essay by Sylvia Lavin
Central Los Angeles AreA High School #9 for the Visual and Performing Arts
HS#9 prestel munich 路 berlin 路 london 路 new york
Revolution 9 essay by Sylvia Lavin Background Urban Context Power for Art Chess Concept Project Drawings The Lobby Theater Building The Tower Library Building Cafeteria Academies / Art Building Annex
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revolution 9 essay by Sylvia Lavin
“Revolution 9” is a song recorded by the Beatles and released on The White Album in 1968, that heady year when students were demonstrating across Europe, the Vietnam War was at a fever pitch, and Coop Himmelb(l)au was founded in Vienna. The song has been described as the best-known work of avant-garde music and the most disliked moment of any Beatles album. Key to the work’s Jekyll and Hyde reputation is that unlike most Beatles songs, with their sweetly straightforward lyrics and comparatively unencumbered sound, “Revolution 9” is frustratingly difficult to understand. For some, this suggests a connection to musique concrète and opens the Beatles up to more than just a pop music legacy. For others, however, the song’s sampling of bits of music by Sibelius and Beethoven opens the Beatles up to accusations that they abandoned their audience and the band’s obligation to make listeners feel good. The result has been a mash-up of interpretations and misinterpretations, the most famous being the one celebrated by conspiracy theorists who listen to the song backwards and claim that when John Lennon repeats the words “number nine, number nine,” he is confirming—in secret code intelligible only à la Leonardo da Vinci, in reverse—that Paul McCartney had died and had been replaced by a doppelgänger in 1966. It is uncanny how much of this description applies to Coop Himmelb(l)au’s High School #9. And I don’t just mean the uncanny coincidence of the number nine itself, but of the trauma of interpretation and value that the two number nines have produced. Like the song, the building has been both celebrated for its radical form and chastised for its apparent abandonment of its obligation to its audience who
are used to and therefore may still want conventional school buildings. Indeed, of all of the relatively recent public commissions in Los Angeles, from Frank Gehry’s Disney Concert Hall to the Caltrans Headquarters by Morphosis and Renzo Piano’s Broad Pavilion at LACMA, the high school is the most classically avant-garde. The school’s design is rooted in the idea that the function of art is to contest prevailing ideologies and social mores (visible in the simplest sense through the “I am the one that is not like all the others” stance of the building both with respect to other new schools in Los Angeles and other buildings on Grand Avenue). The building is rough, difficult, assertive, and non-conformist—a challenge to the idea of education as a means of normalization—all features characteristic of the historical avantgarde. And while some of these descriptors apply to other recent buildings in Los Angeles, High School #9 is the only one that deserves them all. Add to this distinct shapeliness the fact that the building was designed by an internationally renowned architect, and it is easy to see why High School #9 happily confirms for many that Los Angeles finally belongs to the cultural big leagues rather than only the entertainment industry, just as “Revolution 9” linked John Lennon to John Cage rather than merely to Top of the Pops. At the same time, however, High School #9 has been received in ways that recall the public’s first reactions to avant-garde artists from Picasso to Duchamp: with dislike, distrust, and disbelief. While everyone now likes to like the modern architecture of Los Angeles, the high school, it must be admitted, has not been welcomed with such open arms, and is indeed a source of anxiety for those who have f r o m l e f t to r i g h t : T he B eatles , T h e W h i t e A l b u m (19 6 8) / Pablo P icass o , T h e A r c h i t e ct ’ s Ta b l e (1912) / M arcel D u champ, F o n ta i n e (1917) / 9 W est 57 th street, N YC , S o low B u ildin g , B u ildin g by G o rd o n B u nshaft o f S O M (1971), and R e d 9 sc u lpt u re by I van C hermayeff
forgotten how much all the other now beloved architects, from Schindler to Gehry, were at first disliked. Disliking Coop Himmelb(l)au, in fact, now makes it possible to forget how much Los Angeles disliked the figures it now professes to love. (How a city with several major museums but not one with a robust program in architecture can think of itself as supportive of architecture is a question worth asking.) Through the negative response to High School #9 it is possible to witness the history of the avant-garde repeating itself with comments ranging from “I can’t find the front door” and “How do I know it’s a school?” to the simple, “it’s ugly.” If love and hate tie the school to the odd notion of the Beatles as radicals (that side of the coin was generally reserved for the Rolling Stones), what really makes
the high school a contemporary parallel to “Revolution 9” is that no one knows what the number nine in either name signifies. This isn’t really surprising given that meaning is socially produced, making it impossible for a building to accrue value if the culture around it cannot even agree on a name or thinks the entire enterprise— a school for the arts at a time when most schools can’t afford pencils—isn’t even worthy of public support in the first place. And left nameless, in fact and in spirit, the building has become like a Rorschach test, with every Tom, Dick, and critic trying to fill it up with meaning that can be nothing more than their own personal and often paranoid projections leading to a crazy chain of misunderstanding. For example, and against all odds, in the midst of Prix’s pile of aggressively abstract concrete, some want to read the tower as a sort of billboard in the shape of the number nine, but a nine turned upside down. Wouldn’t that make it a six? Which belongs to the sign of the devil. And the conspiracy theorists who play things backwards or, in this case, upside down, focus not on the empty meaning of the number nine but on the fact that the tower was left physically empty, which proves to them that which they already thought, namely (or namelessly), that the school is an excessive waste of money and the tower is the sign of a devil-wearing-Prada architect. Given all the Sturm und Drang, it is worth considering for a moment if the number nine, that might be a six, or an empty vessel, is a more strategic consequence of the design rather than the accidental result of a funny shape that can get flipped around and turned into anything. I don’t mean that Coop Himmelb(l)au devilishly designed a billboard for the school that no one can read, but I am asking if the
