Building a measure of momentum


Was 2007 a mediocre year for new buildings? A nascent consensus in certain parts of the architecture world says so, and it’s not hard to understand why: With the exception of Steven Holl’s extension to the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, Mo., which opened to raves in the spring, no building by a prominent architect to debut this year escaped critical complaint or public ambivalence altogether. Renzo Piano’s New York Times headquarters (too heavy and gray on the skyline) and Brad Cloepfil’s Seattle Art Museum extension (too corporate) had their detractors. So did SANAA’s teetering New Museum in Manhattan, where the fluorescent lighting and other less-than-polished features had certain art critics complaining. (In New York magazine, Jerry Saltz used the word “icky” to describe its ground-floor gallery.)

Each of those projects, though, showed signs of real architectural intelligence. Truth be told, if they fell short it was mostly in failing to meet towering expectations. Cloepfil was asked to rescue Seattle from its retrograde architectural reputation while also pleasing a museum board determined to cram galleries and bank offices into the same downtown tower. Piano was handed the task of symbolizing newspaper’s transition from the solidity of the printing-press era to the ether of the digital age -- oh, and making a statement that the skyscraper in Manhattan, six years after 9/11, was fully back. SANAA’s charge, on a pretty modest budget, was to redefine the swiftly changing Lower East Side of Manhattan and rebrand the New Museum at the same time.

Ten years after the Guggenheim Bilbao and the Getty Center opened, it seems we expect more of our high-design buildings than ever. Or perhaps the cynicism that greeted this year’s crop just means we’re getting tired of the iconic-building model.


If we are, it’s about time, isn’t it?

In Southern California, the year was short on big-name, big-ticket projects, a lull before Piano’s revamped L.A. County Museum of Art and Coop Himmelblau’s downtown performing arts high school open in 2008. But there were some beams of light in an otherwise dim annum, among them:

School architecture. The Los Angeles Unified School District’s gargantuan construction project continues to produce more lowlights than highlights as it lumbers along. But charter and private schools are in the middle of a building boom of their own. And many are making a strong case that architecture matters, both as a way to compete with other schools and as a way to produce distinctive spaces for learning on tight budgets. On the heels of Daly Genik’s impressive Camino Nuevo High School in Silver Lake, which slithers brightly across its oddly shaped site near the 101 Freeway, Jennifer Siegal produced a set of striking, sun-filled prefab classroom buildings for the Country School in Valley Village.

Progress at the Orange County Great Park. Led by Ken Smith, the team of designers turning the old El Toro Marine Corps Air Station into a 1,300-acre park continued this year to make impressive strides. The emerging design by Smith, Mia Lehrer and others is cheeky and smart, inventive about sustainability and conservation but never “naturalistic.” The Museum of Contemporary Art’s Paul Schimmel has joined the group as an art consultant, proposing, among other ideas, amusement-park rides designed by artists and a range of earthwork-sized attractions. Enrique Norten, the team’s lead architect, has done wonders with small-tickets items such as drinking fountains, bike lockers and pedestrian bridges. If he ever gets a collection of actual park buildings to sink his teeth into, watch out.

A corner turned on Bunker Hill. Frank Gehry and the Related Cos. spent plenty of time this year bickering about the design for the first phase of the Grand Avenue project, on which preliminary construction work began this month. But the design turned a significant corner architecturally as it was being finalized. A shimmering 50-story tower will look down on a shorter, stockier sibling, with lush landscaping draping shops and restaurants at plaza level. The design now looks capable of becoming a significant architectural achievement in its own right, not just an expensive commercial complement to Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall across the street.

Acknowledging the city as a work in progress. The most significant projects in Greater L.A. this year, even those that were imperfectly designed, found ways to address the odd in-between moment the city finds itself in as it moves from wide-open to crowded, from private to shared. Arquitectonica’s apartment building at Wilshire Boulevard and Vermont Avenue combines a huge mural by April Greiman, designed very much to be seen from a moving car, with a large pedestrian plaza leading to a subway stop. Call it the love child of the billboard and the piazza. And Lorcan O’Herlihy’s Habitat 825 condos next door to the Schindler House in West Hollywood, though not the new multifamily landmark many of us had hoped for (again, expectations matter), did give L.A.-style density a new, lime-green-colored avatar. As symbols of contemporary L.A., a city struggling to escape its adolescence and define its early adulthood, both projects were plenty rich.

The worst

Among the year’s disappointments: HNTB architects’ Galen Center at USC wrenched the clock back to the 1930s while blowing up the historicism to cartoonish scale. L.A. Live’s downtown Nokia Theater, by the Berkeley firm ELS, proved deferential to a fault to Staples Center, its slick older sibling. And the Ambassador Hotel saga took another awkward turn with the news that Paul Williams’ Cocoanut Grove nightclub wasn’t salvageable after all.