The other week, I was at a reception on the 18th floor of the California Plaza, and enjoyed great views over downtown Los Angeles. Looking eastward, I saw an empty city block with some cranes on it, in front of a huge metallic framework. "What's that going to be when it's done?" I asked.
"Well, the empty block is the site of the new LAPD headquarters, and that monolith behind it is the new CalTrans building. But they're not working on that. It's already done."
"Er, are you sure?"
The building is appallingly imposing in scale and cold in demeanor. Imagine a VHS cassette box, standing up on its long edge, and you've got the proportions. Now imagine those proportions 13 stories tall, twice as wide, but only one-fourth as deep. Now imagine it made of cold gray steel, with no apparent windows, the façade like a giant steel plate with no features other than a few braille-like bumps. Standing in front of it (or is it the back?) is like standing at the base of an aircraft carrier, except that it's a bit more glossy. On closer inspection, there are a few interesting details on the edges, but they are lost in the overall Orwellian nightmare impression. It's just too hard to get past the psychic assault of that immense flat gray wall. It looks like it would leech all the happiness out of anyone who entered it, like the sort of place people go into and never come out of. A place only dementors or the Borg could love.
As if the ugly exterior weren't bad enough, it seems the building suffers in functionality as well as form. Even though the imposing face appears to have no windows, in actuality it's all windows with some sophisticated system of screening panels that filter the light, repositioning themselves automatically based on how much light there is. Unfortunately, I guess they didn't bother to try the concept out on a smaller scale before spending all the money to install them on two 200'x400' walls, because it turns out that the effect of the screened light inside is so nauseous and dizzying that they can't put any desks within 10 feet of the windows. (That's approximately 65,000 square feet of office space rendered unusable.) Then there is the side of the building covered in solar panels to provide some of the building's electricity. Unfortunately, it's the skinny side of the building that faces the sun, so it only generates 5% of the building's electrical needs, whereas it might have generated closer to 30% if the building had been oriented or proportioned differently. (To his credit, it should be said that the building was reported to have been constructed on a very tight budget and schedule, which are also an important part of architect's job from the client's perspective. And the requirements for office space given the footprint were a formidable challenge.)
It's not that I'm anti-Modernist. I'm delighted to see some bold modern additions to Los Angeles' increasingly exciting downtown. Love the Frank Gehry concert hall, love the Rafael Moneo cathedral. It's not that I dislike Thom Mayne (the architect of the CalTrans building). From the photos I've seen, his US Courthouse in Eugene is seriously cool, as is his university rec center in Cincinatti. That just makes it all the more a shame that Mayne's most prominent contribution to his home town is so dismal.