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Thread: Caltrans District 7 Headquarters

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    Default Caltrans District 7 Headquarters

    December 8, 2004

    ARCHITECTURE REVIEW

    A Building as a Beacon for a City's Plans

    By NICOLAI OUROUSSOFF


    The Caltrans District 7 headquarters, its public plaza and, toward the right, the entrance to the 120-foot-high urban lobby.


    In the urban lobby, the artist Keith Sonnier used a half mile of fluorescent tubes to evoke a highway at night.

    Slide Show: A Vision of Modernity

    LOS ANGELES - Thom Mayne has never been a shy architect. His designs mix technological bravura with the kind of urban grit that you associate with this city's sprawling freeways and giant billboards. Yet underneath the tough veneer lies a strong current of social optimism.

    So the new Caltrans District 7 headquarters, which covers a city block downtown near City Hall, was a choice commission for Mr. Mayne. The building, inaugurated in September, will house the state agency that oversees the ribbons of freeway that rank among the city's most spectacular engineering achievements. Like those freeways, the building is monumental. Its glistening metal skin and hulking form evoke the relentless faith in the future - in social mobility, individual freedom, eternal youth - that made Los Angeles one of the most radical urban inventions in American history.

    What's more, the Caltrans design is a blunt rejection of the sterile towers and intimidating plazas that have turned much of downtown Los Angeles into a soulless corporate enclave sealed off from the area's surrounding ethnic neighborhoods. Nor does Mr. Mayne accept the notion that to save our urban centers, we must transform them into ersatz versions of small-town America with themed pedestrian environments. On the contrary, his design sprouts from an intuitive understanding of what gives cites their meaning: their clashing scales and vibrant ethnic mix.

    That message could not come at a better time. Los Angeles is about to embark on a redevelopment project that could eventually transform the entire downtown civic center, pitting bottom-line development interests against those who still believe that architecture can contribute something to the public welfare. Like Frank Gehry's recently completed Walt Disney Concert Hall and Jose Rafael Moneo's Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, the Caltrans headquarters holds out the promise that downtown Los Angeles could reclaim its stature as one of the most original and vibrant urban experiments in America.

    The building stands on a prominent site across the intersection from City Hall between the cultural landmarks of Grand Avenue and Little Tokyo. The result of a competition that that included the architects Rem Koolhaas of the Netherlands and Benedetta Tagliabue of Barcelona, it was not the kind of commission that typically produces first-rate design. The enormous scale, which required packing 1.2 million square feet of office space into a 140,000-square-foot site, virtually guaranteed that the city would get a conventional office block. And the project's modest initial budget, roughly $165 million, seemed to leave little room for the architectural imagination to flourish.

    Rather than sink into despair, Mr. Mayne and Morphosis, his Santa Monica-based firm, presented a basic design package with several potential upgrades, as if Caltrans were buying a new car. In the stripped-down version, most of the offices were in a 13-story office block that covers the eastern part of the site; the remainder would be in a three-story structure on the site's southern edge, framing a public plaza. Alluring features like the mechanized perforated metal facade, the open-air urban lobby and a 120-foot light well would cost roughly $16 million more.

    The architect's strategy forced the city to question how highly it valued architecture. What's surprising is that it worked. Some of the design elements were cut back to save money: the urban lobby, for example, was reduced from six stories to four; a glass-enclosed conference room was eliminated. But essentially, Caltrans bought the deluxe package. (The project was completed for about $170 million.)

    Seen from the civic center, the building's glistening facade is a stunning counterpoint to City Hall's phallic stone tower. The upper floors of the main office structure cantilever over the sidewalk, setting the composition euphorically off balance. A skin of perforated horizontal panels give the structure a haunting ethereality. Like mechanical eyelids, they lift gradually as the sun dips over the horizon, allowing light to flow into the offices.

    The effect is magical at night, when the building dissolves into a shimmering slab of glass. But more subtly, the varied textures of the facade's movable surfaces break down the building's sense of anonymity, hinting at the life buzzing inside. And the design aggressively engages its surroundings with a hierarchy of public zones that sweep right up through the building.

