The newly completed Los Angeles outpost of Boston’s Emerson College by Thom Mayne’s Morphosis Architects hosted a behind the scenes tour for ULI Los Angeles members and guests on July 10, 2014.
Preceding the tour were presentations by Amy Grill, Emerson’s Director of Student and Alumni Engagement, Alex Maffei of general contractor Hathaway Dinwiddie, and Morphosis Project Designer, Shanna Yates.
The privately funded $110 million project, approved in August 2010, was completed in 2014 with a one year delay caused by a high-profile lawsuit brought by the adjacent East West Studios over construction-related noise and vibration concerns. The suit was dismissed in July 2011 and construction commenced in January 2012.
Prior to opening the Sunset Boulevard facility, Emerson College Los Angeles leased space in Burbank where students were housed at the Oakwood Apartments. With the opening of the new building, Emerson is able to consolidate its student housing, administrative offices, classrooms, performance studios, screening rooms, audio and computer labs and auditoriums within a single structure. It’s here where students now complete senior-level coursework and participate in internships in film, television, advertising, journalism, and marketing.
No design competition was held and little in the way of a design brief was provided. Morphosis was awarded the project following interviews with a short list of architectural firms. After a visit to Boston where the Morphosis team toured the campus and interviewed students and faculty, five vision points were identified:
- Combine live/work/study in a single structure;
- Incorporate state-of-the-art technology to give students every advantage in their professional careers;
- Facilitate community outreach with a building that engages neighboring studios, artists, the surrounding community and Los Angeles’ large pool of alumni (known as the “Emerson Mafia
- Facilitate distance learning, connecting Los Angeles to the Boston and Netherlands campuses as seamlessly as possible;
- Create an icon for the city of Los Angeles with a building that makes a bold statement.
In an anecdote told by Emerson’s Amy Grill, Pritzker Prize-winning architect and Morphosis founder Thom Mayne was quoted as saying in a meeting with Emerson officials, “Any architectural firm can build Emerson a building. Only Morphosis can make a statement.”
The project is unique for clustering both high and low-rise buildings in a mixed use structure (residential, commercial, educational), and incorporates many outdoor conditions that posed unusual challenges to entitlements, permitting and inspections with the City of Los Angeles.
The building is comprised of a series of interlocking elements beginning with three levels of underground parking plus additional street-level parking for 256 cars and 6,400 square feet of retail space. This is topped by classrooms and academic facilities in a multi-story free-form structure of glass-fronted spaces overhanging Sunset Boulevard. This sculptural academic building merges with open-air terraces and a “grand staircase” that doubles as outdoor amphitheater and central plaza. The “academic village” is then wrapped in an open cube-like structure consisting of two ten story residential towers bridged by a truss system supporting a helistop, a requirement of the Fire Department.
The end result is a “city within a city” where students can live, work and study while feeling engaged with the surrounding community thanks to siting that frames dramatic views of Sunset Boulevard and the Hollywood sign to the north, and the studios and residential neighborhoods to the south.
Over two hundred students live in co-ed clusters of five single and double occupancy suites sharing common bathrooms in two towers of ten stories each, connected by a series of bridges. Slated for LEED gold certification, the towers use passive cooling systems and operable windows to regulate the interior climate. Sunlight and solar heat gain is moderated by automated louvers cladding the east and west facades, which are computer-controlled by a roof-mounted weather station. The open north and south ends of the building admit cooling breezes, with shade provided by the canopy truss. Suites are climate- controlled by a passive valence system, or “chilled beams” circulating hot or cold water; there is no forced-air heating or cooling. A communal kitchen, outdoor barbecue area, laundry facilities and fitness center bring students together on the terraced plaza, promoting a sense of community not previously possible in the Oakwood apartments.
The north and south tower facades are clad in Kynar-coated aluminum panels in a stack pattern framing the open ends of the cube. East and west tower facades are glazed curtain walls behind horizontal louvers that control solar heat gain while admitting light to the residential facilities. The interior of the cube is clad in a scrim of folded Kynar-coated aluminum panels in 16 different repeating panels creating a dramatic, undulating sculptural effect, which has become one of the signature features of the building. The uniformly metallic-gray surfaces of various textures highlight the changing light and play of shadow as the sun interacts with the folded panels, the louvers, and the flat reflective panels. According to Project Designer Shanna Yates, in addition to the ever-changing light, the building’s occupants introduce color as they move throughout the sculpture-like spaces against the monochromatic backdrop.
The resulting effect of a hollowed-out cube of monumental proportions containing a jumble of contrasting shapes is reminiscent of Hollywood’s architectural heritage of large, boxy studio building typologies containing fantastical sets of complex shapes within, except this time those sets are visible to the outside world. The shapes protruding from the Sunset Boulevard façade, breaking the plane of the cube, can be compared to the aliens bursting from the chests of astronauts in the “Alien” films. The grand arch effect also is reminiscent of the monumental sets for D.W. Griffith’s 1916 epic “Intolerance” which stood a few blocks away and are now replicated in the nearby Hollywood & Highland retail complex.
The attitude of the “Emerson Mafia”, which includes Jay Leno, Norman Lear, Kevin Bright (“Friends”) and Max Mutchnick (“Will & Grace”) is best summed up by alum Denis Leary who said, “This sucks, it’s so great. I wish I went to school here now.”
Written by Tim Braseth, ArtCraft Homes, LLC
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