Los Angeles, California
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.
The scheme, by Coop Himmelb(l)au, is often likened to torqued chess pieces—with a tilted, conical, freestanding library, clad in gleaming steel; rhomboid light chimneys projecting from the cafeteria; and blocky classroom buildings, punched with oversize portholes. But the project also bears the thumbprints of unremarkable beginnings.
In 2000, the notoriously overcrowded and under-resourced Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), with unprecedented bond funding, engaged AC Martin Architects to design a traditional high school for the 9.8-acre downtown site, formerly LAUSD headquarters. By 2001, AC Martin’s scheme was, according to Coop Himmelb(l)au, “fully designed and engineered through construction documents.” Yet billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad, with other local leaders, convinced the district to switch course and create instead a high school composed of four “academies”: music, theater, dance, and visual arts. The idea was to exploit the educational opportunities of the site, bordering inner city and Grand Avenue’s cultural district, along with Gehry’s Disney Hall, Isozaki’s Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, and Moneo’s Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. Instrumental to Disney Hall’s realization and the future Grand Avenue Development, Broad wanted an architectural luminary (and later contributed $5 million) for HS #9.
An international competition ensued, won by Coop Himmelb(l)au. The firm’s approach emphasized “the importance of making icons people could identify and take ‘mental ownership’ of,” says principal architect Wolf D. Prix, who faults architectural anonymity for the assault on buildings during Paris’s 1968 student uprisings and L.A.’s Rodney King riots. “We needed to create something exceptional and memorable in the anonymous fabric of the city.” Hence the school’s spiraling, Tatlinesque tower, forming an urban gateway with the cathedral campanile directly across the freeway. Beneath the tower, a 950-seat, state-of-the-art theater—an ambitious piece of the revised program—anchors a corner with a glassy public lobby.
But budgetary guidelines kept certain straightforward AC Martin elements in place: a central rectangular plaza and the boxy massing of classroom buildings, tweaked by Coop Himmelb(l)au with big, round, playful (verging on silly) windows bubbling across the street facades. These blocky volumes, each housing a separate “academy,” have become successful foils to the quirkier structures, much as Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh Secretariat plays rectilinearity against a roofscape of similar objects.
Set on a hill, HS #9’s campus rises from wide entry steps, originally envisioned as a community perch. But LAUSD mandates, introduced late in the game, resulted in security gates at the stair’s base (rather than its summit), awkwardly severing it from the public realm. The steps lead to the campus’s protected center, its outdoor meeting ground and crossroads, with access to the library cone, cafeteria (burrowed in the hill), classrooms, and theater—a strikingly surreal landscape of silvery objects amid downtown skylines. Amphitheater steps ascend to the gym and soccer field–cum–open-air arts space.
A secure precinct, locked during classes like any LAUSD school, the campus conveys a remarkable sense of freedom and spatial expanse. “My kids are so excited to study here,” reports one parent (echoed by students across the Internet). “It makes them feel special—they keep saying, ‘Wow, this is like college!’ ”
Despite the gates, HS #9 is not elitist, accepting 70 percent of its 1,700 students from its inner-city neighborhood. And, unlike high-powered arts high schools, it does not base admissions on auditions or portfolios. Yet the facilities and fittings—from cutting-edge theater technologies to music synthesizers—would be the envy of most college and professional arts venues. And that’s where the school’s dazzling cost and architectural expression reenter the discussion.
True, the price owes much to unfortunate timing and unforeseen obstacles: an overheated economy, multiple LAUSD leadership changes, and a site complicated by archaeological findings and a defunct rail tunnel. But even so, in a school system plagued by impoverished facilities, does it ever make sense, vis-à-vis cost and image, to splurge on a flagship? (AC Martin’s more typical, no-frills scheme was estimated at a third of HS #9’s final cost.) Though hardly the architect’s call, this question touches on the choice of designer and matters of perception. LAUSD might have been prudent to select an architect known for inventive yet legible economy of means, even when cost-efficient Coop Himmelb(l)au’s exuberant form-making rarely conveys that message. (And an idiosyncratic, partially cantilevered tower over a theater’s column-free space undeniably boosts the price.)
Some critics have portrayed the project as a showpiece emphasizing exterior public image over student experience. But quiet, minimally distracting spaces have their value here. Though the wide corridors between classrooms are standardized, their simple ingredients shine: good proportions, daylight, and authenticity of materials, including handsomely durable polished-concrete floors and galvanized-aluminum balustrades. And here, straightforward classrooms gain unexpected variety and luminosity through multiple sizes and positions of portholes.
Halfway into HS #9’s first year, the jury is still out on its success. Mirroring student feedback across the Internet, one blogger wrote: “For those who keep asking what the big spiral is for, if that even matters, it’s to show art students we have to reach for success, soar to new heights. This place is great.” “Dayum!” another added.
It’s only a pity the tower-top theater reception room, with dramatic views, remains vacant. The school deferred completion to trim costs, despite its earning potential as a rental event space. But HS #9’s surreal architecture has inspired another revenue stream—as a top movie and TV shooting location. “It’s exciting,” says assistant principal Ken Martinez, “but we only do it if it’s not distracting. Remember: Our first priority is the students.”