larger problem of architectural legibility in a diverse culture is what is at stake in the difficulties people have had in reading not only the tower but the complex as a whole. Even critics—supposed experts—have not had much to say about its particularities, tossing off vague comments about how the high school recalls Le Corbusier, for example, without giving any sense of in what way or to what end. Furthermore, if you actually made some effort—looked on the Internet or went to the library—to learn how to read Coop Himmelb(l)au you would find many news reports but surprisingly little analysis of any use in this regard. Even though the firm is well known, often cited, and well published, there are no histories of the firm’s work, no accounts of its contribution, and no written record of its development. (A major
retrospective exhibition curated by Jeffrey Kipnis is a recent and the only exception.) In this sense, Coop Himmelb(l)au couldn’t be less like Le Corbusier, about whom a zillion books have been written—and were written even when he was alive and controversial—and who himself wrote almost as many. While Le Corbusier is at the center of a swirling tornado of words, it’s as though the whole field of architecture threw up its hands in the face of Coop Himmelb(l)au and remained silent. And, the few times critics have bothered to try to actually say something about the work, they have tended to say Wolf Prix likes clouds and builds things that look like clouds and they can prove it because his firm is named blue sky. Now, there is nothing more conducive to idle description than a cloud. Leonardo himself, when he wasn’t writing his notebooks in secret code, liked to pass the time reading the shape of things into clouds. As fun as such creative misreading might be, most will agree that it tells you much about the reader and virtually nothing about the clouds. Like a stormy day, Coop Himmelb(l)au provokes a lot of response, but it leaves experts and non-experts equally speechless. That it is not clear what High School #9 stands for as a name, that the school indeed lacks a proper name, is subject to contradictory interpretations and has a giant tower that acts like a Rorschach test—or a cloud—attracting all kinds of unstable meanings that come from the viewer rather than the building, is not an accident nor the result of the accidental circumstances of this particular project. The idea that works of art and buildings too should engender rather than impose meaning was a widespread principle in the 1960s, one that Coop Himmelb(l)au
indeed explored. But the high school helps make it clear that Coop Himmelb(l)au is an extreme case even in this context of what was called “open work”—work that was formally open in order to simulate open interpretations. From the beginning of its history, Coop Himmelb(l)au not only posed a challenge to the very idea of architectural legibility but produced an active resistance to reading. Moreover, this apparently internal architectural issue has been rendered all the more acute by becoming manifest in a troubled public school, where children are supposed to learn how to read at a minimum, but where increasingly in the United States they do not learn how to read at all and are often confronted by mass confusion about which language to learn to read and write. In other words, the premise of the
questions about architectural meaning that were posed by the avant-garde—that there was a dominant culture with shared knowledge and assumptions that it was the outsiders’ job to resist and critique—has been fundamentally challenged by the collapse of cultural dominance, and not only of systems of shared knowledge but even of what constitutes knowledge worth sharing. There is a big difference between raising questions of legibility and being impossible to read. High School #9 is not illegible, but it does take schooling to read it. In fact, the design of the school offers a kind of schooling as it is a primer on the work of Le Corbusier, an architect who was interested in creating a new set of ABC’s for modern architecture (he called them points and believed you could make entire cities with only five of them), and whose work has itself become the basic starting point for much of the vocabulary of postwar architecture. High School #9 combines elements from various works by Le Corbusier in such a way as to constitute a reading of what Prix considers to be the elemental building blocks and common denominators of Le Corbusier’s oeuvre as a whole. The design acts on Le Corbusier the way a music theory class acts on a Beethoven symphony, by showing the incredible range of complexity that begins with just a three-note motif. Motif #1 The Roof Terrace
f r o m l e f t to r i g h t : L e C o rb u sier , T h e M o d u lo r (19 4 8) / C o o p H immelb ( l ) au , T h e W h i t e S u i t (19 6 9) / R u d o lf M . S chindler , T he S chindler H o u se , Lo s A n g eles , U S A (1922)
the top of buildings, whether large and urban or private and suburban. The most mundane reason for getting people up off the ground and outside was to provide access to light and air, to collective open space that was not simply the often polluted street itself, and to provide views that helped connect people in a building to the larger terrain. A more idealizing reason for a roof terrace was to produce a new, unencumbered plane for social interaction without history and therefore without prejudice. Stepping up off the ground was, for Le Corbusier, to step away from inherited assumptions about class and privilege and therefore to step toward a potential social utopia.
