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It's only skin deep

Thom Mayne's Cahill Center at Caltech is a beauty -- but only on the

February 17, 2009|Christopher Hawthorne | ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

The impossible-to-miss Cahill Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics at the California Institute of Technology, wrapped in red-orange panels and seeming to crack and heave around its midsection, as if squeezed by a vise, has been the topic of animated latte-line and cocktail-party conversation in Pasadena since its scaffolding came down last year.

The three-story, 100,000-square-foot building, which stretches its long, low, fractured mass along a prominent site on California Boulevard, engages the city -- and the public -- more pointedly than any other of the university's buildings. It seems eager to start a conversation or pick a fight, depending on your point of view, about the appeal of aggressively contemporary architecture. It has been the most anticipated of the many campus building projects initiated on Caltech's leafy, low-rise campus by David Baltimore, the biologist and Nobel laureate who was president of the university from 1997 to 2006.

And yet the Cahill Center's architect, Thom Mayne, founder of the Santa Monica firm Morphosis, calls it, with something of an apologetic shrug, a conventional building, "probably the most conservative" he's done.

So who's right? The locals, a few taken aback and many others thrilled that Morphosis has slipped a brash piece of architecture into such a conspicuous spot? Or Mayne, who even at the official opening of the Cahill Center was more interested in discussing the firm's forthcoming project at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York, where he says he has been better able to indulge his interest in creating complex and unorthodox architectural space?

The answer is both, but with a twist. Much of the Cahill Center is indeed practical and straightforward. Arranged on a steady rectangular grid, its offices, conference rooms, basement-level laboratories, hallways and auditorium are crisply attractive but generally staid, with concrete floors polished to a high sheen and walls wrapped in white or sky-blue plaster. But in two prominent places -- on the exterior skin, which can be seen on all four sides of this free-standing building, and in a memorable main staircase -- the architecture seems to erupt in a cascade of fissures, phantom limbs, dark corners and broken planes.

The gap between the Cahill Center's standout elements and its conservative ones is no accident. Since the construction budget on the building -- which cost $50 million in total -- wasn't especially lavish, Mayne and Kim Groves, the Morphosis partner who helped lead the design team, borrowed money and design attention from the typical offices in an effort to give the most central and public elements some character and complexity. In other words, the daring of certain spaces depends on the cooperative, go-along conservatism of others.

It's architecture as zero-sum game.

Shimmering work

The strategy will be familiar to anyone who's followed Mayne's recent work. His Caltrans District 7 Headquarters in downtown Los Angeles, finished in 2004, wraps a dramatic, brooding skin of perforated dark-gray metal panels around what is inside a rather depressingly predictable collection of offices. Mayne was not directly responsible for the interiors. But it was his decision to give the building's skin a shimmering, monolithic cast -- a choice that stretched to the breaking point the distance between the character of inside and out.

For the San Francisco Federal Building, which opened in 2007, Mayne took an increasingly commonplace and energy-efficient building volume -- the tall, narrow slab turning a broad face to the south -- and disguised it with another angled perforated-metal skin as an alien, even predatory presence in the skyline.

In nearly every case, then, the complexity of Mayne's buildings is both visually dramatic, sometimes bracingly so, and quite clearly contrived. Their skins present a highly staged picture of architectural chaos and operate as a kind of barbed applique.

In step

That's not to say these moments of irregularity aren't, taken on their own terms, impressive and even moving. Although the Cahill Center's skin is partly a disappointment -- the color, flushed and upbeat, as if the building has stopped for a chat after a jog, clashes oddly with its cracked, disjointed form -- the staircase is remarkable. Endlessly rewarding to walk through and look at, it draws light from a rooftop skylight and through glass along its spine and redirects it in a thousand directions. It joins the lobby of the San Francisco Federal Building and the main gymnasium at Mayne's dormitory at the University of Cincinnati as recent examples of his firm in top form.

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