    Near ground level, for example, the building's metal skin peels up to form a canopy that wraps around the plaza's edges like a big enveloping arm, as if to draw the surrounding street life directly into the composition. Framing one end of the plaza is a decorative steel screen emblazoned with the building's street number, evoking the elaborate billboards that line the Sunset Strip.

    But the heart of the project is the urban lobby, a towering void that carves right through the building's core, linking the plaza to the building's main entrance. The lobby dead ends in a glass-enclosed cafeteria, a surprising decision in a design whose main theme is mobility. You want to punch through the glass and connect the space directly to the street on the other side, so that pedestrians can flow right through the building.

    Even so, it is a spectacular room. A metal bridge spanning the atrium connects offices; natural light spills down through the light well, carved through the building's upper floors. The lobby's walls are decorated in streaming bands of red and blue fluorescent lights that extend to the plaza. Designed by the artist Keith Sonnier, they evoke the hypnotic glow of cars moving along a freeway at night. It suggests a contemporary version of Piranesi's delirious architectural fantasies of ancient Rome, as if a portion of elevated freeway had somehow broken free and been sucked right up into the building.

    That vision continues in the entrance lobby, where a translucent resin reception desk is supported on an I-beam that seems as if it had splintered off from the building's structure and were now floating in midair. A cantilevered staircase behind the reception desk leads to the second floor. From here, elevators shoot up to a series of smaller lobbies on alternate floors. A variation of an old Modernist trick first used by Soviet Constructivists, the lobbies are meant to encourage communal interaction among the office workers.

    By comparison, the offices are relatively banal, victims of budget constraints. Still, the building's relentless focus on public space reinforces Mr. Mayne's social mission. An unrepentant child of the 1960's, Mr. Mayne has long been obsessed with the ideals of early Modernism, particularly its utopian goals. This, more than anything else, has inspired him to tackle the big government projects that many high-end architects shy away from. In the process he has become adept at breathing new life into old Modernist formulas.

    This approach has particular resonance in Los Angeles, one of the world's most potent visions of modernity. Like most American cities, however, it has had to cope with increasing pressures from developers and urban planners, who tend to see urban space as nothing more than a vast machine for middle-class consumers. In this context Mr. Mayne's revamped Modernism has a refreshing honesty.

    It is still unclear which vision will chart the future of downtown Los Angeles. The city is struggling with the next phase of development along Grand Avenue, a few blocks from the Caltrans site. The project, a 10-acre retail-commercial development, is overseen by the Related Companies, the group that created the crassly commercial Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle. Related was originally working with a team that included Mr. Mayne; Skidmore, Owings & Merrill; and Elkus/Manfredi. The developer dropped Mr. Mayne and is flirting with Frank Gehry.

    The outcome of that project may well signal whether buildings like the Caltrans headquarters have set a new standard for architecture here, or they are simply refreshing anomalies.



    Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

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    January 16, 2005

    How Did He Become the Government's Favorite Architect?

    By ARTHUR LUBOW


    Thom Mayne.

    Slide Show: Working for the Man

    Arriving through Los Angeles, pointing out the large public buildings he has designed, Thom Mayne is getting glummer and glummer. On the outskirts of town is the acclaimed Diamond Ranch High School, a succession of angular shapes clad in corrugated metal, marching dynamically up a steep ravine. Down in tough South Central lies the Science Center School, which combines a lofty renovation of a historic armory with a tilted bar of a new building that sinks to the ground and is protected from the street by a planted berm. Not far away, at the corner of First and Main in the heart of downtown, sits the powerful, brooding Caltrans District 7 building, a headquarters of the California transportation department; it is a collaboration with the artist Keith Sonnier, whose embedded fluorescent tubes evoke car taillights caught in a long-exposure photograph. Sharp-edged and off-kilter, wrapped in corrugated or perforated metal, these three high-profile projects were all completed in Mayne's home city in the last few years. So why is the architect looking so unhappy? ''It seems like a moment in time when I am getting architecture out of projects, and I can't be complaining,'' he says unconvincingly. Then he immediately adds, ''If I wasn't actually dissatisfied, I wouldn't be me.'' A little while later, he is still musing: ''It's what it could have been, in your own brain. I don't know why it's so painful. Maybe it's something that's not attainable. Maybe I'll know it when I get there.''

