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Cut and Print: Emerson College, Los Angeles by Morphosis

Drawing on the history and typology of its Hollywood milieu, Morphosis’s new media college abstracts and synthesises ideas about surface, space and social connectivity in an ambitiously scaled urban stage set

In 1936, the French Modernist writer Blaise Cendrars arrived in Hollywood, on the promise of a contract for a script and with a side assignment from the Paris press to observe life in this ‘Mecca of the cinema’ and recount for its French readers the workings of her ‘dream factories’. He was frustrated at every turn. The contract came to nothing. And while he described a crowded town bubbling with the hyperactive vitality of young legions of fame and fortune seekers, he heard only silence from the moviemakers themselves, hidden behind the vast blank walls of their studios and fiercely guarded by the keepers of their narrow gates.

At first repelled by the secrecy of this ‘forbidden city’, Cendrars slowly became enchanted with the sense of mystery conveyed by an industry that was at once hell-bent on advertising its wares and fanatically devoted to concealing the mechanisms that produced it.

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The ‘mystery and contradiction’ of Hollywood; in reality a small swathe of Los Angeles set on a conventional street grid

‘Hollywood’ is indeed a mystery and a contradiction. Like Mecca, or Babylon, or Sodom − to all of which it has been compared − it is a great city in the imagination, and the evocative shorthand for an idea. Yet the place itself is not a city at all, but a small swathe of metropolitan Los Angeles, set on a conventional street grid across the down slope of the Santa Monica Mountains about 10 miles from the city centre, on a loop that sets it a little apart from the principal metropolitan corridors.

For most of its 100 years as the world’s entertainment capital, most of the work ‘Hollywood’ produced has been made elsewhere − shot in studios and backlots amid the bean fields and oil derricks between Los Angeles and the sea, the grazing lands and suburban tracts of the San Fernando Valley, or the ‘movie ranches’ that stretched out along the rocks and grasslands of the western valleys; designed and post-produced in industrial sheds or workshops secreted throughout the city; and managed from office towers along the Wilshire corridor. And for most of those years, despite their promisingly metropolitan names (Culver City, Studio City, Universal City), nothing resembling a real city grew up in any of the neighbourhoods around them.

Hollywood was different. It had the good fortune to get off to a terrible start. It was laid out in 1887, as a town for middle-class temperance and health seekers from the middle West, and its house lots came to market just as the first great land bubble burst. Ten miles from the city, and two hours from downtown by tram, it struggled through the next 20 years. Its disappointed investors responded by furnishing an unusually sturdy modern infrastructure.

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Site plan

By the time this faltering new city failed, annexing itself to Los Angeles in 1910, its sparse few hundred residents were served by well-made streets, electric lighting, public buildings and churches, and − in the three-acre gardens, 125 rooms, music rooms, chapel and ballroom of its sprawling Hollywood Hotel − the region’s most ambitious resort.

The first film studios arrived the next year, and as the scale of the movie business grew, a number of larger concerns − Warner Brothers in 1922, and Paramount in 1926 − settled on to Hollywood lots. Building giant open-span hangars on the patterns and structural systems of the city’s booming aircraft industry, they screened these simple sheds with shallow, block-long street-fronts, and decorated them with the same classical and exotic reminiscences that served as backdrops to the silent films taking shape within.

From that point forth, in travelogues, picture postcards, gossip columns and illustrated magazines, ‘Hollywood’, this once teetotal subsection of a now burgeoning city, became a synonym for the romantic shimmer of the silver screen, the exotic lives of those we saw upon it, and, in the increasingly desperate portraits of Hollywood life that with the coming of dialogue its directors and newly arrived writers would paint, for the disappointments that were the shadows behind its gleaming promise.

Built Hollywood had, meanwhile, adopted the logic of its own mythical construction as a magical metropolis, and begun constructing it in very solid reality, as almost overnight a fabric of richly patterned, substantial masonry blocks of professional offices, apartment courts, hotels, theatres and shops rose four to 10 storeys high along the central stretch of its three main boulevards and deep into the cross streets of its grid.

Absorbing many of the demands of massive growth in population and traffic that were then strangling the tight little business centre of Los Angeles, Hollywood − like the more sober Wilshire district just to the west − had emerged by the time of the Crash as a flourishing parallel downtown, an electric city of day and night for the louche and lively.

