HS#9 by Coop Himmelb(l)au
The school's design is rooted in the idea that the function of art is to contest prevailing ideologies and social mores (visible in the simplest sense through the "I am the one that is not like all the others" stance of the building both with respect to other new schools in Los Angeles and other buildings on Grand Avenue). The building is rough, difficult, assertive, and non-conformist — a challenge to the idea of education as a means of normalization — all features characteristic of the historical avant-garde.
And while some of these descriptors apply to other recent buildings in Los Angeles, High School #9 is the only one that deserves them all. Add to this distinct shapeliness the fact that the building was designed by an internationally renowned architect, and it is easy to see why High School #9 happily confirms for many that Los Angeles finally belongs to the cultural big leagues rather than only the entertainment industry, just as "Revolution 9" linked John Lennon to John Cage rather than merely to Top of the Pops.
At the same time, however, High School #9 has been received in ways that recall the public's first reactions to avant-garde artists from Picasso to Duchamp: with dislike, distrust, and disbelief. While everyone now likes to like the modern architecture of Los Angeles, the high school, it must be admitted, has not been welcomed with such open arms, and is indeed a source of anxiety for those who have forgotten how much all the other now-beloved architects, from Schindler to Gehry, were at first disliked.
Disliking Coop Himmelb(l)au, in fact, now makes it possible to forget how much Los Angeles disliked the figures it now professes to love. (How a city with several major museums but not one with a robust program in architecture can think of itself as supportive of architecture is a question worth asking.) Through the negative response to High School #9 it is possible to witness the history of the avant-garde repeating itself with comments ranging from "I can't find the front door" and "How do I know it's a school?" to the simple "It's ugly."
If love and hate tie the school to the odd notion of the Beatles as radicals (that side of the coin was generally reserved for the Rolling Stones), what really makes the high school a contemporary parallel to "Revolution 9" is that no one knows what the number nine in either name signifies.
This isn't really surprising given that meaning is socially produced, making it impossible for a building to accrue value if the culture around it cannot even agree on a name or thinks the entire enterprise — a school for the arts at a time when most schools can't afford pencils — isn't even worthy of public support in the first place. And left nameless, in fact and in spirit, the building has become like a Rorschach test, with every Tom, Dick, and critic trying to fill it up with meaning that can be nothing more than their own personal and often paranoid projections leading to a crazy chain of misunderstanding.
For example, and against all odds, in the midst of Wolf D. Prix's pile of aggressively abstract concrete, some want to read the tower as a sort of billboard in the shape of the number nine, but a nine turned upside down. Wouldn't that make it a six? Which belongs to the sign of the devil. And the conspiracy theorists who play things backwards or, in this case, upside down, focus not on the empty meaning of the number nine but on the fact that the tower was left physically empty, which proves to them that which they already thought, namely (or namelessly), that the school is an excessive waste of money and the tower is the sign of a devil-wearing-Prada architect.
Given all the Sturm und Drang, it is worth considering for a moment if the number nine, that might be a six, or an empty vessel, is a more strategic consequence of the design rather than the accidental result of a funny shape that can get flipped around and turned into anything.
I don't mean that Coop Himmelb(l)au devilishly designed a billboard for the school that no one can read, but I am asking if the larger problem of architectural legibility in a diverse culture is what is at stake in the difficulties people have had in reading not only the tower but the complex as a whole.
Even critics — supposed experts — have not had much to say about its particularities, tossing off vague comments about how the high school recalls Le Corbusier, for example, without giving any sense of in what way or to what end.
Even though Coop Himmelb(l)au is well known, often cited, and well published, there are no histories of the firm's work, no accounts of its contribution, and no written record of its development. (A major retrospective exhibition curated by Jeffrey Kipnis is a recent and the only exception.)
While Le Corbusier is at the center of a swirling tornado of words, it's as though the whole field of architecture threw up its hands in the face of Coop Himmelb(l)au and remained silent. And, the few times critics have bothered to try to actually say something about the work, they have tended to say Wolf Prix likes clouds and builds things that look like clouds and they can prove it because his firm is named "blue sky."
Now, there is nothing more conducive to idle description than a cloud. As fun as such creative misreading might be, most will agree that it tells you much about the reader and virtually nothing about the clouds. Like a stormy day, Coop Himmelb(l)au provokes a lot of response, but it leaves experts and non-experts equally speechless.
Of course, in the Prestel book on High School #9, including the rest of this intriguing essay, there are many words, drawings, and photographs seeking concrete explication of the building and its parts. —Editor
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Sylvia Lavin is a professor in UCLA's Department of Architecture and Urban Design, and was previously chair of the department from 1996 to 2006. With a focus on architectural history, theory, and criticism, Lavin has been a fellow at the Getty Research Institute and has taught or lectured at most of the major architecture programs around the world. She frequently serves as a jury member for international competitions, and consults with institutions such as the Canadian Center for Architecture, the Getty Center, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Society of Architectural Historians. Lavin is the author of Quatremere de Quincy and the Invention of a Modern Language of Architecture, Form Follows Libido: Architecture and Richard Neutra in a Psychoanalytic Culture, and Kissing Architecture, and is an editor of Crib Sheets: Notes on Contemporary Architectural Conversation.
This article is excerpted from Coop Himmelb(l)au: Central Los Angeles Area High School #9 for the Visual and Performing Arts by Coop Himmelb(l)au, with an essay by Sylvia Lavin, copyright © 2010, with permission of the publisher, Prestel.
Project: Central Los Angeles High School #9 for the Visual and Performing Arts, a.k.a. Ramon C. Cortines School of Visual and Performing Arts (Los Angeles, California)
Client: Los Angeles Unified School District
Design Architect: Coop Himmelb(l)au
Executive Architect: HMC Architects
Structural Engineer: TMAD Taylor and Gaines
HVAC Consultant: ACEA, Inc.
Electrical Engineer: Roshanian and Associates
Acoustic Consultant: Martin Newson & Associates, LLC
Theater Consultant: JK Design Group
Food Service Consultant: Mace Murphy Design Group
Pool Consultant: Rowley International, Inc.
Civil Engineer: A.C. Martin Partners
Landscape Consultant: Melendrez Design Partners
General Contractor: PCL Construction Services, Inc.