One of Le Corbusier’s most influential ideas was the notion of a roof terrace (now commonplace, but unheard of in the 1920s), an occupiable plane on
High School #9 is organized around a roof terrace. Most of the other schemes submitted to the competition were campus plans, the traditional American way of organizing schools that require more than one building. The roof terrace motif is intrinsically less pastoral in its implications than a campus and more rooted in urban conditions; a roof terrace may look upon a landscape but it is by definition not in a landscape as traditionally understood. The urbanity of the roof terrace motif renders the school’s organization surprisingly contextual rather than contestatory in downtown Los Angeles, where there has long since been an emphasis on being elevated, through not only natural rises and falls in the topography but freeways, platforms, skyways, and overpasses. Downtown Los Angeles, and Grand Avenue in particular, in fact, tell the tale of the utopian rise and realpolitik fall of the roof terrace ideal. It is precisely in the degree to which the roof terrace of High School #9 is not like that of La Tourette or Villa Savoye that Prix’s choice of the motif gets most interesting: unlike Le Corbusian terraces—which are systematically flat, above the ground, and accessible only from with the buildings, which thus act like holy water cleansing and preparing the visitor for his ascension to utopia—the high school’s upper surface is not uniform and singular, but is rather compromised by and responsive to the urbanscape of the neighborhood. The terrace therefore does not appear to be floating above the ground (although it is an artificially elevated surface and therefore a terrace), but rather is a series of planes that step up but never quite achieve liftoff. The changes in level allow various program elements to be connected, but f r o m l e f t to r i g h t : L e C o rb u sier , S aint - M arie de la To u rette , É ve u x - s u r - A rbresle , F rance (1957 –6 0) / R o o f T errace o f Unité d ’ H abitati o n , M arseilles , F rance (19 47–52) / V ille S avoye , P o issy - s u r - S eine , F rance (1928–31) / F r o nt view o f Unité d ’ H abitati o n , B erlin , Germany (195 6–5 9) / C lau de - N ic o las L ed o u x , P lan o f the S aline R OYA L E , d ’ A rc - et - S enans , F rance (1774)
they more significantly reduce the idealizing aspect of the original terrace model. As any Angelino can tell you, the terraces, platforms, and elevated walkways of downtown that were intended to be social lubricants have more often been divisive, creating barriers between neighborhoods, classes, and color. One might think of the plazas at High School #9 as a roof terrace that is ironically and intentionally brought down to the ground in such a way as to make a necessary and sometimes painful bridge between an actual social order and a diagram of a potential social reordering.
Motif #2 The Megastructure
If High School #9 is less than a campus and more than a single building, it could be considered a small megastructure. One of the most significant of Le Corbusier’s urban rooftop buildings is the Unité d’Habitation, the first of which was built in Marseilles in the late 1940s. This housing scheme has been noted for several innovations, but one of them is having suggested the notion of a relatively large building that combines within one physical structure not only multiple program elements, such as housing and school, but also elements that generally belong to non-architectural categories such as streets and infrastructure. In the high school the roof is not just an upper limit of a building, but a deep plinth that sandwiches parking, classrooms, and public buildings within its thickness. The plinth itself is not quite a building—it doesn’t have a façade or a proper front, back, or side—but it is a system that integrates building components and combines them with circulation and event space at a scale that suggests the infrastructural. Indeed, one of the most notable aspects of the high school is the degree to which the easterly classrooms abut the adjacent freeway. Many an architect would have thought the noise and speed of the cars a distraction to students, but Prix did virtually everything possible to make it seem as though the freeway was coursing through the building itself. Whether or not this was meant to indicate to students that school was a way forward, it certainly embedded the building in the tradition of the megastructure, a typology invested in large-scale plans and big ambitions.
