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L.A. Unified's faulty vision for schools on Ambassador site

Though the overall design meshes well as a public campus, the district's push to re-create the look of the old hotel winds up feeling like an empty gesture to history.

July 18, 2010|By Christopher Hawthorne, Los Angeles Times Architecture Critic

Still, shifting priorities and inconsistent leadership within the LAUSD have undermined the architecture, just as they did at Coop Himmelblau's arts high school in downtown on Grand Avenue. Originally, Gonzalez Goodale — joined on the project by preservation architects from Tetra Design — was asked to design separate but adjacent campuses for an elementary school, a middle school and a high school. That allowed for a sense of progression over time as students moved from the smaller and more open scale of the lower grades toward the denser, more imposing forms of the high school. The Gonzalez Goodale scheme was in many ways centered around this progression, which also subtly symbolizes the maturation of the larger city over time.

Then the district decided, even as the campus was under construction, to use parts of it to test a new pilot-schools program, the LAUSD's in-house answer to the growing charter-school movement. As a result, the concept of three separate yet connected campuses has been noticeably watered down. Seven separate schools, with a combined enrollment of 4,200, will fill the finished campus.

As a mediating presence between past and future, the Gonzalez Goodale design manages well enough, and a collection of public art woven into the campus effectively engages the hotel's complex history without having to mimic its architectural forms. The new construction, for the most part, is confidently contemporary and free of ornament, if also decidedly risk-averse. The dominant formal gesture is a series of oversized entryways wrapped in zinc.

Open-air staircases behind colorful perforated metal panels will take students to the upper-floor classrooms, many of which have fantastic views. The classrooms themselves are attractive if straightforward. On the western side of the site, the height of the new buildings feels particularly dramatic. Between the school and Wilshire Boulevard, meanwhile, a large campus green flanked by playing fields makes the sheer scale of the 24-acre site clear.

It's where the architects had to re-create the older design, and where those simulations meet a few remnants of the original hotel, that cracks in the logic of the campus and its attitude toward history really begin to show. The historic tile lining a preserved porte-cochere, for example, has real beauty and presence. The rebuilt spaces — the auditorium as well as the old ballroom, which has become a large library — feel hollow by comparison. In preserving architecture, as in writing history, primary sources make all the difference.

Of course, the attempt to re-create historic architecture is a familiar enough strategy in Southern California to have its own long history. (Hunt's original Ambassador, don't forget, was a lightly abstracted version of Mediterranean Revival.) And there is no architectural task trickier than dealing with cultural and civic memory.

But the full impression given by the new Ambassador campus is not just an attempt to make new look old but an odd mixture of progress and guilt. The final result wraps both ham-handed reverence for history and naked disdain for it inside a single architectural package.

That guilt, it should be noted, came with a big price tag: at nearly $600 million, the new campus is the most expensive that LAUSD has built. In the end, the district's decision to commission elaborate replicas of the hotel's best-known spaces added to the cost of the project without managing to save very much actual architecture. That's a pretty good definition of the worst of both worlds.

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