The Viennese practice Coop Himmelb(l)au - in particular its charismatic founding partner, Wolf Prix - has long been enamored with Los Angeles. From the legendary Open House proposed for Malibu in the mid-1980s to art installations at the city’s most important museums, to teaching studios at SCI-Arc and UCLA, both progressive architecture schools,
Himmelb(l)au thrives on the energy, climate and experimental culture of the sprawling Californian metropolis. Yet, despite maintaining a presence in Los Angeles for almost a quarter century and having excellent fraternal alliances within the LA art and architecture scene, it is only now, with High School #9, that Himmelb(l)au has achieved a significant building in this often fickle City of Angels.
The site is on Grand Avenue, an important axis linking Bunker Hill (a residential neighborhood scalped and replaced some decades ago by corporate towers), a 1960s cultural acropolis (Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Mark Taper Forum, Ahmanson Theatre), and a low-rise jumble of houses and commercial properties to the north. In recent years, the boulevard has been reactivated: first by Arata Isozaki’s sandstone-clad Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA); then by Frank Gehry’s swirling metallic Walt Disney Concert Hall and Rafael Moneo’s stereometric Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels; and now by Himmelb(l)au’s assemblage of fair-faced concrete, stainless steel, and gauzy metal mesh through which blue skies play games of perception. The school is the most public of these new institutions, a filter or crossroads between Downtown and immediately adjacent communities. The school is also sited on a very different kind of artery, one that disconnects it from Downtown. Perpendicular to Grand Avenue, the Hollywood Freeway is a multi-lane highway often choked with automobiles and sunk several stories into the crust of this elevated section of LA (Architectural cognoscenti may remember this linear trough as the site of Asymptote’s Steel Cloud proposal in the late 1980s.
The Himmelb(l)au design is marked by a surprising splayed tower of metal mesh topped by a semi-transparent box and wrapped by a coiling ramp that appears to gesture at Moneo’s cathedral directly opposite. Currently not accessible in the manner intended, this dramatic element recalls Russian Constructivist structures, signaling a desire for civic engagement that may yet be met by projections, lighting and temporal signage. It is formally intriguing when glimpsed from the traffic below. The skeletal, deconstructed character of this main tower - and the cranked morphology and overlapping membranes of a second tower directly on Grand Avenue - instantly suggest the Himmelb(l)au hand.
Less apparent, from photographs, is the architects’ sensitivity to land. Here on a hill incised (one might even say, traumatized) by highway engineering and giant retaining walls, High School #9 takes advantage of topography to rise to its crescendo of towers, ascending from its lowest perimeter, along Cesar Chavez Avenue, via an exterior flight of steps to a communal courtyard. This patio pivots in turn about a canted and truncated cone - the library - to rise eastwards onto an expanse of lawn used for sport and recreation. With swimming pool and basketball courts, the property here perches precipitously above a pre-existing retaining wall that hosts a memorial to the site’s earlier, military incarnation as Fort Moore. This flowing upper space, open to the sky and the school’s various constituent buildings, is perhaps the key achievement of the Himmelb(l)au design, more vitally useful than the sculptural tower over the freeway or even the crystalline glass foyer on Grand Avenue with its characteristically idiosyncratic net of skinny steel members caught in suspended animation. These objects are not unimportant. Yet the spirit of Himmelb(l)au since Prix & Co.’s first pranks (part techno-fun, part social commentary) in the decade after 1968 is enmeshed in issues of personal and community freedom, an anti-authoritarianism that can sidetrack into formal gamesmanship or edgy indulgence rather than the instigation of open, democratic and challenging spaces that High School #9, unlike California’s typical public schools, works to provide.
The basic siting of classroom buildings was established by the time Himmelb(l)au was appointed; furthermore many security regulations apply to this as to all schools in the LA public system. However, in an appropriate match for the architects, High School #9 emphasizes the visual and performing arts. Himmelb(l)au accepted a fairly normative arrangement of perimeter blocks: those with grey stucco walls on the upper terrace dedicated to dance and music; an intermediate and slightly recessed block used for administration; and the single perpendicular block, clad in aluminum panels, shared between visual arts (light-filled, upper floor studios) and drama (direct access to two theaters beneath the tower on the Hollywood Freeway). By limiting access to entrances on Cesar Chavez and Grand Avenue only, Himmelb(l)au liberate the courtyard to communal use and diminish the fortified appearance of many US schools.
Inside, corridors are kept free of clutter, with a recessed lighting track to one side of the ceiling balancing the customary student lockers set flush into a flanking wall. Each discipline is signaled by the singular color of its furniture. The stainless steel cone of the library is topped by a glazed oculus facing northeast; its interior a tall void with rectilinear bookshelves, blue carpet, a custom desk, and an arc of translucent panels that climb the lower wall. As with the art museum completed by Himmelb(l)au at Akron, Ohio in 2007, the crystalline foyer is the iconic interior, almost dizzying in its play of light by day, vitreously glowing at night. It leads here to a 957-seat theater with orchestra pit, linear bands of acoustic plaster, and those layers of taut mesh that help make Himmelb(l)lau interiors feel simultaneously industrial and ephemeral. A separate black box theater is accessed from the courtyard. The block parallel to Grand Avenue is eroded with many circular windows, little and large. These disturb the static rectilinearity of the classrooms and, strategically, allow for unexpected views between street and school.
Himmelb(l)au’s signature projects and manifesto-like statements herald the emotional call of architecture - “Architecture must blaze”! They have long proselytized for cutting through hierarchies, for rooms like heartbeats and facades like faces. The theater foyer, the theater tower, the library cone, and the inside/outside cafeteria that slides out from the upper terrace and is pierced by four cubic “light canons” (Le Corbusier’s phrase) all evoke a sense of mystery and possibility. High School #9 is not perfect, is not the masterwork Himmelb(l)au is capable of. Yet the Viennese practice has taken the norms and codes of Californian bureaucracy and made a new and challenging kind of educational landscape at the heart of the city.