Pass/fail for L.A.’s new arts school

Architecture Critic

At the new arts high school downtown, it has become nearly impossible to separate the substance of the architecture, by Wolf D. Prix and the Austrian firm Coop Himmelblau, from debates over cost overruns or questions about who will attend the campus when it opens in September.

But maybe that’s the wrong goal. The story of the arts academy -- still officially known by its stiff place holder of a name, Central Los Angeles Area High School #9 -- is hardly one about how bold, unconventional architecture trumps all other forces, or even exists comfortably outside them. The design of the campus, in fact, has complicated its political fate even as the reverse has been true, leaving it vulnerable to the overheated but potent charge that it is an elitist enclave standing aloof from its neighborhood.

Once the debates over cost and curriculum have fallen away -- and that may take years -- posterity is likely to look kindly on the campus, which has given Grand Avenue a powerfully unorthodox new landmark and added a mysterious and unconventional silhouette to the downtown skyline. Yet the speed with which the campus became a symbol of controversy and discord raises serious questions about whether Coop Himmelblau, known for bravura design gestures and terrifically complex form-making, was the right choice for this contentious obstacle course of a commission.


Rarely has the firm’s architecture seemed so visually dramatic -- or so politically out of touch.

In its finished form, the school emerges as a symbol not so much of a rudderless school district as one where the person at the helm is continually changing -- and the direction of the ship can swing markedly from year to year. Key decisions about the shape and mission of the school have been made by a long and diverse list of architects and administrators, each one with a different vision of what the campus might be.

First came architecture firm AC Martin and Partners, hired by the Los Angeles Unified School District in 2001 to prepare a preliminary design for a traditional large high school on the sight of the district’s old headquaters. Next was billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad, who stepped in later the same year to propose the switch to an arts academy. Agreeing to pay for some of the school’s operations -- though not necessarily for increased construction costs -- he helped arrange a design competition whose jury selected Coop Himmelblau in September 2002.

The firm emerged from a blue-chip shortlist that also included New York’s Bernard Tschumi Architects, London’s Foreign Office Architects and a pair of local firms: Daly Genik Architects and Michael Maltzan Architecture. After Himmelblau produced a new design, the school’s fortunes fell into the hands of a string of LAUSD superintendents: first Roy Romer, then David Brewer and now Ramon C. Cortines. Richard Alonzo, superintendent for Local District 4, in which the school is located, has also helped shape its fortunes, strongly opposing the idea of drawing students through competitive, districtwide applications.

Romer, Brewer, Cortines and Alonzo all struggled to quell anger, in the public and in the media, at the news that the school’s construction cost was quickly ballooning. The total eventually reached $232 million -- a vast jump, even in an era of accelerating construction costs, from a 2003 estimate of $87 million.

Last month, Cortines announced that he wouldn’t allow the school to operate as a charter, an option Broad and others had pushed for as the district struggled to find a principal for the school and put a curriculum in place for September. Instead, the LAUSD will oversee the campus and will reserve 1,200 of its 1,700 slots for students in the immediate area, even though the construction of other schools has eased overcrowding in the neighborhood.


Different lesson plans

Compared to most of the campuses commissioned by the LAUSD during its massive building campaign of recent years, of course, the high school is a strikingly ambitious and inventive piece of architecture. Covering a spacious 10-acre site across the Hollywood Freeway from Rafael Moneo’s 2002 Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, it combines sharp-edged architectural forms with idiosyncratic interiors and generous, enveloping outdoor spaces.

The campus consists of four large, boxy buildings on the perimeter of its site holding classrooms and studios for art, music and dance. These are remnants of the AC Martin design, as is a football field toward the southern end of the campus big enough for a community college.

Three slicing, curvilinear elements studded with references to the designs of Le Corbusier -- a stunning cone-shaped library, a soaring lobby opening onto Grand and a controversial 140-foot tower rising from the fly space above a 950-seat theater -- throw off the predictability and conservatism of the basic layout to memorable effect.

So do oversized porthole windows on the classroom buildings, which give the interior spaces a surprisingly rich range of personalities. The whole ensemble of buildings then encloses a series of courtyards and prominent outdoor stairs, including a dramatically wide staircase leading up from the main student entrance on Cesar Chavez Avenue.

The LAUSD insisted rather late in the design process on an imposing security gate across the foot of that staircase, sinking Prix’s hopes that it might operate as a broad front stoop for the neighborhood as well as the school. That footnote is among many signs of the shakiness of the architect’s hold on the political situation he was operating in here.

The story of the district’s building campaign is in one sense the story of architects seeing their attempts to produce open, welcoming campuses marred by security fencing hurriedly put up to satisfy demands by parents and the district for more protection. Prix’s decision to make the broad staircase an anchor of his design was in a certain sense to set up a battle with the district he was destined to lose -- and to play into the hands of opponents of a districtwide arts academy at the same time.

The striking but seemingly inaccessible staircase, after all, perfectly lays out the equation relied on by the school’s most strident critics: Extravagance plus exclusion equals elitism.

