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Any school design project is a hot-button topic in communities large and small. The general safety phrase is “efficient, cost-savings, and 50-year building” that everyone understands and will vote for (i.e. pay for).

When you push the boundaries on school design, however, you open up a can of worms. But this time I’m hoping the worms will be very pleased (or at least hang on to learn more).

From Los Angeles, this story excerpt of a very provocative school design grows wings:

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.

In your opinion, will it fly, inspiring kids and community alike? Or be a glaring example of excess and Designer Gone Wild?

*****

Overall design concept for the school:

The school — unnamed apart from its bureaucratic designation as Central Los Angeles Area New High School No. 9 — has its share of distinctive touches.

There’s the cylindrical, tilting library that from the outside looks like a fez without the tassel — and inside, like a hive with a skylight 60 feet above the floor. Viewers also will be drawn to huge round windows, like portholes on an ocean liner. Prix wants the city to be able to peer inside and see learning in motion as L.A.’s next generation of artists works at becoming sculptors, painters, dancers, actors, musicians and performing arts technicians.

The tower rises above the fly space of a 950-seat theater envisioned as a complement to the Music Center’s nearby venues, a place where leading artists will perform not just for kids but for general audiences. Prix sees its sloped, glassed-in lobby as a deliberately familiar touch meant to announce itself instantly as a lobby rather than provoke the pause-to-look-again that is usually Himmelb(l)au’s aim. “I hate when I don’t know where to go into a building,” the architect says. “It marks an entrance in a very traditional manner, I have to say.”

Focus on beauty-meets-function-meets-inspiration:

Alonzo, who rose through district ranks from beginnings as an art teacher, says it has been a pleasure working with Prix and, more frequently, Schmidbaur, on practical and educational needs that, if unmet, would turn the most gorgeous and architecturally innovative school building into a hollow waste.

Although many details of the arts program are a work in progress, the 1,700 or more kids who pass an audition process to attend will spend long days in school — a full schedule of regular academic subjects, followed by studio work in their artistic genres. So amenities such as drinking fountains in the music rooms, to eliminate time lost in practice while traipsing down hallways, are important.

Alonzo says he got Himmelb(l)au to raise the porthole windows higher off the ground than first proposed, and to put bumps on their outer ledges, so as not to lead young skateboarding daredevils into temptation. Ditto for the roof of the theater lobby: “The original design was at such an angle that it would have been attractive for kids to jump up and slide down, and skateboard down,” the superintendent says. “It’s much steeper now, to prevent them from even thinking they could roll down the façade of the building.”

No detail (or goal post) left unconsidered:

The school’s playing fields will have portable football goalposts, to be removed when not in use, rather than the usual fixed-in-the-ground posts and crossbars. “It looked out of place in an environment with beautiful buildings,” Alonzo says.

“They really respond to the needs of a project,” says Mitchell Kahan, director of the Akron Art Museum, which eyed more than 100 contestants before picking Himmelb(l)au’s concept of nestling the original, century-old museum building under a new wing that literally has wings. “They’re not the kinds of architects that have a signature look so every building is going to look like the brother of every other one.”

Addressing the issue of extravagance:

Eric Owen Moss, the L.A. architect and SCI-Arc director who is a longtime friend of Prix, concedes that “high school by Himmelb(l)au” is, on the face of it, a seeming extravagance. “Most of the buildings that I’ve seen by L.A. Unified are relatively straightforward, predictable modern architecture,” he says. “Architecture as a kind of service industry. This is outside the convention, which makes it a little dicey. But you don’t need 10 of them. You only need one. It’s downtown and says something about the spirit of the city and the optimism of the city. It tells us what kind of city this is.”

Helping the kids dream bigger than life, one school design at a time:

Prix, like the rock star he once dreamed of being, says he’s doing it for the kids. The campus will offer sights to see, buildings worth really looking at and experiencing every day. As a result, he thinks, it can help students become more attuned to reacting to their world as artists.

“This is a better solution than just to put them in boxes. Open it up, make it an atmosphere which is creative. People coming out of this art school should be better photographers because they have a better eye, no? I’m not kidding. If you learn to look, you are a better painter. You can see. If you’re always in dark rooms, suppressed by low ceilings …”

And at one point does it go beyond the core value of learning and kids/community?

The reporter tells Prix that his building looks like a plane — that the shorter, cylindrical library is the cockpit, and the (empty) box-topped tower is the tail.

He laughs, and if he is not pleased, he’s good at pretending to seem so. The man from Himmelb(l)au is not so highbrow as to insist that some existential-ineffable-inviolable it-is-what-it-is-ness must be deemed to inhere in his firm’s work.

“This is what is so remarkable about this kind of building,” Prix says. “People give nicknames. It means people are seeing it longer than just a flash of a second. It is very important that it is a kind of common memory, that the building, like Frank Gehry’s building, is in the mental map of the people. This is very important for the future of the city, to have remarkable, memorable buildings.”

And your thoughts?

*****

Thanks to Kristen at ArchNewsNow for this tasty provocation.

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