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the CalTrans Building and understanding architecture

By Eric Richardson
Published: Thursday, July 29, 2004, at 03:02PM

This week's Downtown News is their Best of Downtown issue. One story presents reader answers to the question, "Who Would You Vote Off the Downtown Island?" Top voter-getter was the still under construction CalTrans Building. From the article:

Some have complained that, with 13 stories of metal and steel, the building resembles a futuristic fortress out of step with its Civic Center surroundings. As one critic commented, if architect Thom Mayne - who, it must be noted, is frequently praised and is winning high-profile commissions across the country - was going for the "totally impenetrable" look, he nailed it.

I can't help but agree. The building rises 13 stories shrouded in a black metal mesh. The otherwise flat surface features various protruding panels that seem like they were partially ripped back by some rogue hurricane. Riding my bike to work I pass the building's site on Main and it just feels absolutely dominating.

Opinion on this Archinect forum thread is somewhat split. Some applaud the green features, while others (rightfully, in my opinion) decry the building's very poor interaction with the street and surrounding neighborhoods. All are interesting reading.

What I find most interesting, though, is a quote from an article about lead architect Thom Mayne that ran last year in Metropolis Magazine (the quote's on the second page). The author questioned Mayne about a concept he had done for the Ground Zero site in New York:

I told Mayne I was confused by all this. His plan for Ground Zero seemed to be exactly what he was condemning at the UCLA conference: a paper fantasy that doesn't speak to the concerns of the average person. It was fairly clear that the people of New York were not clamoring for a critique of Modernism in Lower Manhattan. Mayne's answer surprised me. The average person's understanding of his projects is "irrelevant," he told me. "There's layers and layers of ideas that go into a piece of work. It can be engaged at many levels. Probably most people are engaged at a very direct level: how it affects them. Others will recognize that there's an organizational or conceptual tissue."

That's the feeling I get from the CalTrans building. I walk by it and I feel like I'm missing out on something. More than disliking the building, I simply don't understand it. Which is all good and well on paper, but not nearly as cool when I'm standing beneath 13 stories of Borg-like metal.

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