    For a long time, Mayne ferociously resisted what he calls the ''con-tamination'' of his profession. He terrorized and alienated clients in his struggle to avoid the compromises that occur when drawings are converted into buildings. At 60, this former bad boy now finds that his firm, Morphosis, is winning some of the most prestigious commissions in the country. Even more surprising, he appears to have become the first-choice architect of the U.S. government, which, under the ''design excellence'' program of the General Services Administration, has retained Morphosis to build a federal office building in San Francisco, a courthouse in Eugene, Ore., and the satellite facility for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration outside of Washington. All three projects are currently under construction. In New York, Morphosis recently won two important competitions: for the Olympic Village in Queens, which is a mixed-use waterfront development that is scheduled to go up whether or not the Olympic Games come to New York in 2012, and the art studio and engineering building of Cooper Union. ''It's really been a kick,'' he says. ''The last two major competitions in New York, I've gotten both of them.''

    That an exponent of L.A. edginess should be making it big in Washington and New York is a testament to the maturation of both Mayne and American architecture. The leading Los Angeles architects -- Frank Gehry, Eric Owen Moss and Mayne among them -- are loosely linked by their exploration of unconventional forms and materials, and by their ability to deliver innovative work on a tight budget. In the sprawl of Los Angeles, there is room for progressive architecture. ''There's always been a freedom out here that lets us grow our ideas and get them built,'' Gehry says. ''I don't think he could have done the Caltrans building in an Eastern city. It went up under the radar. It couldn't happen in New York. Every time you go to the bathroom there, people notice.'' Aside from the critical scrutiny, New York is a notoriously expensive, bureaucratically thorny place to build, and for the last half-century, its skyline has been shaped mainly by developers, not designers. But today, provocative design sells. As for Mayne, he is no longer waging hand-to-hand combat with his clients or his demons. One time -- ''When he was a really rebellious and angry young man,'' says his wife, Blythe Alison-Mayne -- he grabbed a client by the collar and lifted him off his feet. ''I was intoxicated with the idea of autonomy as a young man, and saw architecture as being something against the status quo,'' Mayne says. ''In the first 25 years, I didn't have a client who would talk to me afterward. They said, 'Arrogant bastard.' Because I just had to plow through, and I did, to get it done.''

    Michael Rotondi, who was Mayne's original partner in Morphosis, recalls showing up with him at an early residential project and seeing that the wobbly-looking concrete work that they had asked the contractor to correct was still in place. ''Get in the car, Mike,'' Mayne said. They returned with a rented jackhammer, and, in front of the aghast workmen, Mayne blasted out the offending blocks; the partners later made their own forms and poured the concrete themselves. ''In those days, Thom was very impatient,'' Rotondi says. It was the mid-70's. Mayne, an adamant leftist, so disapproved of bourgeois clients that he purposely made a table out of sharp metal (under a deceptively safe-looking glass top) to grab and cut neckties. ''It ended up slicing our shirts, because no clients with ties would sit down at it,'' Rotondi says.

    Although, as in that instance, the anger often proved self-defeating, the romantic idea of conflict animated Mayne's work. The confrontational style that he affected personally he also adopted formally. A typical Morphosis project sets two or more systems in opposition. The collision is most obvious in the restaurant renovations that he completed in the mid-80's on the west side of Los Angeles: 72 Market Street, Kate Mantilini and Angeli. The ascendant architectural style at the time was postmodernism, in which a smorgasbord of historical elements -- a mansard roof, a Palladian doorway, a Tuscan color palette -- would be assembled in a pastiche that was profoundly ahistorical. Mayne was the antihomogenizer: he made sure that everyone noticed that a renovation was a violent intrusion on an existing structure. When he was designing a free-standing building on an empty lot, Mayne used his imagination and imported the conflict. For his first large-scale residence, the Crawford House in Montecito, he made rhythmic markings on the site -- inspired by the Nazca lines in the Peruvian desert -- at 16-foot intervals, and represented them in the building with seven redwood-clad vertical ''totems'' that he topped with north-facing skylights. This repetitive system collides with another line -- the arc of a concrete wall, which, although incomplete and interrupted, constitutes fragments of a large circle. Passionate about his geometry, Mayne recalls a conversation in which the client, on the verge of signing a large check, questioned the necessity of a concrete pillar that had no function other than continuing the 16-foot repetitive sequence. ''It's essential,'' Mayne told him. ''If that's gone, the house is gone. It's about the primitive marking of the site.'' The architect and client sparred throughout the design process of the Crawford House. ''It's an engagement that comes from two different ways of looking at the project,'' Mayne reflects. ''It's a house for them, and a personal expression of where they have arrived in the world. For me, it was my first large free-standing building and an opportunity to do certain things conceptually. I'm not that interested in the domestic environment, only as it intersects a broader conceptual idea.'' Richard Blades, another residential client of the early 90's nearby in Santa Barbara, says he had to insist that his house be widened by two feet. ''The original house was too narrow to put furniture in,'' Blades says. ''There wasn't enough room for a closet. Thom thought you don't need a closet larger than a shoebox. He slammed his hand down and said, 'How many clothes do you have anyway?' ''