Another characteristic of megastructures, particularly as developed in the 1960s, was that they were exploited as systems into which not just typologically diverse but flexible and changeable units could be accommodated. At their most extreme, megastructures were giant empty cages in which often prefabricated and identical living pods, working pods, or schooling pods could be inserted and moved around as needed. The high school treats the classrooms, which from a design point of view were found objects, belonging to an earlier phase of the design and done by another architectural firm, as though they were provisional pods, susceptible to being, at least conceptually, moved, upgraded, and transformed in the future. In addition, the school is riddled with extra space—space on the roof terrace, space
in the plinth, etc.—that cannot be defined by normal and predetermined use but that rather anticipates future performance and extramural happenings put on spontaneously by students. Like the adaptability of pods moving in and out as needed, at High School #9 performance itself serves as a building block provisionally given a home by the megastructure. Motif #3 Geometric Primitives
Le Corbusier considered all good architecture, from ancient buildings in Rome to the newest in Paris, to derive from a few good platonic solids—a round temple was a slice of a cylinder, a dome a section of a sphere, and a house a couple of cubes stitched together with the golden section. These elemental shapes appear in all of Le Corbusier’s built work both as the regulators of the buildings’ overall massing and sometimes as quasi-independent elements that erupt on rooftops or out of the ground. These geometric primitives reappear in the Prix design as the round shape of windows, the truncated cone of the library, the pyramidal theater, and the cubic protrusions of light wells and the tower. These giant solids emerge from the plinth, as though they were partially buried within it rather than sitting on top, and establish a skyline above ground for the school as a whole. The presence of these solids is not only interesting for the way they link the school to Le Corbusier’s notion of elemental figures of architectural form in the guise of geometric primitives, but because Le Corbusier’s notion in turn linked him to a history of modf r o m l e f t to r i g h t : fr o m L e C o rb u sier , “ T H E L E S S O N O F R O M E ,” TOWA RDS A NE W A RCHI T ECT URE / L e C o rb u sier , S aint - P ierre de F irminy, F rance (1970–200 6) / C o o p H immelb ( l ) au , H o u se R ehak , Lo s A n g eles , U S A (19 9 0) / É tienne - Lo u is B o u llée , C én otaphe / Cylindrical S KY L I G H T o f S aint - P ierre de F irminy / C o o p H immelb ( l ) au with K iki S mith , Pa r a d i s e Cag e , M o CA Lo s A n g eles , U S A (19 9 6)
ern architecture that goes back to the eighteenth century. And if that connection weren’t enough, the single most important book written on this history of geometry connecting the era of Enlightenment to the twentieth century was by an Austrian, Emil Kaufman, who wrote From Ledoux to Le Corbusier in 1933. High School #9 seems to be whispering, “From Ledoux to Le Corbusier … to Le Wolf Man.” Much has been written about this historiography, but suffice it to say that Enlightenment architecture is full of sunken pyramids and spherical performance spaces. And much has been written about the continued interest in modernism beyond the eighteenth century of stripping architecture down to geometry’s version of the ABC’s, exemplified by the work of Le Corbusier from the Church at Firminy to
Chandigarh. What I’d like to add to and emphasize in this story is that these geometric primitives were produced on the eve not of the Beatles’ “Revolution 9,” but of what might be called Revolution #1, the French Revolution, during which years many architects spent their time in prison (being punished for working for the monarchy), literally stripping their buildings of royal symbols, redrawing them as geometry, geometry pure and abstract enough that it could be permanently disconnected from its original royalist meaning and left free to bear new meaning. Erasing the marks of distinction and inherited position to produce universal form ultimately became synonymous with and symbolic of revolutionary goals themselves. After the Revolution, and once the idea that all men were born (more or less) equal became official policy with Napoleon, actually turning all men into political and social equals became a practical matter rather than theoretical ideal. One instrument in this transformation was public education. Before the Revolution, education had been both the privilege and the proof of high birth. Educating the public, educating people to become a public, defining the public as those individuals who shared a knowledge base and set of standards and morals was one of the most important legacies of Revolution #1. According to this new civil code, public education became both a right and an obligation: to this day, to become a French citizen you must be schooled in French, you must learn the established form of literacy, and are legally required to say “ordinateur” rather than “computer” as does the rest of the world. During the nineteenth century, literacy came to be required not just in the language arts but in the visual arts as well. This meant every school
