Video: Exploring Coop Himmelb(l)au’s High School No. 9
February 22, 2012
Coop Himmelb(l)au‘s Central Los Angeles High School No. 9 stirred up a lot of controversy, not too mention serious analytical critique, when it was opened last year. The school, a mix of sculptural objects and functional rectilinear blocks, came with a $230 million price tag that generated much of the community backlash which enveloped the project through its completion and opening. As the dust began to settle last fall, filmmaker Howard Silver screened his video interview with the firm’s principle architect Wolf Prix about the design of High School No. 9.
At nearly ten minutes in length, the video charts the history and formation of Coop Himmelb(l)au, with a cheery, even jovial Prix speaking about everything from his influences (Le Corbusier and Oscar Niemeyer, whose works “liberated” building components such as walls and roofs for sculptural exploitation) to the formulation of the firm name (when read with the parenthetical “l”, the name translates to “blue sky”; without it, it is transformed to the altogether more radical “building the sky”) to the firm’s foray into Deconstructivist architecture. The segments unfold over footage of High School No. 9 and are meant to contextualize the school’s exuberant forms and lend them relevancy. Prix doesn’t actually acknowledge the school’s design until half-way through the video, when he briefly goes into the competition and selection process before explaining how the forms were arranged to diversify and splinter the campus’s spatial sequences.
Prix emphasizes throughout the school’s role in promoting and fostering the arts. As an art institution it was important to the architects that the form of the building break free of the “stupid box” of functionalism and, instead, made to inhabit and express the complexity of contemporary life. The fly-tower, which bears a striking resemblance to the bell tower of Le Corbusier’s mid-century monastery at La Tourette mixed with curves borrowed from Brancusi, soars above the freeway as a new urban icon meant to demonstrate the local community’s ostensible support for art. The conical shape of the central library, also borrowed for Le Corbusier, “forces concentration” as it burrows down into the pavement, while smaller moments of formal ebullience, such as the angled apertures which pass through the main court down into the shaded cafe, help define the campus plan’s spatial experience.
The video is the first in a series of profiles of artists and architecture which Silver began in 2009. When he interviewed Prix last later, the school was closed for spring break. “Fortunately, a group of local skateboarders came to our aid, climbing the fence and allowing us on the plaza.” Silver hopes to return to film the building in use and incorporate the footage into the film.