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Architecture Review

Two Schools of Thought

Science Center: A new elementary school building fuses seamlessly with a historic armory and the surrounding environment.

November 01, 2000|NICOLAI OUROUSSOFF | Times Architecture Critic

The Science Center elementary school at Exposition Park is an anomaly: a Los Angeles United School District building project that deserves our exuberant, gushing praise. Designed by Santa Monica-based Morphosis, the school's low-slung profile fuses with its environment so seamlessly that it is easily overlooked. But its surreal faceted forms are far from conventional. They represent a world liberated from bureaucratic formulas.

Scheduled to break ground this spring, the $36-million project is conceived as part of an unusual hybrid of primary education and scholarly research. It will share its Exposition Park site with the former Armory Building--a massive, brick shed completed in 1926. A Center for Science Learning--which will function as a kind of think tank for students and teachers--will occupy the armory's east wing. The kindergarten, administrative offices and a library will be housed in the armory's west wing, while classrooms will be located in a new building that abuts the armory to the north.

Morphosis' task was to balance these interconnected worlds. It has done so beautifully. The exterior of the armory will be preserved, while the new school will rest quietly alongside it, partially hidden under a landscape of overlapping planes. The design is so sensitive to its environment, in fact, that Morphosis' founder, Thom Mayne, has called it a "non-building." This is misleading. In fact, the building plays a sophisticated game of hide-and-seek with the city. In doing so, it shows how first-rate architecture can be sensitive to historic context and still send a strong message about the future.

Mayne was not always an obvious choice for such a commission. Tall, lanky, outspoken, a self-proclaimed child of the '60s, Mayne was once considered the consummate outsider. He made his early reputation in the '80s, like many Los Angeles architects, designing overly elaborate houses whose fragmented forms were meant as metaphors for an unstable society.

But in the early '90s, Mayne set out to break into the realm of public and institutional projects--a world of government bureaucrats that is generally sealed off to high-end architects. Almost immediately, he landed a string of impressive commissions. Confronted with tight budgets and an often exhausting government review process, Mayne stripped down his architecture to its fundamentals. Yet he was able to do so without compromising his belief that architecture should explore deep social truths. As a result, the best of these projects, such as the recently completed Diamond Ranch High School in Pomona, have a clarity that Mayne rarely achieved in his earlier work.

The Science Center school is a case in point. It was conceived as a joint venture, organized by the Science Center and paid for by the L.A. Unified School District and the state. Morphosis won the commission in a 1992 competition, with a design that would have required the demolition of the armory. But after the armory was damaged in the 1994 Northridge earthquake, the Federal Emergency Management Agency provided $10.3 million for its restoration. If the armory had been demolished, that money would have been forfeited.

Mayne's response was to literally bury his design. The armory's facade will be meticulously restored, including the grand stair that once overlooked the park's rose garden and was covered over during preparations for the 1984 Olympics. The new school building will sit snugly against the armory's side, hidden behind a low burm. The burm's faceted surfaces--which seem to fold over to encompass the roof--are planted with sharply defined patches of juniper, rosemary and firethorn. The landscaping recalls the perfect patches of suburban lawn that are an emblem of postwar suburbia. Its prickly, sharp edges are also a wicked play on a Valium-induced dreamscape.

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Mayne's design will form an equally powerful contrast with another building on the site: Frank O. Gehry's 1984 Aerospace Museum. Gehry's building, which caps the armory's other end, is a collage of pop art forms, with a steel ball balanced on top and a F-104 fighter cantilevered from its main facade. The museum building has the light, disposable quality of a city of billboards built on desert dust. Morphosis' design, by contrast, evokes the tough machismo of a stealth bomber on the verge of being swallowed up by a suburban jungle.

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