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The bold school try

The proposed design for the LAUSD's new arts academy is a boisterous vision for downtown's blossoming cultural landscape.

June 08, 2003|Nicolai Ouroussoff | Times Staff Writer

Think small. That, at least in architectural terms, was the mandate delivered to the Los Angeles Unified School District as it struggled to come to terms with obscene levels of overcrowding in the city's schools. In November, voters approved a $3.35-billion bond issue for building upgrades, $2.58 billion of which was earmarked for completing work on up to 120 new schools during the next three years. The figure has turned out to be barely adequate -- enough to build the schools but not enough to create anything of real architectural substance. For that, the LAUSD would have to draw on other resources.

Few current school projects sum up the tricky nature of that process like the planned Performing and Visual Arts Academy at 450 Grand Ave. in downtown L.A. Originally intended as a traditional high school, the project was reconceived on a far more ambitious scale after billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad intervened. Since then, the original architecture firm, AC Martin, has been replaced by the high-profile Vienna-based Coop Himmelblau. Construction, once scheduled for completion by summer 2005, has been delayed by at least a year. And the project's cost has swollen by more than $20 million -- to a current price tag of $87 million.

To some, Broad's involvement is evidence of the continuing erosion of the wall that once separated public and private realms. LAUSD officials concede that some of the design's features will have to be paid for with private donations. Whether the money comes from Broad or someone else has yet to be determined. (Broad's foundation recently committed $1.9 million toward the school's operating budget.)

But the new design, though still in its early stages, goes a long way toward justifying such political meddling. Crackling with new ideas, its blend of pop imagery and communal idealism is a powerful statement about the vital role schools can play in a city's cultural fabric. It is also a challenge to those who see the high arts as something elitist, a distraction for the rich that is of marginal social value. At a time when local governments are struggling to provide even the most basic public services, this is a significant accomplishment.

Communities collide

Covering 9.8 acres, the complex will stand just across the Hollywood Freeway from the city's so-called "cultural corridor," which includes the Music Center, the Colburn School of Music and the Walt Disney Concert Hall, scheduled to open in October. The brooding concrete shell of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels faces the site across the freeway; a sprawling Latino neighborhood and Chinatown flank it to the north.

In an effort to hold down costs, Coop Himmelblau was forced to retain aspects of the original AC Martin plan. Most of the structures, for example, will still be set along the periphery, with classrooms along Grand Avenue and Cesar Chavez Avenue, and the gymnasium and playing fields at the southern portion of the site.

But while the original scheme was a model of banality, Coop Himmelblau's captures the energy that can be created when such varied communities collide. A shimmering glass-and-steel lobby will anchor the corner of Grand, with a 900-seat theater and an events space extending along the edge of the freeway. Along Cesar Chavez, a grand stair leads up to a large internal court and a sleek, cone-shaped library building.

The idea is to establish a strong visual relationship between the school and Grand Avenue's civic buildings. The glass lobby will resemble an enormous faceted crystal, a piece of jewelry built on an urban scale. The events space -- perched atop the theater's concrete fly tower -- juts out toward the freeway like a futuristic periscope. Elevators zip up and down the tower's facade; a ramp spirals up around its base.

Together with the cathedral's soaring campanile, these sculptural pieces will create a portal for downtown's cultural zone, a cluster of vertical markers rising out of L.A.'s famously horizontal sprawl.

The school's tower, in particular, is loaded with symbolic meaning. It loosely recalls the odd-shaped bell tower of Le Corbusier's 1953 Monastery at La Tourette, France -- a landmark of Modernist design. In evoking such precedents, Coop Himmelblau is asserting art's spiritual value. Art now occupies a central social role; the students are its missionaries.

That vision is imbued with a deep sense of communal spirit. Stretching out along Grand Avenue, the painting and dance studios are housed in a long, low building pierced by an asymmetrical pattern of big porthole-like windows, allowing passersby to peer in at students at work. Inside, studios are arranged as generous, open lofts -- workshops for the imagination.

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