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Schooled in iconoclasm

As architect of the Grand Avenue arts campus, Wolf Prix is obliterating the box to let inspiration flow from the outside in.

April 23, 2006|Mike Boehm | Times Staff Writer

IT'S not a bird. Could be a plane. The collective Angeleno imagination will have 2 1/2 years to conjure an appropriate image for the irregular-looking assemblage of gray- and sand-colored structures in concrete, plaster, glass and steel that will soon begin to rise downtown above the Hollywood Freeway. However the city eventually decides to define the strange shapes on its new public arts campus, given the estimated cost of $208 million, it had better be Superschool.

The pressure of such expectations could be enough to make some architects want to duck into a phone booth -- and stay there. Remember the early 1990s, when the Walt Disney Concert Hall project was halted for years amid soaring construction bids and doubts over whether Frank Gehry's structure could even stand up? Gehry sensed judging eyes wherever he went in his hometown and told friends he was thinking of packing up and leaving. And he wasn't even playing with the taxpayers' money, for the most part.

The new arts high school at the end of Grand Avenue, just east of where it passes over U.S. 101, is Wolf Prix's baby, more or less. It's seen as a springboard toward the revitalization of downtown, with Grand Avenue recast as L.A.'s real-life boulevard of dreams. It's a public school for arts-minded students from families who can't afford to bail out of the troubled Los Angeles Unified School District; therefore, Prix's campus could become a leading indicator of whether a nation with a large and growing chasm between the rich and everyone else is still capable of providing extraordinary public education that can inspire and nurture kids regardless of whether they have economic advantages.

If Prix, a founding partner in Coop Himmelb(l)au, a Viennese firm with long-standing L.A. ties, hears any nervous chatter inside his head over what's at stake, he's hiding it well.

He's a large, affable, fit-looking man who loves rock music, is reputed to have learned English by listening to Bob Dylan records and wears an ensemble of sunglasses, double-breasted suit and tieless shirt with the top two buttons undone. He's meeting the press at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, upstairs from the former hangar for testing jet engines where he has just delivered a presentation on architecture as "radical craft." In essence, Prix's talk (no French pronunciation here; his name rhymes with "fix") described a progression in which he and Himmelb(l)au co-founder Helmut Swiczinsky set out as young men to "remodel the architectural way of thinking" and, having won a reputation as radical experimentalists whose work existed mainly on paper, began to perfect their skills as salesmen for forms that they might actually get to build.

As they learned to persuade the commissioning classes, their buildings began sprouting in Europe during the late 1980s, and lately they have succeeded in persuading some of the continent's deepest pockets to take a walk on the architectural wild side. Other than a $30-million expansion of the Akron Art Museum scheduled to open next year in Ohio -- now, that one looks like a bird -- the L.A. arts high school will be Himmelb(l)au's first building in America. It will rise in a city where Prix taught for a decade at the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc) and where the firm established an office in 1988. Prix says he loves L.A. and owned a house here for five years until a professorial appointment at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna forced him in the mid-1990s to choose his hometown as a full-time base.

Coop Himmelb(l)au was formed in 1968. The name means "Blue Sky Cooperative" -- Prix and Swiczinsky, who tends to stay behind the scenes, independently seized upon the same term that Walt Disney's crew of Imagineers used for unfettered brainstorming sessions in which practical-minded naysaying was declared verboten. Up in the blue sky, ideas seemingly preposterous from a grounded point of view might prove workable, after all. More recently, as it has moved from unbuilt and therefore unproven theories to major commissions, the firm has wrapped the 'l' in its name in parentheses to suggest a German variant: Himmelbau -- or "Build the Sky."

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