Saturday, September 19, 2009


Opinion: Editorial in the LA Downtown News

Friday, September 18, 2009 6:09 PM PDT

DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - Something unexpected has occurred in Downtown in the past decade: a community that once was severely underserved in terms of high schools now not only has a plethora of options, but boasts some of the most impressively designed education institutions — public or private — in the city.

The opening this month of the High School for the Visual and Performing Arts has drawn international attention. The Grand Avenue campus stands out on its own, but when taken in the context of two other additions from the past three years, the Miguel Contreras Learning Complex and the Edward R. Roybal Learning Center, it is clear that in terms of school design, no community in Los Angeles can rival Downtown.

This is an odd twist, to be sure. But it is appropriate given the growth of the neighborhood. Downtown Los Angeles in the past decade has seen an array of architecturally impressive structures, among them Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, the Caltrans headquarters and some of the residential properties that have sprouted across the community. Even if the schools were not originally planned to accent the other growth, it makes sense that they should be held to high standards.

The first of the new schools to come online was the Contreras facility in City West. Designed by the respected Chinatown-based firm Johnson Fain, the $160 million facility opened in 2006. Two years later the Roybal school debuted (following years of delays and a name change from the Belmont Learning Complex). The 10-acre public park adjacent to the box-like series of structures is the key element that elevates the place to something special.

The standout, naturally, is the arts school. Designed by Wolf Prix of Austrian firm Cool Himmelb(l)au, it is thrilling to some and puzzling to many. Architectural features swirl and swoop, and the $232 million price tag does indeed draw gasps. But there has been a lot of bang for the bucks, as many of the exteriors and interiors are exciting and appropriate for a school whose raison d’être is to educate and inspire all forms of creativity.

A decade ago this pocket of architectural standouts would have been impossible to imagine. But the Los Angeles Unified School District, and former Superintendent Roy Romer, under whom the massive LAUSD construction program got its start, have helped create something that merits recognition. It has required a tremendous financial expenditure, yes, but Downtown has three great-looking schools that mirror the community of today.

Let’s hope the quality of education measures up to the design.

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