High School #9 commandeers your attention, even as you’re zooming along the Hollywood Freeway in central Los Angeles. Ringed by a roller-coastering ramp, the school’s tower comes into view, a triangle topped by a cantilevered box, like a beach ball balanced on a seal’s nose. Just as Encounter, the futuristic “spaceship” restaurant at the city’s gateway airport, announces the local tone, the school’s dynamic 140-foot-high sentinel has immediate “only in L.A.!” impact. But this landmark’s high visibility and iconic exuberance also make it an unexpectedly complex symbol: a lightning rod for controversy.
The bottom line is HS #9’s final price tag: $232 million for 230,000 square feet (completely fitted out), widely translated as a stunning $1,000 per square foot (though construction and landscaping costs of $171.9 million bring it closer to $745 per square foot). Meanwhile, the project’s most publicly recognized element, the tower, remains an empty shell, pending uncertain completion of its spectacular room at the top. So, for now, this component is purely symbolic, a billboard along the freeway, entangled in a disconnected ramp to nowhere, configured whimsically as an unraveled number 9. And that’s just one piece of an ambitious, unconventional, and eclectically expressive design, making it awfully easy to fault the architecture. But for all its quirks—and the challenge of separating this architecture from the complicated forces behind it—the design has much to commend.