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The new takes the old under its wing

July 11, 2007|Christopher Hawthorne | Times Staff Writer

AKRON, OHIO — Wolf Prix and Helmut Swiczinsky, the Austrian architects who founded Coop Himmelblau in 1968, have waited an unusually long time for a U.S. debut. It finally arrives next week, when the firm's soaring, audaciously sculptural new wing for the Akron Art Museum opens to the public. Made of steel, glass, concrete and aluminum panels, the $35-million building is attached to the museum's existing home, a Renaissance Revival post office built in 1899, like a spaceship hitched to a locomotive.

The design makes clear that Prix and Swiczinsky are still wildly inefficient when it comes to turning the contents of their fertile imaginations into built form. There is probably no firm in the world that requires so much highly wrought structure to prop up each of its architectural ideas, or that has to work up such a frenzy of form-making to evoke a particular mood or point of view. Like most of their designs, this one frequently edges from drama into melodrama.

But the museum is also powerful and charismatic enough to make a visiting Angeleno wonder, with at least a touch of envy, why we still don't have a public Himmelblau building to call our own.

Willfully complex

After all, Coop Himmelblau -- German for "Blue-sky Collective," a name that suggests the dreamy nature of its work, if little of its toughness -- has had a strong presence in Los Angeles for years. Prix taught for a decade at the Southern California Institute of Architecture and still has close ties there and at Pasadena's Art Center College of Design. He has been a friend and mentor to local architects Thom Mayne and Eric Owen Moss. Coop Himmelblau was hired by the Los Angeles Unified School District, with a push and a donation from Eli Broad, to design a performing arts high school on Grand Avenue. But it won't be ready until next year at the earliest.

The firm's style is willfully complex and rather allergic to pragmatism and traditional notions of beauty. That has given pause to potential clients, even rather progressive ones in Los Angeles. It is hard to imagine the voluble, chain-smoking Prix, who has always been the firm's public face, listening seriously to a client explain that he would rather spend his money on another bathroom than the 50-foot-long steel spike the architect has proposed cantilevering above the garage.

The passage of time, though, has helped soften the way we look at Coop Himmelblau. What appeared unbuildable or self-indulgent two decades ago, when Prix was sketching out designs for L.A. projects that would never be constructed, now looks potentially photogenic and even capable of acting as a tourist magnet. Ten years after Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum opened in Bilbao, Spain, it is still small -- and struggling -- regional cities, rather than world capitals, that are most willing to take a chance on adventurous architecture.

In Akron, Coop Himmelblau was chosen after one of those international searches for an architect that are commonplace for museum boards in the post-Bilbao world. The trustees and the museum's director, Mitchell Kahan, toured Europe, trimming a list of 125 firms to three finalists: Himmelblau, the Netherlands' UN Studio and the Norwegian firm Snohetta. Himmelblau prevailed in large part because it has a long and successful history of joining contemporary buildings to older ones; among its best-known projects remains a striking glass and steel rooftop addition to a 19th century office building in Vienna.

The first thing you notice about the extended museum is not the wild juxtaposition of Renaissance Revival and computer-generated forms -- or even a clash between Continental and Midwestern sensibilities -- but simply how small the place looks. In photographs and computer renderings it was hard to judge the scale of the site -- and easy to imagine that the new piece had landed in Akron like some kind of gigantic, dominating foreign presence.

In fact the Himmelblau building, which covers 63,000 square feet altogether, is modest enough to seem charmingly, rather than oppressively, adventurous. It helps that the new wing, for all its jutting, cantilevered forms, treats the old one so graciously. A pair of steel catwalks extend from its roof, one of them extending over the top of the post office like a protective arm thrown over the old building's shoulder.

Inside, the lobby, enclosed entirely in gray-painted steel and sloping walls of glass, soars the equivalent of three stories above a concrete floor. The architects have taken the well-known trick of the Midwest's most famous architectural son, Frank Lloyd Wright, and turned it inside out. Instead of entering through a compressed, windowless space and moving into a towering one, here you do the reverse, with the compression waiting in the galleries to the rear. The architectural payoff isn't held back even for a second. It comes immediately.

The sky's the limit

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