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Architecture Review

Realm of the Child

Plan for the L.A. Children's Museum captures what it means to be young in an urban environment.

April 22, 2002|NICOLAI OUROUSSOFF | TIMES STAFF WRITER

After a series of false starts and delays, the conceptual design for a new Children's Museum downtown is complete. And it offers compelling proof that bold, imaginative architecture is alive and well in L.A.

Designed by the Santa Monica-based Morphosis, the project is one of two new buildings that will replace the original Children's Museum of Los Angeles, which is currently housed in a cramped facility near City Hall. The first of the new structures, designed by architect Sarah Graham, is scheduled to open in 2003 in the San Fernando Valley. Museum officials hope to open the downtown branch in 2005.

The downtown project, however, still has several hurdles to clear before it is built. The city recently postponed approval of the project because of a dispute with the Los Angeles Police Department over a proposed underground parking structure that would serve both the museum and the LAPD's downtown headquarters. Meanwhile, members of the local Japanese American community have been lobbying to change the museum's location so they can build a recreation center on the site.

If the museum's site is approved, the building would mark a significant addition to a growing arts district in Little Tokyo that now includes the Japanese American National Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art's Geffen Contemporary. By far the most flamboyant addition to this complex, the Children's Museum, with its dynamic, machine-like forms, acts as a sophisticated teaching instrument offering stunning glimpses into L.A.'s urban future.

The structure would stand at the corner of Temple and Judge John Aiso streets, forming a V that would frame a courtyard overlooking the nearby arts complex. The bulk of the museum would be set along Temple. Its faceted white form, bulging slightly at its center, would be propped on spindly, canted columns at one end. The administrative offices, cafe and bookstore would stretch along Judge John Aiso Street.

Thom Mayne, Morphosis' principal designer, conceived the building as a series of folding planes, like an origami sculpture. The museum's anthropomorphic form recalls the work of Archigram, a British architecture group formed in the 1960s that was deeply inspired by Los Angeles' informal Pop landscape. Like Archigram's theoretical "Walking City"--a gigantic urban machine that resembles a mechanical buffalo--the children's museum looks as if it could stand up and walk across the city, an obvious reference to L.A.'s mobile culture.

But Morphosis' design is also firmly rooted in its context. Visitors would approach the museum's main courtyard from a planned 3-acre park that would extend from the Geffen Contemporary on the east to Judge John Aiso Street on the west and the Japanese American National Museum on the south.

A long, low wall, covered in climbing vines, would separate the courtyard from the park. The bookstore and cafe would be framed by an enormous glass structural wall used to display the building's cooling system, with water cascading down its interior surface onto a system of coils. On the courtyard's other side, grand stairs would lead to an elevated triangular plaza and playground.

The result is a subtle hierarchy of public and semipublic zones. The park outside would be part of the adult world; the courtyard and elevated plaza would be more secure--the realm of the child. By linking the two, Mayne is able to set up a tension between the need for security and the desire to explore outer worlds.

That sense of tension continues inside the museum plan. Its most dramatic space is a towering seven-story atrium that carves up through the core of the museum, with galleries set on either side. Visitors ride a series of over-scaled elevators to the top. From there, long ramps switch back and forth across the atrium among the various exhibition areas.

The configuration of the galleries is reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum in New York. But though Wright's spiraling galleries offer a smooth, uninterrupted circulation route, Mayne's plan is intentionally jarring. Set apart from the ramps, the galleries would vary in size, giving each a distinct identity.

The ramps, meanwhile, would pierce the building's exterior at various levels before switching back into the building, offering radically divergent views of the city. Near the top, one would overlook the courtyard and surrounding art museums. Lower, two ramps would break through the building's Temple Street facade, overlooking a sweeping landscape of low-rise industrial buildings. The Twin Towers jail looms in the distance. A rehabilitation center is visible across the street.

Mayne has described the ramps in metaphorical terms. "We wanted the kids to feel as if they could misbehave," he says, "to give them the chance to break the rules of the typical museum."

But the relationship between inner and outer worlds also implies a more complex reading of our relationship to urban life.

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