child learned to draw simple geometric forms, and the curriculum was not considered a dispensable luxury but rather deemed an essential tool of the Republic. These are the forms that Le Corbusier used as the basis of his architectural vocabulary and that Prix used as the starting point—if not the end point—of his effort to spell the shape of a new public school for the arts. The capacity to read cones and pyramids, like the capacity to read words in a particular language, was implicitly part of a social contract, an even exchange between reader and writer, listener and speaker. If the public was going to be taught to read, then it was assumed that one would address them in a legible form. The “speaking architecture” of the eighteenth century makes sense only in the context
of this reciprocity. By the twentieth century, however, this contractual meaning was increasingly seen as a technique that had not led to social equality but that had instead produced social conformity and concentrated power in the hands of those who controlled the technology of discourse. The avant-garde’s interest in illegibility or at least producing new forms of legibility was a reaction against this consolidation. But regardless of this reaction, everything from Cézanne to the teapots of the Bauhaus still used the same platonic geometry beneath the jagged edges and the Darjeeling brew that every young child, artist, and architect learned in grade school. The alphabet of formal discourse that was produced through the education of a public that was itself produced by Revolution #1’s social contract of legibility has been so universally accepted as the true and natural language of the arts that the geometry is no longer recognized as a political invention but accepted as a simple visual lingua franca. The difficulty today for buildings like High School #9 is that this social contract has not only been breached—there is no cultural lingua franca, only an ever proliferating number of pidgins—but it is no longer even recognized to have had its origins in a contract. The spread of art education after WWII ingrained the idea that the “truth of art,” its underlying formal principles, would be understandable if you (and by you they meant a theoretical anyone) just looked long and hard enough. In fact, one Picasso-derived mantra of art appreciation was, “Learn to look at art through a child’s eyes,” as if to suggest not only that a viewer did not need education but that education might even be harmful. “Meaning will emerge,” art teachers taught, f r o m l e f t to r i g h t : Pau l C é z anne , T h e Bat h e r (18 85) / V ladimir Y evg raf ovich Tatlin , T h e M o n u m e n t to t h e T h i r d I n t e r n at i o n a l (1917) / LO S A N G E L E S D oW N TOW N C O N T E X T, B u nker H ill , 19 81 / D owntown B r oadway / Grand Aven u e C u lt u ral C o rrid o r , T he Lo s A n g eles Opera in fr o nt o f the T he Walt D isney H all (19 87–2003) by F rank O . Gehry
museum directors directed, and popular style magazines headlined, because you will be able to see the cones for the forest. All these claims were predicated on the faith that these geometries expressed universal rather than culturally specific codes and values. While a cube may be a cube here and there, now and then, assigning value to a cube is a lost art because it is no longer taught. Being able to read shapes originated as a form of proof of education and this skill earned access to participation in a public sphere. But today, we no longer recall (nor provide) the education that was part of this social contract and have replaced it with a vague notion of talent and innate ability. Indeed, we have gone further to argue that if you are talented enough you don’t need education. Which in turn leads, with diabolical logic, to the argument why bother to educate, which of course then leads to the
condition in which it is possible to consider a high school for the arts as so without social value that it does not even need a name. High School #9 is both a product and reaction to this reversal of historical fortune. Its design is a working through of how education once mattered and might matter still in a culture in which legibility and literacy do not belong to a system of mutually agreeable exchange and mostly fail to produce widely agreed upon meaning. And the result of the working through is mixed feelings of both loss and possibility. The library is not the cone of shared knowledge but a shape in mourning for commonality that can now only be recalled from memory. The concrete work lacks softness or social graces because it prefers to evoke instead the sadness of Boullée’s architecture of shadows and buried forms. On the other hand, the tower is not an icon of nonsense but a promise that looks forward to the next Revolution, just the way Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International spiraled up and out toward a not-yetpresent history. The fragility of this promise does, I suppose, make the tower susceptible to being tossed about without consequence, like a free-floating signifier. But, on the other hand, if I promised to pay you $9 for something and only gave you $6 and claimed that it was all the same because 6 is 9 just flipped upside down, I bet the missing $3 you would object. In this case, it seems clear that knowledge is money. What the architecture of public education needs today is more of both. That is what the school says. More money please. More knowledge please. You can try conspiracy theories and read it backwards, but then, I’d like to pay you 6 bucks for your efforts.
Wolf D. Prix COOP HIMMELB(L)AU Central los angels area High school #9 for the Visual and Perfroming arts
224 pages 23,3 x 20,6 cm Prestel
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