It’s a Bird; It’s a Plane; It’s Modernism!

Hulking buildings invade Los Angeles.

You don’t have to be very old to remember a time when cutting-edge architects, who are these days treated like celebrities, had an antagonistic relationship with the public. For much of the 1960s and ‘70s and into the ‘80s, big new buildings in American cities were often cause for worry, not anticipation and celebration. This tension was largely the legacy of high modernism and the damage its most muscular landmarks, like Boston’s City Hall and the Pan Am tower in New York, did to the urban fabric. The postmodern architects who followed did their best to make amends; though their urban work was often kitschy or bland, it tried to show respect for both human scale and the architectural past.

Morphosis’ award-winning Olympic Village

Now we’ve come full circle. The historicism of postmodernism has fallen completely out of fashion, and prominent architects, young and old, are again designing bold, ornament-free buildings that show no obvious interest in getting along with their neighbors. Just as important, their designs are now favored not only by critics, but also by many of the officials responsible for commissioning large-scale projects, from museums to courthouses. That means American cities may be in for a reprise, if only a limited one, of those earlier battles.

Exhibit A in this emerging trend opens this week in downtown Los Angeles. It’s a 1.05-million-square-foot district headquarters for the California Department of Transportation. (Better known as Caltrans, the agency is responsible for operating the state’s bridges and highways, which in traffic-choked L.A. means nobody likes it but everybody has an opinion about its work.) Designed by architect Thom Mayne and his Santa Monica-based firm, Morphosis, it occupies a full block across from L.A.’s City Hall, just down the hill from Frank Gehry’s year-old Walt Disney Concert Hall. Along with Rafael Moneo’s nearby Our Lady of Angels cathedral and a planned $1.2 billion redevelopment along much of Grand Avenue, in which Morphosis is also participating, the Caltrans building is part of a growing collection of contemporary architecture in L.A.’s downtown core. It’s now possible to imagine a compact walking tour of important new buildings here—quite a shift in a city whose architectural icons have tended to be small-scale, scattered residential works.

The monolithic face of the Caltrans building

The Caltrans building is basically L-shaped in plan (that is, as seen from above), but what it resembles from the street, more than anything, is the widest, most imposing wall you’ve ever seen: The eastern and western facades are 200 feet tall and 400 feet wide. The southern and northern facades are skinny by comparison.

The mammoth scale and monolithic cast of the main facades are emphasized (you could say exacerbated) by the fact that they are entirely covered by perforated aluminum screens, behind which is hidden a straightforward glass-curtain wall. The screens themselves are opened and closed by a computerized system to let sunlight into the building during the day. A small, randomly arranged number of the screens are folded so that they bend away from the facade instead of sitting flat against it. This touch, a purely decorative one, gives the front of the building not only visual variety but mesmerizing aesthetic presence. The facades shift in color and personality throughout the day, from a hard silver in midday to a warmer, glowing shade in the evening.

But do Angelenos want such a mountainous presence simply dropped down into their midst? Judging from the modest sample of locals I talked to before and after I toured the building last week, the answer is a resounding no. People already have cynical nicknames for the design. Some call it the Death Star, though so far the most popular seems to be the Battleship.

I don’t generally find myself agreeing with locals who gripe about the arrival of ambitious architecture in their cities; too often the complaints seem to flow not only from NIMBYism, but also from a fear of the unknown, of new forms in the cityscape that aren’t comfortingly familiar.

After all, sometimes the most effective new buildings are the least friendly looking, the ones that bare their claws or lead with their sharpest edges. The 2-year-old Austrian Cultural Forum in Manhattan, for instance, a tall, thin design by Raimund Abraham that resembles nothing so much as a gigantic guillotine, has added thrilling energy to a block otherwise dominated by blocky office towers. And a number of recent designs by figures who made their early reputations with challenging, even inaccessible work have shown that it’s possible to produce user-friendly buildings without dumbing down the architecture. Zaha Hadid’s savvy yet engaging Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, in particular, has shown how satisfying the results can be when a radical architect warms to her public. The same is true of Rem Koolhaas’ new library in Seattle.

Here, though, I think the detractors have a good case. The Caltrans building does have a brooding quality and a dispiriting personality both outside and inside, where the rather uninventive interiors are filled with seemingly endless rows of cubicles. To be fair to the architects, the building was produced on a remarkably tight budget—$165 million—and on a similarly unforgiving timetable. And Caltrans, not Morphosis, was responsible for furnishing and arranging the offices. But that doesn’t explain Mayne’s decision to scale or cloak the building as he has or the militaristic feeling it gives off, which is surprisingly strong for a building that is just 13 stories high. Because it is so much bigger than its low- and mid-rise neighbors—because, in other words, it lacks the strong architectural context that Hadid and Koolhaas were able in those recent designs to work with and against—Mayne’s giant just looms there.

Certain elements of the design suggest an architect concerned most of all with sheer aesthetic wallop. For example, photovoltaic solar panels cover the southern facade, the side of the building on which the sun shines most consistently. But if Mayne and his colleagues wanted to use solar power to reduce operating costs, they might have considered turning more than a sliver of the building toward the sun. The panels will generate just 5 percent of building’s energy needs.

And though Morphosis describes the aluminum screening system in part as a sun shade that will cut glare and improve working conditions for the Caltrans employees, the experience of sitting inside and looking out isn’t very pleasant. In fact, the cubicles had to be pushed about 10 feet back from the windows on every floor because if you sit too close, the perforated pattern of the screen plays tricks on your eyes, a disconcerting if not dizzying effect. You can already predict the jokes about cross-eyed Caltrans engineers putting bridges in the middle of the desert and leading offramps into the Pacific.

The exterior of the Cooper Union

Mayne, who is 60, has long been known for aggressive, even nihilistic forms. The irony is that the Caltrans building was supposed to be among a group of new designs signaling a humanistic turn in his work. Recent designs from the firm have indeed revealed a new interest in community and inclusive, if still very contemporary, gestures. This batch includes Diamond Ranch High School in Pomona and Morphosis’ two forthcoming projects in New York, an Olympic Village in Queens that is part of the city’s bid for the 2012 Summer Games, and an extension for the Cooper Union, an art and architecture school in the East Village.

But what the Caltrans design suggests is an architect with an avant-garde reputation who, as he begins to take on bigger and more public commissions, is determined to show that he’s neither sold out nor softened with age. In the end, you have to wonder if Mayne is using the Caltrans design to offer a critique of gray, faceless bureaucracy—in other words, if he is making fun of his own client, which isn’t exactly beloved by Californians or known for its accessibility. In this context, to design a huge building for Caltrans that evokes dumb, mute power—not to mention a complete lack of openness or institutional grace—is an odd choice, to say the least.

As I stopped on the plaza in front of the building during a tour last week to look up, the Morphosis architect who was showing me around mentioned that it was Mayne’s wife who suggested making the irregular panels curved instead of sharply bent, as the original plans called for. “She thought it would give the facade more of a feminine touch,” my guide said. But the intimidating scale of the facade as a whole essentially renders the change irrelevant. The curved panels are about as feminizing as a pink ribbon on a howitzer—or, for that matter, on a battleship.