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Framed by towering wings, the new building resembles a compressed version of a sound stage, a familiar and historic typology of the Hollywood milieu - click to expand

From then on, however, the history of central Hollywood becomes extraordinarily volatile. New schemes were abandoned in the face of the Depression. Recognising that the emerging technology of musical and talking pictures called for vast new sound stages, Warner Brothers itself led the flight to vacant land on the northern side of the mountains, leaving Paramount as the only major studio left in Hollywood, and reducing the old studio emplacements at the east end of town to ‘Poverty Row’ − production facilities for B pictures and short features.

By 1941, in a wondrous demonstration of the adaptability of composition bow truss roofs, the great Warner studios had become a bowling palace with 52 lanes, and much of Sunset Boulevard had gained a new life as ‘Radio Row’.

As successive waves of new business, with television and music to the fore, took over the working fabric of Hollywood, its metropolitan structure faltered, and many of its discretionary landmarks disappeared. Indeed while Hollywood displays for tourists an almost pious and wondering regard for its own archaeology, few built monuments survive, except for Grauman’s theatre, Capitol Records, and a famous remnant of a sign that had nothing to do with the movies but simply advertised a failed subdivision on the hills.

As a result, this history of change, decay and wilful demolition has for many decades now left Hollywood feeling − despite the solidity of its facades and the busy life it harbours − provisional and uncompleted; it seems still to lack a landmark that talks to the industry that made it; and its very history, though rising around its streets, known to all the world, and exhaustively inscribed in its pavements, seems mysteriously distant and uncertain.

For many years, efforts to clean up and revive these tatty remains of a never finished urban paradise have failed. More recently, however, deeply contentious projects to rehabilitate central Hollywood by inserting massive residential and office towers have begun rising from the ground, having been happily approved by a city government eager to increase the density of activities along the new metro system, and to grow its tax base as a result. In spite of that, most of Poverty Row to the east of this explosion of new building remains true to its name.

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Floor plans - click to expand

It is a wasteland of rough and ready studio conversions, decayed housing, parking lots and fast-food services, and Sunset Boulevard cuts through it with all the panache and charm of a commercial strip on the edge of a small town. It is there, on the fringe of these currently desolate and occasionally dangerous conditions that Morphosis were invited to build a hostel and teaching centre for a programme that brings some 200 students from Boston’s Emerson College each term to study and work in the media industry.

In discussing the Emerson design, Thom Mayne talks of ‘the urban imperative to think not of making a building but of building a site’; of bringing multiple ideas familiar at one scale into ‘collision and compression’ at another; of the dynamism that can be generated through displacement and the unexpected; and of the notion that architecture − as the great television producer Norman Lear, whose programmes were filmed in the old Warner studios a block away, reminded him − is a form of communication just like other media.

The result of such thinking is something that shows a disciplined and wonderfully radical respect for the complicated conditions in which the building finds itself; for the phenomenological and typological conventions of the city around it; and for what, above all, has been missing: a communicative symbol, by day and night, of the fluid, electric and vivid medium it celebrates.

Emerson college section

Sections - click to expand

Emerson’s LA campus is a little dream factory for the nurturing of talent and the cultivation of connections, much like a studio lot. The idea of constructing it as a compressed version of a great sound stage came to Mayne at once, as did the upward layering of increasing degrees of privacy and security; the constant dialogue between the private rooms, the interior court as a social enclave, and its prospects as an outlook on the larger world; the use of a steel bridge as a universal urban form; and the reliance on a single mobile and reflective material, evocative of the industrial shed but worked so that different treatments of its surfaces and properties could collide.

Some ideas came or were modified a little later: the loss of habitable space in the beam that flies across the opening; and more happily the addition of a tree in the upper court − an act of Mayne’s ‘displacement’ that steadies perception by conjuring the illusion of being grounded.

How hugely refreshing Morphosis were to us all when, unwilling to celebrate the gaudy, transitory or shallow features of southern California we had not yet come to love, they first showed in the 1980s that a deep, rugged, opaque palette and evident structural coherence might coexist with − perhaps confront − a horizontal, painted and transparent city.

At Emerson College, Morphosis’s dialogue with the specifics of the city moves away from confrontation and manages both to forge some unlikely combinations out of disparate elements in the city’s built landscape and to re-present them in unexpected terms.

There was more than a nod to the traditions of the city’s commercial architecture in Morphosis’s Caltrans building 10 years ago. Using patterns of coloured light and gigantic signage, it evoked ways in which casual buildings have long marked Los Angeles’ streetscapes, and more subtly, by carving out a comfortably bounded raised open court on its streetside, rang a generous change on the California courtyard in a section of the city traditionally sparse in public space.

