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On Design: Thom Mayne, Architect for Emerson College LA

The architect Thom Mayne of the firm Morphosis, designed the Emerson College LA project.

Thom Mayne, architect of the Emerson College Los Angeles campus on Sunset Blvd, spoke with a small group of reporters on the new campus he designed.  An affable man, Mayne obviously delights in producing ground-breaking and environmentally thoughtful buildings for his firm Morphosis out of Culver City (think the Caltrans building downtown, and Cedars Sinai Cancer Center. among many, many others.) Mayne spoke about many aspects of the new Emerson campus, some quoted here below.

On the location:

“We were producing a very urbanistic piece of work in a very different way in LA. Of course, here we are, we have this great site, which is in a pretty tough area of Sunset Boulevard….that is undergoing a huge change. But there couldn’t be a more perfect place for people to come from Boston to the heart of Los Angeles.”

“We built a little town. It has the Main Stair … a continuation of the urban idea of outside-inside and producing a space that’s a redefinition of a piazza, but actually an urban space, very volumetric in this case. The Stair takes you to a park on the fifth floor that gives you fantastic views in two different directions – the Hollywood sign in the Hills and the complete horizontal expanse out to the south –  even seeing the planes coming out of LAX in the evening sky. Sometimes you can see the glimmer of the water way out there – it’s a tremendous site.”

On creating a community on Sunset Boulevard:

“The students make up the environment, they make up the edges, and then in the middle are the administrative, the classrooms and academic spaces. It’s a very clear diagram. But I’m also fascinated with the accidental development of cities more than the formal – the classical, the formalized piazza and the symmetry of that.   I’m much more interested in the dynamic, the “stuff between” that offers some sort of a tension between control and willfulness, and accident. Just look out there on Sunset and all the little bodegas and businesses that are part of this view, and this building.”

“Instead of a big block (of a building), the sun comes through the building onto the street. This building is not in any way generic. The public and open space is compressed in the center – the students and people very much make up the vitality of this urban experience. This is a social space.”

On the cost ($85 million for the 100,000 square foot facility):

“It’s not expensive – in today’s world you have to produce your work under realistic conditions, especially in the academic world where there are issues of the cost of education. It looks complicated, but that’s what we do. We make buildings in fact that are incredibly logical and simple. We just shift the geometry – people respond to that and think it’s expensive but it’s not.”

On the property’s targeted LEED Gold attributes:

“To produce an energy efficient building it all starts with minimizing the load. This building uses a kind of radical strategy – it closes down the east and west orientation with a dynamic sun shading system that changes with weather, light and heat. The housing is one unit thick so you get “through” ventilation which is huge, using natural air and then closing down systematically. It should be standard for LA. It’s a simple idea from the time of the Renaissance, closing down during the hot hours and opening up during the cool.”

On design of the aluminum ‘scrim’ that covers the interior atrium spaces of the building:

“It comes out of a process called scripting. It took a half year of working on it. We have hundreds of designs. It’s a controlled randomness. You’re inputting information and it gives you a design. It’s the latest of computational design, where now instead of developing something 3 dimensionally, you’re putting in performance too, and it’s outputting the design. No one’s drawing it. You quickly get output and can get feedback response, then rework the criterion again and again. There’s a patterning that connects to the big tree and the building itself. There’s an echo of those forms. Its mathematics in design. It seems very three dimensional, likes it’s curved, but it’s a flat wall. There are seventeen shapes of these pieces and there’s a language of how they move, have depth and shape the wall. In terms of details, this is probably the most research minded part of the project.”

Read more on the Emerson College Los Angeles campus in our earlier Buzz article: Emerson College LA Amps Up Hollywood’s Sunset Strip


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Julie Grist
Julie Grist
Julie co-founded the Larchmont Buzz with fellow buzzer Mary Hawley in 2011 and served as Editor, Publisher and writer for the hive for many years until the sale of the Buzz in August 2015. She is still circling the hive as an occasional writer.

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