It has been a full decade since Thom Mayne made a major mark on his home city of Los Angeles. After the architect’s Caltrans District 7 Headquarters opened in downtown L.A. in 2004—a looming, relentlessly gray battleship that helped Mayne win the Pritzker Prize the following year—he pursued prominent commissions around the country and the world, including an academic building in New York for Cooper Union (RECORD, November 2009, page 96), the Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas (RECORD, January 2013, page 78) and the Phare Tower on the edge of Paris, which remains unbuilt.
Now Morphosis is back with a big, brash addition to Sunset Boulevard, a site in the heart of Los Angeles, in a low-rise and rather anonymous landscape near the 101 freeway but offering dramatic views of the Hollywood Hills. Known as Emerson Los Angeles, or ELA, the building is a new Southern California home for 134-year-old Emerson College, the Boston school specializing in arts and communication that has long had an active internship program in Hollywood and counts a number of movie-business executives among its alumni. With a hybrid steel frame and concrete structure, the 107,000-square-foot building contains dormitories for as many 217 Emerson students (about 130 are now in attendance) as well as classrooms and production studios.
The common thread connecting Mayne’s work in recent decades has been an interest in formal and metaphorical collision, in using buildings for academic as well as government clients to suggest tensions and fissures in contemporary society. “I’m interested in conflict and confrontation,” Mayne told me in 2005, a couple of days after learning he’d won the Pritzker.
In certain lapel-grabbing ways the ELA building is a clear expression of that sensibility. The dorms are stacked in a pair of slender ten-story towers on the eastern and western edges of the site. Between them is a snaking, virtuosic pile of classroom and studio space that spills forward toward Sunset and points directly at the Hollywood sign to the north. Connecting the towers along the top of the building is a horizontal bar that holds a helipad and lighting equipment and serves to complete a giant frame wrapping around the mannered forms of the classroom and studio wing.
Behind and above the classrooms, facing south and tucked away from the street, is a wide terrace. Along the street is a café; a stair leads from the sidewalk to a glassed-in lobby on the second floor. Some familiar Morphosis tics are in evidence, most notably a frenzy of action on the exterior of the building at the expense of pinched and rather forgettable interior spaces. While the terrace is both full of architectural drama and a sunny, pleasant place to be, the small, spartan concrete dorm rooms are neither.
But the project also signals a long-awaited change of focus in the firm’s work. After nearly a decade of producing a steady series of twisted, striated, and otherwise deformed boxes with dramatic stairs inside—Cooper Union, the Perot Museum, and the Caltech building all belong to this lineage—Mayne has begun exploring a fresh batch of ideas. The tortured box is gone, and in its place, thanks to the dramatic divide between the dormitory towers and the classroom spaces, is a compelling study of the gap between rational and irrational forms and, by extension, between left- and right-brain thinking.
The gesture that makes this exploration possible is the long bar across the top of the building. It turns a pair of vertical elements—the dormitory towers—into a frame, and the building into a giant arch. That arch recalls, most obviously, the Grande Arche office building in La Defense, the commercial district on the outskirts of Paris, a building by Johan Otto von Spreckelsen and Paul Andreu that Mayne has surely come to know well while working on the Phare Tower.
The boxy shape of the building’s perimeter also connects the Emerson design to the history of Hollywood studio architecture. Studio stage sets have a similar contrast between pragmatic exterior architecture and wildly unorthodox created worlds. The building itself, with its shimmering fixed sunshade overlooking the central terrace, is meant to operate as a kind of stage set, or least charismatic backdrop, for the student filmmakers themselves. Once the students are done shooting, they can edit their work in sophisticated post-production facilities and show it to classmates and professors in a digital screening room.
On the whole, the design is decidedly self-conscious—a building that aims at monumentality by framing itself—but full of architectural power nonetheless. Taking on a site in the rather anonymous and lightly trafficked outskirts of Hollywood proper, Mayne and Morphosis didn’t despair at the lack of architectural context and urban energy in the immediate vicinity. They simply decided to manufacture some context of their own—to produce not just an advertising cam- paign for Emerson’s L.A. presence and their own return to the city but a kind of architectural billboard on which to show off that campaign to memorable and photogenic effect.
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