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Review: Thom Mayne's Cahill Center at CalTech

February 16, 2009 |  3:15 pm

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The impossible-to-miss Cahill Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics at the California Institute of Technology, wrapped in red-orange panels and seeming to crack and heave around its midsection, as if squeezed by a vise, has been the topic of animated latte-line and cocktail-party conversation in Pasadena since its scaffolding came down last year.

The three-story, 100,000-square-foot building, which stretches its long, low, fractured mass along a prominent site on California Boulevard, engages the city -- and the public -- more pointedly than any other of the university's buildings. It seems eager to start a conversation or pick a fight, depending on your point of view, about the appeal of aggressively contemporary architecture. It has been the most anticipated of the many campus building projects initiated on Caltech's leafy, low-rise campus by David Baltimore, the biologist and Nobel laureate who was president of the university from 1997 to 2006.

And yet the Cahill Center's architect, Thom Mayne, founder of the Santa Monica firm Morphosis, calls it, with something of an apologetic shrug, a conventional building, "probably the most conservative" he's done.

So who's right? The locals, a few taken aback and many others thrilled that Morphosis has slipped a brash piece of architecture into such a conspicuous spot? Or Mayne, who even at the official opening of the Cahill Center was more interested in discussing the firm's forthcoming project at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York, where he says he has been better able to indulge his interest in creating complex and unorthodox architectural space?

The answer is both, but with a twist. Much of the Cahill Center is indeed practical and straightforward. Arranged on a steady rectangular grid, its offices, conference rooms, basement-level laboratories, hallways and auditorium are crisply attractive but generally staid, with concrete floors polished to a high sheen and walls wrapped in white or sky-blue plaster. But in two prominent places -- on the exterior skin, which can be seen on all four sides of this free-standing building, and in a memorable main staircase -- the architecture seems to erupt in a cascade of fissures, phantom limbs, dark corners and broken planes.

The gap between the Cahill Center's standout elements and its conservative ones is no accident. Since the construction budget on the building -- which cost $50 million in total -- wasn't especially lavish, Mayne and Kim Groves, the Morphosis partner who helped lead the design team, borrowed money and design attention from the typical offices in an effort to give the most central and public elements some character and complexity. In other words, the daring of certain spaces depends on the cooperative, go-along conservatism of others.

It's architecture as zero-sum game.

The strategy will be familiar to anyone who's followed Mayne's recent work. His Caltrans District 7 Headquarters in downtown Los Angeles, finished in 2004, wraps a dramatic, brooding skin of perforated dark-gray metal panels around what is inside a rather depressingly predictable collection of offices. Mayne was not directly responsible for the interiors. But it was his decision to give the building's skin a shimmering, monolithic cast -- a choice that stretched to the breaking point the distance between the character of inside and out.

For the San Francisco Federal Building, which opened in 2007, Mayne took an increasingly commonplace and energy-efficient building volume -- the tall, narrow slab turning a broad face to the south -- and disguised it with another angled perforated-metal skin as an alien, even predatory presence in the skyline.

Cahill_center_detail_3In nearly every case, then, the complexity of Mayne's buildings is both visually dramatic, sometimes bracingly so, and quite clearly contrived. Their skins present a highly staged picture of architectural chaos and operate as a kind of barbed applique.

That's not to say these moments of irregularity aren't, taken on their own terms, impressive and even moving. Although the Cahill Center's skin is partly a disappointment -- the color, flushed and upbeat, as if the building has stopped for a chat after a jog, clashes oddly with its cracked, disjointed form -- the staircase is remarkable. Endlessly rewarding to walk through and look at, it draws light from a rooftop skylight and through glass along its spine and redirects it in a thousand directions. It joins the lobby of the San Francisco Federal Building and the main gymnasium at Mayne's dormitory at the University of Cincinnati as recent examples of his firm in top form.

For Mayne, these spaces have a powerful metaphorical role to play. In the case of the Cahill Center, the fissured exterior is meant to make visible the myriad unseen forces in the universe that are bearing down on us. The way the exterior mass is lifted into the air above a ground floor wrapped in glass only exaggerates this effect. Inside, the stair is designed, as Mayne puts it, as "an occupiable telescope." It suggests the way in which the measured universe can shift and bend depending on your perspective and as you yourself, the measurer, move through space.

Still, some of these symbolic connections to clients grow less persuasive with each passing project. When it comes to the exteriors of his recent buildings, Mayne is making the case that the same skin system that was metaphorically perfect for state and federal bureaucrats and Midwestern university students is similarly appropriate for dozens of the world's leading astrophysicists.

There is nothing wrong with an architect pursuing and developing a consistent strategy over the course of several buildings. There is a compelling sense in this group of projects -- of which Mayne says Cahill is the last -- that the architect is testing out variations on a rich theme, taking the idea of the folded or ruptured skin and bringing it along from sketchy concept to confident motif.

But at the Cahill Center, the strategy has exhausted itself. It's as if Mayne were taking notions he's tested out in earlier buildings and rather rotely using them to cloak this one -- as if what he was hired to do was provide a kind of drive-by virtuosity, producing not Robert Venturi's decorated shed but something similar: a contorted shoebox.

The client probably played a significant part in all of that: It's easy to imagine that the faculty members were happy to see some daring geometry on the facade and in some of the public areas but balked at testing it out in their offices and labs. But this is hardly the first time Morphosis has been willing, even happy, to accept precisely such a trade-off.

The firm's surpassing achievement in recent years has been to take the kind of budget that usually produces a banal stucco box and use some variation on the skin system to produce a range of dark, confrontational effects. Rarely, though, does Mayne's approach move past what it essentially scenography. There is almost never a sense in his work -- as there is so clearly in the best designs by Frank Gehry, for example -- that some guiding idea, spirit or skill is radiating out from the center of a building, suffusing the whole.

The design of the Cahill Center seems very eager to look as though it's putting various spatial and architectural hypotheses to the test. But it doesn't extend that inquiry very far. The forces that Mayne uses the skin of the building to conjure up so dramatically have almost no effect on the interior life of the place. They push and push but ultimately can barely deform its regular, box-like character or warp its true personality. In the end, the Cartesian wins -- or at least more than holds its own.

--Christopher Hawthorne

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Credit: Roland Halbe

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