[This is the text of a presentation I gave to my office this morning, contrasting the work of English architect David Adjaye and Austrian office Coop Himmelb(l)au’s latest project, the Performing Arts High School in Downtonw Los Angeles.]
In the work of David Adjaye, there is a sense of the public as a definite user, an understanding of the experiential qualities of buildings, and of space. He is a practical humanist, and the design strategies he uses to reach his goal of making a human experience out of a building reflect this. Coop Himmelb(l)au do not consider the user group in their design strategies – there is an abstract and formal / materialist agenda that they are seeking. For example, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver by Adjaye has no front door. It is a long promenade up around just inside the facade of the building. It winds loops around the galleries with stops at every floor. It allows for a thermal mass to be built up around the art spaces, which must be conditioned, allows the museum and its art to be seen as unquestionably belonging to the city, and effects even the least aware user with a unique and rewarding experience.
By using one formal element, Adjaye has achieved multiple design goals, in both a formal and human sense. Coop Himmelb(l)au’s new Public School has a broad entry stair that belongs to no one, let alone a specific user, or “the city.” Situated on a broad public boulevard, it is far larger than any space around it, faces nothing notable, contains nothing notable, and when you reach the top, you are greeted with an open plaza with no formal articulation or reason for being, and your view is of a two and a half to three story blank concrete wall of dubious craftsmanship. The project is an exercise in the situating of discrete design elements in an empty space, and as such, there is nothing that says “public,” “visual arts,” or “school.”
Unfortunately, I feel that this space is an apt metaphor for the entire project. While I have wrestled with the pros and cons of this project for many weeks now, ultimately the verdict has to be that it is a waste of the public’s money and trust to build this kind of extravagant yet conceptually vacant building as a school, and in a city with a gross school funding shortfall. This excess is highlighted by the tower, originally conceived as a leaseable space with advertising on the face. A hackneyed ripoff of Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International Soviet, it will stand as a monument to this failure of the system and the failure of powers that be such as Eli Broad to conceive of a “new kind” of public school, as was their stated intent. Their priorities in conceiving of a new school typology were all in the wrong places, and to disastrous effect.
And while I characterize Adjaye as practical and humanist, this is not to limit his work to having these qualities. Like the best designers, particularly the best architects, Adjaye is vital because he configures physical realities (such as a thermal mass behind a curtain wall) and practical necessities (such as pedestrian circulation) to create something in their synthesis that is greater than the “sum of its parts.” And if you add the layer of a poetic stroke such as a museum having no front door, you can begin to see the true skill of a designer like David Adjaye that stands in such stark contrast to the imitation of what one would think a “great designer” would do, such as regurgitate Monastery at La Tourette light scoops, Tatlin’s tower, the British Museum reading room, and an oversized courtyard all in one project and try to call it great architecture. In a world with such limited means, in terms of attention and social engagement, let alone material resources, we can in many ways be measured by our wastefulness of these means, and while David Adjaye navigates the deepest seas, and Coop Himmelb(l)au founders in the shallow end.
As a teaser for a future exploration, I leave you with this. In our postcolonial world, where the halls of influence are becoming a little “easier” to break into, David Adjaye is a new kind of figure, one who proves that you need not have “experience” to have “expertise.” And conversely, the design principals of Coop Himmelb(l)au are evidence that vast experience, when coupled with cynicism, are no guarantee of fitness to lead. Does this sound like a familiar scenario?