UCLA's announcement this week that it has hired the renowned Modernist architect I.M. Pei to design a $1.1-billion medical center represents a significant, if cautious, leap. Pei is one of the century's most successful architects, with landmark projects in many of the world's great cities. He is also one of the most aesthetically conservative: His cool corporate architecture--known for its crystal-like play of glass and light--has long set the standard for high-end corporate Modernism. Yet hospitals are rarely the domain of the high-end architect, conservative or not. Pei now has an opportunity to set a new standard.
Pei's task is complex. He must accommodate the bewildering technological and organizational needs of a vast 3.1-million-square-foot medical campus, which includes a 500-bed facility with operating rooms, an intensive care unit and a level-one trauma center complete with heliport. Flexibility is also an issue: The hospital's configuration may change with the advent of new technologies. Such requirements are why hospital boards always have put function first.
But Pei could make architecture a part of the healing process. And that healing would extend beyond the walls of the hospital itself. The building's site is amid what is now a clutter of banal medical buildings haphazardly raised over a period of 50 years. What was once a palm-lined semicircular entry drive was replaced long ago by a multistory parking lot. All of that will disappear as part of Pei's master plan.
Pei's strategy is to re-create a more campus-like environment, to build a new gateway to the university and fuse together the upper and lower campuses. The intent is to turn what is now a dense, confused urban space into a more bucolic setting, to build a light-filled structure set amid intimate green lawns. Patients will be nestled in a gentle, hopeful world. The South Campus will become a more complete and ordered whole.
Pei, who is 80, is arguably the most famous architect of his generation. It is hard to find a major city that does not bear the imprint of his Modernist blend of glass and stone. Moreover, the architect has shown an uncanny ability to garner the key commissions of his time: Buildings such as the East Wing of the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.; Hong Kong's Bank of China headquarters; Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; and the glass-and-steel pyramids that sit in the Louvre courtyard in Paris have become defining landmarks in the identity of each city. All reflect Pei's unflinching faith in a cool, modern Internationalism.
Not all were successes. By his own admission, the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston--the project that first brought him national fame when it was commissioned in 1964--was flawed, in part because he had to adjust his design when the site was changed. In the Louvre addition, Pei brilliantly balanced the conflicting aims of creating a new center for the sprawling museum and preserving its history of grandeur by creating a strong form that is virtually transparent. But the design also transformed a vast maze of intimate rooms stuffed with art into an efficient people-moving machine--something many initially objected to.
Perhaps the National Gallery's East Wing best embodies both the successes and failures of Pei's designs: The sleek sculptural forms of the facade and the main lobby are powerful, even awe-inspiring. The sharp edge of stone that rises along one corner of the building's exterior is so sleek that it has been worn smooth by the hands of admiring tourists. But the wing's triangulated composition, where galleries slip around the vast entry lobby, also reveals a willingness to sacrifice the more important spaces--in this case the exhibition spaces--for monumental impact.
The UCLA Medical Center will not be Pei's first encounter with Los Angeles. In 1989, the architect completed the Creative Artists Agency headquarters building in Beverly Hills for then-CAA chief Michael Ovitz. Ovitz already has contributed $25 million to the new medical center, and it is Ovitz who brought Pei on board. Other much-heralded designers such as New York-based Robert A.M. Stern and Cesar Pelli--the designer of the Pacific Design Center--were interviewed and rejected for the commission.
All of this may be beside the point. A bigger issue is how deeply involved Pei will be in the actual design. Pei left his firm, Pei Cobb Freed, in 1989 and has since been in semi-retirement. That firm is now run by his former partners. Of those, James Ingo Freed has proven the most talented. Where Pei favored space-age forms, Freed's architecture is more brooding. Both have a talent for the monumental. In fact, Freed's 1993 Holocaust Museum in Washington may well be the most inspiring project the firm ever built.