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Central Los Angeles High School #9

May 31, 2009|Christopher Hawthorne | Architecture Critic

At the new arts high school downtown, it has become nearly impossible to separate the substance of the architecture, by Wolf D. Prix and the Austrian firm Coop Himmelblau, from debates over cost overruns or questions about who will attend the campus when it opens in September.

But maybe that's the wrong goal. The story of the arts academy -- still officially known by its stiff place holder of a name, Central Los Angeles Area High School #9 -- is hardly one about how bold, unconventional architecture trumps all other forces, or even exists comfortably outside them. The design of the campus, in fact, has complicated its political fate even as the reverse has been true, leaving it vulnerable to the overheated but potent charge that it is an elitist enclave standing aloof from its neighborhood.

Once the debates over cost and curriculum have fallen away -- and that may take years -- posterity is likely to look kindly on the campus, which has given Grand Avenue a powerfully unorthodox new landmark and added a mysterious and unconventional silhouette to the downtown skyline. Yet the speed with which the campus became a symbol of controversy and discord raises serious questions about whether Coop Himmelblau, known for bravura design gestures and terrifically complex form-making, was the right choice for this contentious obstacle course of a commission.

Rarely has the firm's architecture seemed so visually dramatic -- or so politically out of touch.

In its finished form, the school emerges as a symbol not so much of a rudderless school district as one where the person at the helm is continually changing -- and the direction of the ship can swing markedly from year to year. Key decisions about the shape and mission of the school have been made by a long and diverse list of architects and administrators, each one with a different vision of what the campus might be.

First came architecture firm AC Martin and Partners, hired by the Los Angeles Unified School District in 2001 to prepare a preliminary design for a traditional large high school on the sight of the district's old headquaters. Next was billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad, who stepped in later the same year to propose the switch to an arts academy. Agreeing to pay for some of the school's operations -- though not necessarily for increased construction costs -- he helped arrange a design competition whose jury selected Coop Himmelblau in September 2002.

The firm emerged from a blue-chip shortlist that also included New York's Bernard Tschumi Architects, London's Foreign Office Architects and a pair of local firms: Daly Genik Architects and Michael Maltzan Architecture. After Himmelblau produced a new design, the school's fortunes fell into the hands of a string of LAUSD superintendents: first Roy Romer, then David Brewer and now Ramon C. Cortines. Richard Alonzo, superintendent for Local District 4, in which the school is located, has also helped shape its fortunes, strongly opposing the idea of drawing students through competitive, districtwide applications.

Romer, Brewer, Cortines and Alonzo all struggled to quell anger, in the public and in the media, at the news that the school's construction cost was quickly ballooning. The total eventually reached $232 million -- a vast jump, even in an era of accelerating construction costs, from a 2003 estimate of $87 million.

Last month, Cortines announced that he wouldn't allow the school to operate as a charter, an option Broad and others had pushed for as the district struggled to find a principal for the school and put a curriculum in place for September. Instead, the LAUSD will oversee the campus and will reserve 1,200 of its 1,700 slots for students in the immediate area, even though the construction of other schools has eased overcrowding in the neighborhood.


Different lesson plans

Compared to most of the campuses commissioned by the LAUSD during its massive building campaign of recent years, of course, the high school is a strikingly ambitious and inventive piece of architecture. Covering a spacious 10-acre site across the Hollywood Freeway from Rafael Moneo's 2002 Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, it combines sharp-edged architectural forms with idiosyncratic interiors and generous, enveloping outdoor spaces.

The campus consists of four large, boxy buildings on the perimeter of its site holding classrooms and studios for art, music and dance. These are remnants of the AC Martin design, as is a football field toward the southern end of the campus big enough for a community college.

Three slicing, curvilinear elements studded with references to the designs of Le Corbusier -- a stunning cone-shaped library, a soaring lobby opening onto Grand and a controversial 140-foot tower rising from the fly space above a 950-seat theater -- throw off the predictability and conservatism of the basic layout to memorable effect.

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