Monday, July 19, 2010

Hawthorne on the Ambassador School: "Worst of Both Worlds"

(Photo by Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times)

L.A. Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne has gotten his first lengthy glimpse of the new school on the old Ambassador site -- and color him unimpressed.

Ultimately, the school is a double tragedy, he notes: Not only did the LAUSD destroy the historic 1921 Ambassador Hotel on the site.. but then it turned around and built its most expensive school ever ($578 million) -- in a misguided attempt to emulate the look of the original.

That's a lot of money spent just to copy the original -- without preserving much of the original at all.

Double fail, he writes:

L.A. and its cultural guardians, in other words, had the decisiveness neither to save the original hotel complex as a school nor to make a clean break with the past by building an ensemble of entirely new buildings. Instead the LAUSD settled on an architectural path — confused, expensive and a little macabre all at the same time — that suggests that the city has now entered a kind of limbo when it comes to cultural maturity. It is neither young enough to energetically (if blithely) embrace the future nor self-aware enough to fully protect its architectural heritage, particularly when that protection requires significant investment from cash-strapped public agencies.

What other city would knock down a major cultural landmark — a hotel where half a dozen early Academy Award ceremonies were held, to say nothing of the site's architectural and political significance — but then insist that the school replacing it squeeze into the same shape, so that anybody who remembers what used to be there is confronted not with tangible history but a ghostly shell of the original?

I kinda agree with Hawthorne, yet there is that macabre part of me that likes the idea of looking at Fake Ambassador, and pretending that it's still the real thing. But I suppose that's akin to the horrific attempt at preservation right across the street, where the shell of the old Brown Derby restaurant derby sits atop a strip mall.

Check out our coverage of the Ambassador Hotel's last days here.

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