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Exploded projection of the ‘vertical campus’

For Morphosis’s Emerson project, the college asked for a building whose private spaces were limited, so that students would be encouraged to use common space; and that those common spaces double as a set of backdrops and sound stages for students’ camerawork. Much as the walls of Hollywood’s studio sheds, entrance gates and false fronted facades have been used to background the scenes of motion pictures, so the steps and plazas of Mayne’s Emerson are dramatically designed to frame performance and moving pictures, and write some brilliantly inventive variations on the functional language of the studio hangar and its batteries of equipment.

Unlike the screen wall that sets off the plaza at Caltrans or the cantilevered girder that flies out somewhat ominously from Morphosis’s University of Toronto’s graduate centre, the huge metal sheet that bridges the residential towers at Emerson serves not just as gesture or landmark but as an efficient way to light the space below.
Perhaps less consciously, all sorts of changes, compressions and displacements are wrought on other commonplace elements in the city’s built landscape.

The texture and curves of the covered circulation space echo the wave forms of the lightweight bow-truss composition roofs that were invented for aircraft manufacture almost 100 years ago and since adopted throughout the city at all scales to house under an open span and behind a readily changeable shallow front everything from a garage or drycleaner to a vast film stage or Welton Becket’s Santa Monica auditorium.

The basic scheme of Emerson − twin towers running deep into the lot against the line of the street, facing each other across a pedestrian plaza, and sitting on a podium − can be found in countless office projects from the 1960s and ’70s. These are another LA original, crafted to match the strip zoning of a city plan from the 1920s to the scale of use, requirements for public open space, and demands for integral parking of the ’60s and ’70s. In examples such as Paramount Plaza or the Wilshire Colonnade, they form a veritable parade of paired silver towers along Wilshire Boulevard.

The open spaces between them were much touted in their naming − almost every lonely high-rise in the decades after 1960 was called a ‘plaza’ − but the blanks between them are almost uniformly uninviting. It is lovely to see Morphosis stretch that rectilinear massing system into something less forbidding by adding movable skins to its outward sides and wavelike scrims to the inward, and by filling the ‘plaza’ with a widening tube of shaped, transparent and reflective green that causes passages, classrooms and offices to glow by day or night.

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The sense of opennessis counterpointed by some typically fierce and vertiginous moments when the building turns in darkly on itself in a cascade of towering walls

There is no deference in Mayne’s borrowings from the city’s corporate and functional vernacular, except in acknowledging their basic logic. On the contrary, Morphosis seems to be taking these well-tested if often banal and static responses to the terms of the city they serve and turning them to dynamic effect. Perhaps more surprising is the sympathy between Emerson and its situation: an immediate streetscape in woeful disarray; a site on a slope with well-defined vistas of the hills to its north and a vague but often luminous prospect to the south.

There are some typically fierce and vertiginous Morphotic moments in which the building turns darkly in on itself amid a cascade of towering walls that dominate passage. And with their expanses of concrete and presiding towers, Emerson’s plazas and great stairway do not invite quite the bathing or incident of light that makes the rising wells of Cooper Union such habitable social space. But the building is still governed by the hint of the ethereal that makes Los Angeles, even in tatty Hollywood, a place of wonder: light, vista and the changes wrought by both, whether caught shifting on the two fluidly patterned metal scrims that frame the courtyards, shining above the scrappy blocks of housing under the southern wall, or glowing into and out from the wandering translucent shed that fills the courts.

A few blocks to the west, Steve Kanner’s Sunset tower conversion first addressed ‘Hollywood’ by pasting a giant projection screen on its surfaces. Emerson takes the same subject by indirection, capturing between its just reflective surface and its dynamic illumination, that shallow, mobile, mirrored sense of light that marks Hollywood, the industry that formed it, and the passing moonbeams of the city of night. Its fundamental transparency goes two ways.

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After dark the building becomes a glowing lantern dynamically illuminating the surrounding strip

Not only do students look out on the fragile but legendary landscape in which their art was formed, but the city looks up from the street to see students filming on the great staircase or working in their electric classrooms to learn the tools of the Hollywood trade.

Thus in at least one vital new addition to the architecture of ‘Hollywood’ have the ‘great walls of China’ begun to come down, the blank walls and secretive gates of Cendrars’ forbidden city vanish, as a new working icon for the city of dreams lays out a transparent and animate view of the work that goes to make them.

Emerson College, Los Angeles

Architect: Morphosis

Photography: Iwan Baan, Roland Halbe

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