Morphosis Diamond in the Rough
The segmentation is highly visible from the top or bottom of the hill. From the bottom, three repetitive cantilevered classroom volumes appear to hover over and watch the soccer players below. Facing the football field at the top are long concrete benches punctuated by three concrete stair towers. Both of these elevations are compositionally rational and have been referred to as Utopian. Perhaps this is appropriate: the project suggests a desire to cure social ills, to participate in a communal effort to improve the world.
Yet there is a recognition that a rigid utopianism cannot work in today's chaotic context of ethnic, cultural, and social differences. Add to that the instability of Southern California's earthquake-prone physical landscape. In this environment an institutional building must itself be fluid. It must be capable of bending under stress, both literally and metaphorically.
Diamond Ranch becomes more complex when viewed in this light, and its success as a breathing organism that embodies its context comes from a spatial experience that unfolds as one moves through the spine of the campus.
One enters the school at the east end and begins a procession defined by distorted roof geometries overhead. The corrugated steel panels fold, twist, and bend, taking on the forms of nearby mountains. In some places the roofs become more than planar. They transform into volumes to suggest the inhabitation of hidden souls. They reach out to either side, wanting to grasp one another. This seems appropriate for an environment for students striving for connections of all kinds. Collectively, the roofs form a new horizon, emblematic of the gift of education to expand the recipient's breadth, to fill one with the desire to scale the unknown.
At the same time that the roofscape strives to break free of all constraints, it also makes reference to the shifting plates of the region's unstable geology. This architecture speaks simultaneously to earth and sky; it displays a dichotomy of yearning for infinity while reminding us how unstable our ground is.
For a public school, Morphosis has perhaps found a particularly appropriate language. The reference to seismic instability represents our shifting political and social landscape, characterized by a diversifying ethnic mix, an ongoing population boom, and the poor state of public education. Yet there is a desperate need to create optimistic academic environments in which these factors can coexist with the possibility for open cultural and intellectual exchange.
At Diamond Ranch, then, we see both an architecture born of formal experimentation for which Morphosis is known and the powerful results of tying this to a strong social conscience. The juxtaposition of intelligent planning with unifying and enriching spatial experiences derived from the school's context has resulted in the formation of a complex, but ultimately edifying architecture.
This 150,000 square-foot school represents a shift in scale for Morphosis, known primarily in this country for houses and interiors. At the same time, many of Mayne's design decisions were likely a natural response to tight budgeting controls and scheduling constraints—common to all public or low-income institutional projects. Ironically, Morphosis' search to make Diamond Ranch meaningful may be successful partly because of struggling with a relatively low budget ($28 million) for such a large project.
There was no money for the rich materials and complex detailing that we have come to expect of the firm. At Diamond Ranch, the details are well thought out but not overly articulate. No expensive connections call attention to themselves; they do the job. The structure is a fairly simple steel frame, though not without evidence of invention. In the gymnasium, for instance, the ceiling structure impresses one as impossibly light.
For Morphosis, the restrictions proved beneficial. They forced the architecture to constantly reexamine itself, to look to the immaterial for inspiration and solutions. In this and other recent projects, Mayne has moved to a new way to make architecture. For Diamond Ranch, his firm rose to the occasion, finding economy where before it might have sought the opposite, concentrating on large moves, a unifying formal language.
Ultimately, it makes sense for the architecture of a public school, built inexpensively, to teach some lessons: one doesn't have to be a rich kid to succeed. Education can transcend wealth. Honesty and ingenuity will lead to success. In this, as well as the rest of the design of Diamond Ranch, there is much to learn.
Alice Kimm, AIA, is a partner in the Los Angeles firm John Friedman Alice Kimm Architects.