A new 13-story civic building designed by Morphosis for the California Dept. of Transportation (Caltrans) was opened in September at First and Main streets in downtown Los Angeles. The $190-million building serves as headquarters for the department’s Caltrans District 7, including offices for 1,800 employees, parking for 1,142 vehicles, a vehicle repair shop for the Caltrans fleet, warehouse, and a public “outdoor lobby” with a cafeteria and exhibition gallery.
Located across from City Hall, the modernist building incorporates photovoltaics on its south side to generate electricity and an outer “scrim wall” of movable, sun-shielding metal panels on the east and west façades to reduce heat gain by 50 percent. In 2002, the project earned two architectural awards for its contemporary design.
“We are extremely proud of this achievement that came in on time and on budget,” said Sunne Wright McPeak, secretary of business, transportation, and housing for the state of California, who spoke at the official dedication on Sept. 27. The project was completed in just over two years under a design/build contract with a partnership including Morphosis, Clark Construction Group, Gruen Associates (associate architect), and Ove Arup & Partners (engineer).
“Architecture is inherently a collective endeavor wherein partnership…allows a collective intelligence to inform the project — to infuse shared knowledge on the thousands of decisions that go into the making of a building,” said Thom Mayne, founder of Morphosis and head of the project design team. “The design-build relationship produces more transparency between the design and building processes, making it possible for us to have a more integrated role in daily decision-making.”
The building’s “outdoor lobby” is designed to accommodate up to a thousand people. It features a public art installation titled “Motordom” by artist Keith Sonnier, in collaboration with Morphosis, that is a tribute to the highways Caltrans builds and maintains. The exhibit consists of a four-story-high array of horizontal neon and argon light tubes animating the space with shifting patterns of light and color throughout the day.
“Motordom” and two other artworks in the building, by Renée Green and Alan Rath, are on exhibit through the city’s Art in Public Buildings program with support from the California Arts Council. “This building not only serves the needs of Caltrans, but also makes a valuable architectural contribution to our city while adding a dynamic new public space to the downtown civic center,” noted District 7 director Doug Failing.
Besides Caltrans 7 state workers, tenants of the facility include five hundred city employees of the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, an arrangement designed to promote increased interagency cooperation. Inside the building, employee interaction is encouraged by the use of “skip-stop elevators,” which open on every other floor and route traffic onto centrally located stairwell lobbies.
“Our employees now have the space and tools to perform the important work of improving mobility across California,” declared McPeak of the new facility. “It achieves world-class design, sustainability, and the integration of art and architecture.”
The exterior “scrim wall” automatically opens or closes in response to outside temperature and sunlight. “At dusk the building is transparent – textured and windowed everywhere – while at midday it is buttoned up against the sun, appearing to be devoid of windows entirely,” said architect Mayne. “At night, the dark façade seems to recede in deference to the outdoor lobby’s light sculpture.”
“The Caltrans project has been very interesting for us and has significantly influenced our thinking,” continued Mayne, who is a founder of the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SciArc) and a tenured faculty member at the UCLA School of Arts and Architecture. “Construction techniques, materials, detailing, and the realities of budget and schedule are the primary components and drivers in the making of architecture.
“The Caltrans experience has confirmed and strengthened my belief in the importance of building solid relationships with all pertinent parties from the outset.”
SOURCES FOR THIS ARTICLE INCLUDE THE NEWSLETTER SUPERSTRUCTURE (SUMMER 2003), PUBLISHED BY THE CLARK CONSTRUCTION GROUP.