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more on the Caltrans building

By Eric Richardson
Published: Monday, August 02, 2004, at 02:45PM

I just wanted to follow up my post from last week about the new Caltrans building downtown. I rode by the building again this morning and also had dinner the other night with a friend who's an architecture major at USC, so both of those events brought to light additional thoughts.

First, this morning I got a bit of a late start, so I ended up riding past the Caltrans building at about 9:30am. The light was hitting the building favorably, and it seemed less imposing. Some of the fencing was also removed along Main, allowing my first view into what will be the courtyard space. That courtyard will add a lot to a sense of balance for the building, I think. It helps to see the building connected to earth, breaking up its massive flat surface while interacting with the ground. I haven't been by the building on any of the other three sides, but I'll probably wait until the rest of the fencing is gone before I make the circuit.

Saturday night a few of us went to El Cholo for dinner. While waiting for a table I was talking to the aforementioned architecture student about the Caltrans building. He hadn't seen it in person, but we got to talking about how buildings interact with their environments. In particular we discussed the Walt Disney Concert Hall, another brand new downtown structure by a big name architect (in this case Frank Gehry). Gehry's structure is unarguably beautiful and organic, but one big complaint is how poorly it interacts with the urban landscape. Several sides of the structure face the sidewalk with blank inpenetrable walls. Matt said that a big topic of discussion in architecture classes is the choice between flattening a space and making a design that can fit into any environment, or taking the environment you're given and crafting a building to that space. Now, think what you want of Gehry and his designs, but it's clear that at times his design has come at the expense of interactions with the world around it (see the whole thing where they had to put screens over part of the building because, wait, polished shiny metal reflects light directly into people's apartments?)

Both Gehry and Mayne are doing important things right now, but it feels to me like they're designing to show off to their peers rather than worrying about the people that come into contact with their buildings.

That's just me, though, and I'm a communications major / programmer, and definitely not an architect.

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