Inside the campus, the combination of the material choices -- polished metal panels and huge swaths of concrete, in particular -- and the size of the open spaces means that on hot days shade will be a prized commodity, particularly on the upper plaza near the field. That problem should ease a bit as the landscaping grows in, though the courtyards may eternally seem better suited for the weaklight of Central Europe than our more intense sunshine.

Prix, who founded Coop Himmelblau with Helmut Swiczinsky and Michael Holzer in 1968, understands and deeply appreciates Los Angeles. Over the years, he has studied, taught and kept an office here. And he extends the long and productive relationship between Viennese and Angeleno architects, one that goes back as far as Rudolph Schindler and Richard Neutra and also includes shopping-mall guru Victor Gruen, an early mentor of Frank Gehry.

But Prix is hardly cut from the same cloth as those architects, whose work is marked by a frankness and economy well suited to building in Southern California. As I wrote after visiting Coop Himmelblau’s addition to the Akron Art Museum two years ago, there are few contemporary architects who require so much steel -- and therefore so much money -- to prop up each one of their ideas.

Prix’s style is what you might call mesmerizingly inefficient. Like a baroque architect piling ornament into the upper reaches of a church interior, he tends to make his most highly wrought spaces inaccessible and essentially decorative -- in the soaring ceiling above the school’s main public lobby on Grand Avenue, for example, or in the spectacular but defiantly over-scaled atrium in Akron.

These architectural set pieces are often stunning. And it would be beyond unfair to blame the architects for every cost overrun. But Coop Himmelblau’s track record also means that few of the budget problems and complaints that have plagued the school should come as a complete surprise, especially since Prix has rarely worked for clients as risk-averse and cash-strapped as the LAUSD.

Quite an education

No element of the school has been more controversial than the tower rising on the western edge of the site. It is an architectural and urban gesture with a power bordering on the uncanny. It joins the bell tower on the cathedral across the freeway to form a gateway to downtown Los Angeles and evokes, in twisting, abstract form, the number 9 in the school’s name. But it has also become a punching bag for opponents of the school’s cost and mission, particularly since it wound up serving no functional purpose.

The tower was originally designed to hold a special-events room at the top that could be rented out for private gatherings. With its dramatic perch atop the downtown skyline, it likely would have been booked from the start. But according to the architects, the LAUSD decided -- in a classic example of penny-wise, pound-foolish value engineering -- that it couldn’t justify spending the extra money to make the room usable.

With its AC Martin skeleton, its shimmering Himmelblau flesh and its stunning, empty tower, then, the high school is hardly just an example of innovative but expensive name-brand architecture. It is a project haunted by second thoughts and 180-degree turns, a case of conservatism replaced by somewhat misguided daring and finally undercut by several failures of nerve. And nearly every twist in that story line can be read in the architecture itself.

The truth is that there is a long list of architects doing work as inventive as Coop Himmelblau’s whose styles and temperaments might have made them far better choices to design a public high school for the arts for the LAUSD.

By assembling a team of the most talented emerging and established architects, landscape architects, visual artists and graphic designers in Southern California, for instance, the district might have turned every corner of the high school into a canvas for innovative creative work.

The idea of picking an architect based on region or generation has its limits. It is certainly no cure-all. But in this case it might have helped connect the school to the most fertile parts of L.A. culture, drawing connections across a city where young designers and artists are producing some of the most groundbreaking work in the world. The district might have paired, just to pick a few names, architecture by Maltzan, Daly Genik, Johnston Marklee, Touraine Richmond or Barbara Bestor with graphic design, way-finding, artwork and murals by Mark Bradford, Ruben Ochoa, Geoff McFetridge, Walead Beshty or Anna Sew Hoy.

That approach might have made the idea of a districtwide arts academy not just palatable but actually attractive to the public. It would have sacrificed architectural fireworks in an effort to safeguard the school’s mission through the construction process. It would have promoted the idea of multidiscplinary collaboration, in constrast to the aggressive virtuosity of Prix, which usually leaves little room for complementary statements by artists and designers.

It also might have helped trim the school’s ultimate cost, distinguishing it as an example of combining innovative ideas with pragmatism about budgets and materials. This, indeed, is the thread that ties together every period of great Los Angeles architecture, stitching a line from apartments by Schindler and Irving Gill to Case Study and ranch houses and through to early work by Gehry and Thom Mayne, among many others. As Gehry put it more than two decades ago, the goal of such architecture is “making something inexpensive and getting more out of it,” not less.

Extending that remarkable history should have been the guiding philosophy for the LAUSD’s construction effort. Instead, the district has been churning out schools with a martial discipline while largely overlooking the role that good design can play in shaping the attitudes and consciousness of students.

For the most part, the district treated architecture not as a means of helping carve out humane classroom spaces under severe budget pressure but instead as a kind of extra or frill.

That led directly to the process that created the arts high school. Having failed to infuse most of its new campuses with innovative design of any sort, the LAUSD and its patrons moved to add capital-A architecture to the one on Grand Avenue. Cost overruns and other missteps then ratcheted up the price of the school to levels that have become politically embarrassing for district leadership.

But many of these conflicts and controversies were fated from the start -- or at least from the moment that the district, having skimped on serious architecture in its other new schools, decided in this case to gorge on it.