    Flash-forward to March 1999. Mayne had just won a juried competition to build a federal courthouse in Eugene, Ore. Ed Feiner, the chief architect for the GSA, which administered the ''design excellence'' program, was thrilled. Judge Michael Hogan, the politically conservative, devoutly Christian jurist who represented the district court, was appalled. ''You read something like 'the bad boy of L.A. architecture,' and then you look at some of the buildings, and you don't see anything that looks like a courthouse,'' Hogan says. ''To a federal judge, a court should probably look like the Supreme Court.'' At Feiner's urging, Hogan got in touch with Mayne. In the course of two red-wine-fueled weekends in the Oregon woods and a privately financed European research trip to see courthouses by Richard Rogers in Bordeaux and Jean Nouvel in Nantes, the judge and the architect, with their key staff members, enlightened each other about modern architecture and American jurisprudence. After 27 versions, the three courtrooms that dictate the unconventional form of the courthouse wound up as teardrop shapes, thereby eliminating the space that goes unused on each side of the judge's bench in the traditional rectangular format. The jury box is pushed off to the outside of the teardrop, indicating that the jurors are spectators, not actors, in the unfolding drama. ''If you sit in this jury box, you understand completely what your job is,'' Hogan says. The courtrooms admit light on three sides, satisfying Hogan's wish to have ''an architecture of openness.'' A convert to the cause of modern architecture, Hogan says, ''The building, I'm convinced, will be a destination for the Northwest.''

    For Mayne, who remains politically committed, the opportunity to rethink the configuration of a courtroom was gratifying. Typically, on a government project, the specifications for each component are dictated inflexibly. Exciting as the Diamond Ranch High School is in its form, the classrooms inside are standard issue. ''I didn't get to touch the rooms, so I didn't touch education,'' he says. ''It's very hard for me to accept how far down the food chain architects are. I thought through architecture I would be able to deal with first principles. It was very aggravating to be put in the position of decorating.''

    In his early work with Morphosis, Mayne excelled at details, like the heating elements concealed in the load-bearing beams of the Crawford House or the intertwined hot and cold spigots in the bathroom of the Blades House. ''A lot of the early work was a collection of micro-events,'' he says. ''It operated at the level of door handle. It was corporeal, always connected to touch.'' Working now with big projects on tight budgets, he has funneled his love of materials and construction into innovative engineering and land reshaping. At Diamond Ranch, where the steep site was almost unbuildable, he devoted $11 million of the total $29 million budget to contouring the landscape. Among the achievements is a playing field at the rooftop level of the school, with amphitheater seating in the bowl-shaped, scooped-out hillside above it. By comparison, the Nazca scrapings at the Crawford House were child's play.

