audiences. Prix sees its sloped, glassed-in lobby as a deliberately familiar touch meant to announce itself instantly as a lobby rather than provoke the pause-to-look-again that is usually Himmelb(l)au's aim. "I hate when I don't know where to go into a building," the architect says. "It marks an entrance in a very traditional manner, I have to say."

Alonzo, who rose through district ranks from beginnings as an art teacher, says it has been a pleasure working with Prix and, more frequently, Schmidbaur, on practical and educational needs that, if unmet, would turn the most gorgeous and architecturally innovative school building into a hollow waste.

Although many details of the arts program are a work in progress, the 1,700 or more kids who pass an audition process to attend will spend long days in school -- a full schedule of regular academic subjects, followed by studio work in their artistic genres. So amenities such as drinking fountains in the music rooms, to eliminate time lost in practice while traipsing down hallways, are important.

Alonzo says he got Himmelb(l)au to raise the porthole windows higher off the ground than first proposed, and to put bumps on their outer ledges, so as not to lead young skateboarding daredevils into temptation. Ditto for the roof of the theater lobby: "The original design was at such an angle that it would have been attractive for kids to jump up and slide down, and skateboard down," the superintendent says. "It's much steeper now, to prevent them from even thinking they could roll down the facade of the building."

The school's playing fields will have portable football goalposts, to be removed when not in use, rather than the usual fixed-in-the-ground posts and crossbars. "It looked out of place in an environment with beautiful buildings," Alonzo says.

"They really respond to the needs of a project," says Mitchell Kahan, director of the Akron Art Museum, which eyed more than 100 contestants before picking Himmelb(l)au's concept of nestling the original, century-old museum building under a new wing that literally has wings. "They're not the kinds of architects that have a signature look so every building is going to look like the brother of every other one."

Eric Owen Moss, the L.A. architect and SCI-Arc director who is a longtime friend of Prix, concedes that "high school by Himmelb(l)au" is, on the face of it, a seeming extravagance. "Most of the buildings that I've seen by L.A. Unified are relatively straightforward, predictable modern architecture," he says. "Architecture as a kind of service industry. This is outside the convention, which makes it a little dicey. But you don't need 10 of them. You only need one. It's downtown and says something about the spirit of the city and the optimism of the city. It tells us what kind of city this is."

Prix, like the rock star he once dreamed of being, says he's doing it for the kids. The campus will offer sights to see, buildings worth really looking at and experiencing every day. As a result, he thinks, it can help students become more attuned to reacting to their world as artists.

"This is a better solution than just to put them in boxes. Open it up, make it an atmosphere which is creative. People coming out of this art school should be better photographers because they have a better eye, no? I'm not kidding. If you learn to look, you are a better painter. You can see. If you're always in dark rooms, suppressed by low ceilings ..."

The reporter tells Prix that his building looks like a plane -- that the shorter, cylindrical library is the cockpit, and the (empty) box-topped tower is the tail.

He laughs, and if he is not pleased, he's good at pretending to seem so. The man from Himmelb(l)au is not so highbrow as to insist that some existential-ineffable-inviolable it-is-what-it-is-ness must be deemed to inhere in his firm's work.

"This is what is so remarkable about this kind of building," Prix says. "People give nicknames. It means people are seeing it longer than just a flash of a second. It is very important that it is a kind of common memory, that the building, like Frank Gehry's building, is in the mental map of the people. This is very important for the future of the city, to have remarkable, memorable buildings."


Contact Mike Boehm at calendar

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