Hollywood’s Sunset Strip is hardly the Cambridge of California – more of a rock club, strip mall, striptease kind of place. In designing Emerson College Los Angeles, an awe-inspiring academic facility with two telescopic structures jutting out from an enormous picture frame, needed to figure out how to integrate an intimate campus into this eclectic urban environment.
Emerson, a Boston-based communications and arts school, runs a semester program in L.A. for undergraduates and graduates interning in show business. These exchange students resided in temporary housing until Emerson approached Thom Mayne for a permanent home in L.A.; what they got is an 11,148-square-metre icon in aluminum and glass. Accommodating up to 217 students, the building is a visual endorphin rush, as much at ease with its fast-paced locale as with students’ unique artistic needs.
The two residential towers, facing east and west, compose a frame for the “abstract artwork” within: the school’s tiered, cantilevered communal spaces, which give the sense of a structure in motion. Navigating the interior delivers an equally fluid experience. Enclosed classrooms double as screening and communal forums, and they transition seamlessly into generous indoor-outdoor spaces that adapt to functions as varied as live performances, screenings, gatherings, and even photo and movie shoots. The design creates effortless portals between public and private student life. “You never feel disconnected,” says project architect Aaron Ragan. “Walking through campus is almost like walking through an Italian hill town.”
Emerson L.A.’s grey material palette is relatively simple, accentuating “all that’s going on spatially, with geometry, patterns, textures and light,” says Ragan. The architects achieved complex geometries by way of extensive 3‑D modelling, with the central volumes coming together like puzzles made up of different prefabricated parts. An undulating metal scrim spans all 10 storeys of the towers’ interior facades, providing shade and texture; and an active exterior skin scales the towers’ street side, responding to weather conditions with an automated sunshade system.
The seemingly animate building continually shape-shifts to better serve its environment and its users. “I very much see it as a prototype for how to organize a community in an urban setting,” says Ragan.
With classrooms open to Sunset Boulevard via full-height windows, and views of the city from the dorms and classrooms, the design feels antithetical to any ivory tower. From the outside, the complex “reads like a cross-section of the school,” embodying an open, active place. “We weren’t about to compete with the billboards and flashing signs on Sunset,” Ragan says, “but we did design a building that embraces its intense and amplified surroundings.”
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