    In San Francisco, the Morphosis federal office building now under construction is an unusually narrow skyscraper. The small floor plate, which is common in Europe but unorthodox here, provides a higher proportion of offices with light and views. Even more radically, it allows the building to dispense with air-conditioning in favor of a natural ventilation system, which uses a computerized, weather-sensitive program to open and close windows, and circulates air between the floors and between the building's perforated-steel outer skin and glass inner skin. (Only in a temperate climate like San Francisco's would this particular scheme be thinkable. Even there, because of security concerns, the bottom five floors need to be sealed, and therefore air-conditioned.) ''We've got 14 hours maximum out of the year when it may be a little warm,'' Mayne says. ''I worry about it. But if we're not willing to take these risks, we're finished as a culture. What we're gaining is double the energy efficiency.'' The engineering requirements for energy conservation in turn affected the social protocol: because the perimeter spaces cannot be enclosed, the executive offices are located in the core, and the windowed areas are reserved for communal lounges and support-staff workstations. Another space-saving measure -- skip-stop elevators, which open only on every third floor, encouraging occupants to use the grand staircases and landings -- could also have social consequences once the building opens.

    The pressure of satisfying a prescriptive program within a restrictive budget has liberated Mayne from the preciousness that tinged some of his earlier work. Instead of inventing systems of conceptual complexity and forcing the program to conform to it, he now is dealing with sites and programs that impose their own complexity. In an ambitious recreation and housing center that is scheduled to open in mid-2005 at the University of Cincinnati, Mayne and his team dealt once again with a site in a ravine. Unlike Diamond Ranch High School, however, the Cincinnati project is jostled by other new construction. ''It is jammed between the stadium, the student-union building, the student services building, as well as the old basketball arena and the old track,'' says Jay Chatterjee, a professor of architecture and planning at the university. ''He had to create a very substantial building, over 350,000 square feet, for all the athletic facilities and a student dorm. It has three or four major circulation paths it has to connect with. It has entrances and exits on different levels.'' Of all of Morphosis's current projects, Mayne seems to be most enthralled by this one. ''I love it because it's all made out of connective tissue,'' he says. For his guiding metaphor, he has evolved from opposition to connection.

    "I lived in a state of rage from 12 to 20,'' Mayne says. ''Until college, I was beyond an outsider. I was a voyeur of life.'' Irrepressibly voluble and, notwithstanding a close-cut salt-and-pepper beard, engagingly boyish, Mayne wears his years of psychoanalysis on his sleeve. He was 10 when his parents divorced, and in the court proceedings, he was asked to choose between them. This painful episode may help explain his aesthetic fascination with conflict. He grew up in Los Angeles with his struggling single mother, who dressed him in a hat, tie and herringbone suit. ''We had a tablecloth on a mahogany table even when we had no money,'' he says. This early feigned gentility may underlie his distaste for fake veneers and his desire to expose underlying structures and concepts.

    Perhaps. On the other hand, Mayne came of age in the 60's, when hatred of authority and yearning for authenticity were to be expected. After graduating with an architecture degree from the University of Southern California in 1968, he went to work as an urban planner. Four years later, with five other architects, he formed a new school, the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc), which aimed to bring to Los Angeles the critical attitude toward the profession that was being practiced at Cooper Union in New York and the Architectural Association in London. More than three decades later, SCI-Arc is still going strong (although Mayne himself now teaches at U.C.L.A.).

    Around the time of the founding of SCI-Arc, Mayne began an architectural firm in the beachside community of Venice with two school friends who were also teachers. ''It was not really a practice as much as it was a garage band,'' says Rotondi. ''We would invent stuff if we didn't have things to do. That's what the teaching basically was, to get the ideas out of our head. Otherwise, they would be like ingrown toenails.'' Rather than hang out a shingle composed of the names of the principals, the anticorporate firm titled itself Morphosis, after the Greek word for ''take shape.'' Their clients were friends of friends, or parents of students. ''We mowed lawns to stay alive,'' Rotondi says. When Mayne decided to take a year to earn a master's degree at Harvard, there was no project-related impediment to his doing so. Rotondi recalls that upon Mayne's return in 1978, they went to see the house that Frank Gehry had just completed for himself in Santa Monica. With this residence, built out of fragments composed of corrugated siding and chain-link fencing, Gehry rethought conventional ideas of domesticity and integrity. ''We just stood and stared at it,'' Rotondi recalls. ''The fact that Frank was being attacked gave us a sense that he was doing something right.'' If there is a Southern California style of contemporary architecture, it is based on an infatuation with the materials and processes of construction, a fragmentation of wholes and a pragmatism about costs. These qualities have always characterized Mayne's work. ''Thom knows how to build,'' says the architect Enrique Norten, who is currently working on a branch of the Brooklyn Public Library. ''From the very beginning, he thinks about the materiality of the building -- the processes and the construction -- and that knowledge goes into the design.''

