A frame, an arch, a studio stage set, a proscenium: The first question about Emerson College's hulking new Hollywood campus on Sunset Boulevard, designed by Thom Mayne and the Culver City firm Morphosis, is simply what to call the architectural box in which it comes packaged.
As you approach it heading east or west on Sunset, the $110-million building — one of the first really ambitious pieces of architecture to be finished in Los Angeles since the recession — looks to be an unadorned 10-story cube wrapped in metal panels and a gridded pattern of sunshades. It is and executed in the typical Morphosis palette, which runs from silver to gray.
But as you come around front, you notice the cube is largely hollow in the center, leaving room for a writhing collection of forms, faced in glass, that hold classroom space for students who leave Emerson's Boston campus to spend a year in Los Angeles, many of them taking advantage of Hollywood internships.
Seeing the bulbous academic building emerging from that simple frame, you think of an airplane or a rocket leaving a giant rectangular hangar. You think of the alien popping out of Sigourney Weaver's stomach.
Looking at the frame itself, remembering that Mayne has been working on a skyscraper in Paris, you think of the 1989 Grande Arche in La Defense, on the edge of the French capital, by the architects Johann Otto von Spreckelsen and Paul Andreu.
This extreme contrast between basic (even banal) and virtuosic forms is one Mayne has used before, in projects like his decade-old Caltrans District 7 Headquarters in downtown Los Angeles. It's also a common strategy in the work of Frank Gehry, whose winning New World Symphony building in Miami tucks an entire village of mismatched shapes inside a simple white stucco box.
Here the effect is impressive, monumental and supremely self-conscious all at once. Mayne and his Morphosis collaborators on the project (led by Kim Groves, Aaron Ragan, Chandler Ahrens and Shanna Yates) have essentially created an interlocking collection of sculptural forms, pointed their glass ends toward the Hollywood sign, suspended them above Sunset Boulevard and then used the rest of the building to frame them.
And this is where the design departs radically from the Gehry example — or for that matter from the Grande Arche, which mostly frames empty space. The goal of the Emerson shape is not to recall in Abstract Modernist terms a monument like the Arc de Triomphe, which Von Spreckelsen and Andreu were clearly interested in doing, as much as to focus our attention on the unorthodox center of the building.
In this way, the architectural expression and the idea of how to frame that expression become inseparable; or, to borrow an idea from the theater, the proscenium is designed together with the action onstage.
Of course the shape of the building solves some practical and functional problems as well. The architects began with a pair of slender 10-story towers, holding dormitories for as many as 200 or so Emerson students.
They pushed these to the periphery of the site, along its eastern and western edges. That opened up space in between not only for the curving form of the academic building but also for sizable south-facing terraces protected from the street.
Then they lined the interior of the two towers, overlooking the terraces, with a metal scrim created with parametric computer modeling. It acts as both fixed sunshade and as shimmering, elaborate decorative touch.
Mayne is often reluctant to allow his buildings to pursue a conventional kind of beauty. But he's made an exception here, with this dramatic and photogenic scrim, just as he made an exception in the silhouette of the Paris tower.
Making a connection
Then came the simple gesture that helped the Emerson building's towering sense of self-regard snap into place. In part to make room for a helipad required by the Los Angeles Fire Department, the architects connected the two slender residential wings with a long span across the top of the building along Sunset.
Voilá: What had been a pair of dormitory towers with classrooms piled between them suddenly had a different architectural personality altogether. Now there was a clear connection between the architecture of the new building and the design of the Hollywood studios themselves, those boxy and efficient containers for fantastical stage sets of all kinds.
Linking the two towers with that span also has the effect of turning the Emerson complex into a closed loop, a self-contained academic village. The goal is to take the typically horizontal and spread-out form of a college campus and collect it inside a denser, vertical and more urban space — and, as Morphosis puts it in a description of the building, to evoke "the concentrated energy of East Coast metropolitan centers in an iconic Los Angeles setting."
With the frame itself capable of holding equipment for lighting and sound, the whole building can operate as a stage set for the students working on film and TV projects.