Thanks to years of controversy and a price tag rising into the hundreds of million of dollars ($578 million to be exact, including giant legal bills to assuage its opponents) most Angelinos know by now that on Monday a new, sprawling educational campus will finally open on Monday on the site of the former Ambassador Hotel. The name of the mega complex is the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools, and there are now six pilot schools located on the 544,000-square-foot site, serving 4,400 students.
The Ambassador, of course, was one of the great icons of Los Angeles. Designed by Myron Hunt and opened in 1921, it hosted—together with its tropical-themed Cocoanut Grove Night Club—the likes of the Rat Pack, Nat King Cole, the Oscars, and several US presidents. Its unique hybrid of art deco and Mediterranean was instantly recognizable as the social center of the city. But the hotel fell into disrepair and in 2006 was razed by its new owner, the LA Unified School District (LAUSD). There have been years of debate as to whether the building—now part of the school district’s close to $20 billion, bond-funded building program—was salvageable, or whether it could be transformed for another use. But at this point whether the destruction of the hotel was warranted is irrelevant. There is no going back.
The new school complex is a compromise in many ways. Conflicting forces of preservation, school administration, and local citizenry wanted different things: many wanted an exact replica of the old Ambassador. Others, including the architects, Pasadena-based Gonzalez Goodale, wanted a very contemporary new building. The result falls somewhere in between. It takes on the scale, massing and siting of the old hotel as well as some of its former details—like its sloped roof and giant lawn— with a contemporary palette filled in between.
A recent tour of the building began at the sprawling lawns leading up to the school, which is raised and set back from the street on almost the exact spot where the old hotel was. The large grassy swaths provide a welcome respite from the continual concrete and noise of Wilshire Boulevard in LA’s Koreatown. A linear memorial park to Robert F. Kennedy, who was killed at the Ambassador, with an attractive mix of contributions by local artists, would be the welcome mat to this lawn, but the LAUSD has temporarily closed it off to Wilshire, and the public, with an ugly chain link fence for security reasons.
When you walk up the slight slope from Wilshire you are overwhelmed by the bulk of this school, which is so big it’s more like a city for learning, and could even pass for a plain old city on a hill. The northernmost structure, a six-story building, features a gridded glass facade that exposes the classrooms inside. Flanking this structure are vertical perforated screens over the outdoor stairs, featuring green, white, grey, black, and other colored squares. In front of this building sits an exact exterior replica of the white, boxy Cocoanut Grove. The buildings to the south are long linear bars clad in metallic panels that lead the eye to the southernmost building, a colorful composition that meets the street at a welcome storefront scale.
From a planning perspective the school manages the chaos of this impossibly complex program intelligently. The lawn softens the thousands of pounds of concrete, the grand thoroughfare in the center is an effective connector, the site’s varying grade levels break down the overall scale, and the long view corridors help provide much-needed orientation. Also the outdoor eating and play areas take advantage of the California climate, at least to an extent. It remains to be seen how so many schools will interact without breaking down in chaos, but it seems at first inspection like it will work.
Inside, the school, hamstrung by district regulations, looks institutional, although the amount of natural light—especially from floor-to-ceiling windows in many clasrooms— and the width of the hallways are uplifting. The highlights are the recreations of the Cocoanut Grove (recreating the original’s middle eastern motif turns out to be pretty hokey, but promises to be one of the most fun places to have a school assembly anywhere), the old Paul Williams coffee shop (which is now a fabulous, although over the top teachers’ lounge), and the gently vaulted library, on the site of the old ballroom, which, with its lovely murals and hypnotic volume has become one of the most gracious spaces in the whole project. The double-height library in the south-most building, fronted with colorful colors and fitted with a large glass curtain wall, is also successful.
But overall the architecture at the Ambassador complex is a strange, even campy hybrid of futurism and historicism. The pitched roofs are an approximated Mediterranean element tacked onto a contemporary shell. Repeating zinc-clad lintels and colorful vertical fins feel like they could be part of a sci-fi set as much as they could be part of a historic complex. The aluminum stair grid, while an effective tool for promoting outdoor circulation, seems jarringly out of context. The glass façade feels heavy and inelegant—is this an office building? The whole complex could use a little more landscaping—perhaps desertscape to conserve water—to make it feel less hard and overwhelming, despite the lawn in front.
The insistence on compromise makes for a timid recreation of history and for a strange form of contemporary architecture. While the planning manages the school effectively (no small task), and more carefully crafted spaces like the former Cocoanut Grove space and the libraries are welcome exceptions, the overall design is not really rooted in anything except maybe the city’s obsession with loosely recreating the past. Effective historical architecture involves painstaking investigation and attention to detail. Effective contemporary architecture is rooted in solving the problems of site and in a fresh vision. This has neither.
If anything the complex is a painful reminder of what was there before; an authentic piece of LA history that’s been replaced by a loose nod to it. Much of its neighborhood, which was once one of Hollywood’s most electric areas, has the same feeling. And no matter what external circumstances drove up the final price tag, for the staggering cost, the students, and the city of LA, should be getting something better.