    Over the years, Morphosis grew, with commercial projects in Los Angeles and Japan. As in most architectural practices, however, the recession of the early 90's proved crippling. As it happened, Rotondi and Mayne parted ways just before the economy crashed. ''We had 25 or 30 people,'' says Blythe Alison-Mayne, an M.B.A. who worked in the fashion industry before coming over to run the Morphosis business. ''We went down to six or seven. It was a disaster.'' Thom (who also changed his legal, though not his professional, name to Alison-Mayne when he and Blythe married in 1981), adds, ''I was 50, 52, and I was worth minus half a million dollars.'' Once business picked up, first with towers in Seoul and Austria, then with the big federal and California projects, the firm grew rapidly back to its former size. That posed other difficulties. ''It's hard to find people with experience who haven't been corrupted by the commercial world,'' says Kim Groves, who has been at Morphosis since 1987.

    The open-plan Morphosis office in Santa Monica has a collegial feel, with Mayne stepping back to allow the other architects space to develop their own ideas. Nonetheless, in this generically named firm, Mayne is the only principal. ''It doesn't take long to find contradictions,'' he says. ''I'm aware of this, and I do some kind of dance. I balance my own intuitive abilities and my interest in a collective process.''

    Certain formal elements recur in Mayne's buildings. Beginning with the Sun Tower in Seoul of 1997, he has liked to fold perforated metal skins like origami; in the San Francisco federal building, for example, the skin fans out at the plaza level to form the roof of a day-care facility. His buildings often have ''double skins'' -- originally a formal exercise started with the Sun Tower but now used mainly to save energy. Skip-stop elevators (a space-saving innovation pioneered by a progressive Moscow architect in the 1920's) first appeared in the graduate housing he built at the University of Toronto (completed in 2000) and then at the San Francisco federal building. It is part of his scheme for the Cooper Union building, along with a grand central staircase, also an element shared by many of his public projects. The bands of windows that will open manually in the metal exterior of Cooper Union are cousins to those at Caltrans and the San Francisco federal building. The billboard-size signage in Toronto would later appear at Caltrans and will recur in Eugene.

    For the 61-acre Hunters Point riverfront project in Queens, where the Olympics will be held if the Games come to New York in 2012, Morphosis has developed an urban plan that will preserve three-quarters of the land as parks. Although the northern end of the tract will feature residential towers, the bulk of the housing will be contained in undulating, ribbonlike low-rise buildings, tilted at a 14-degree angle toward the water. ''It's an interpretation of the river and its lyrical, more natural state,'' Mayne says. ''And the housing provided a demarcation -- and also a windbreak and a shading -- for the parks.'' Mayne has long been interested in ribbon housing as an alternative to high-rises. His competition entry for the Spreebogen development in Berlin in 1993 and a magazine-solicited proposal for the World Trade Center site in 2002 both relied on it. Furthermore, his use of ribbonlike buildings in Queens to evoke the ''edge condition'' of the river harks back to the way in which his curved walls marked the boundaries of the Blades and Crawford houses.

    With age, even the most iconoclastic architect develops an iconography. Although progressive architects, including Mayne, usually try not to repeat themselves formally, the real test is whether they allow their idiosyncratic vocabulary to dictate hackneyed, predictable results. Mayne has avoided this trap. For much of his career, he has had to slip his conceptual concerns below his clients' surveillance monitors. ''Huge amounts of time I'd be sitting at a table, and my image of myself was as a complete covert operator,'' he says. With the popularity of advanced architecture and his own success, he has come aboveground. He will, however, probably always enjoy the process more than the product. A Morphosis building is a visible celebration of the energies that went into its construction. Completed, it can only evoke, never equal, the beauty of its becoming.

    Arthur Lubow, a contributing writer, last wrote for the magazine about the new Museum of Modern Art.

    Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

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