OMA Turns to Angular Forms for the Audrey Irmas Pavilion in Los Angeles
Designed by architect Abram M. Edelman and built by Hollywood moguls in 1929, Los Angeles’s Wilshire Boulevard Temple—a monumental composite of Roman, Romanesque, and Byzantine styles—is pure Cecil B. DeMille, a camera-ready, domed architectural extravaganza waiting for a cast of 1,000 congregants. Still impressive today, the historic structure expresses a time, place, and attitude nearly a century old. But by the second decade of the new millennium, the synagogue was looking to present a more appealing and open public face for a more inclusive mission. Korean and Latino residents now occupy the neighborhoods surrounding the full-block campus, and the starched architectural formality of the 1920’s no longer suited today’s more casual L.A.
In 2015, the congregation held a competition for an ecumenical “gathering space” to be built on the temple’s parking lot. Called the Audrey Irmas Pavilion after the Angeleno philanthropist and art collector who donated $30 million to the campaign, the facility would not only serve the synagogue but also welcome events held by members of other communities. The brief was simple: rooms—small, medium, large.
OMA was one of four finalists, and the project was right up the firm’s alley. In the 1970’s, cofounder Rem Koolhaas had helped rediscover the Russian constructivists, whose postrevolutionary buildings incorporated “social condensers,” shared spaces that precipitated collective activities and fostered a sense of community. Such programmatic thinking was in OMA’s DNA. The architectural issue was how to design a building that neither cowered from nor competed with the synagogue next door.
Led by partner Shohei Shigematsu with associate Jake Forster, OMA won the competition. As though signing a noncompete clause with the domed temple, Shigematsu changed the architectural subject, abandoning a historicist narrative in favor of an abstract language of geometric form and chaotic pattern. “It couldn’t be too pretentious,” he says, “so we started from an efficient box.” With three tilted sides, this box was not, however, simple. Two of the facades—one facing the temple, the other the synagogue school—slope backward, providing light and openness for a new plaza and an existing courtyard, respectively; the Wilshire facade slopes forward, reaching out to the urban corridor while sheltering a planted terrace at its foot.
The architects basically created a five-story, 54,600-square-foot object-building that, from some angles, looks like a truncated pyramid warped in a distortional field. “We were aware of the temple as an icon, and didn’t want to interfere with its landmark quality,” Forster notes. “So we imagined something contemporary.” Inspired by ceiling coffers lining the temple’s dome, they wrapped the volume in a grid of hexagonal GFRC panels, most of them inset with variously angled rectangular windows that create a jitterbug pattern on all sides. The oblique facades set off the pavilion against the otherwise orthogonal context of the surrounding buildings, giving the structure a sculptural identity.
Each facade centers on a monumental aperture looking into one of the two main congregational spaces. On the Wilshire elevation, a wide arch offers a telescoping view down a long barrel-vault event hall all the way to the adjacent school. Directly opposite the temple, an enormous trapezoidal opening on the second floor accommodates a covered terrace fronting a chapel that, like the hall, extends to the far facade. The laminated-glass walls wrapping the terrace and chapel are green, harmonizing with the blues of the stained-glass windows in the adjoining synagogue. “Our goal was to create a contextual and targeted porosity to the building, so we punctured the facades from different directions,” Shigematsu explains. “The pavilion opens to the wider community, while complementing and engaging the existing temple,” Forster adds.
The interior organization is straightforward to the point of being diagrammatic. In a biaxial plan, the ground-floor hall and second-floor chapel are stacked perpendicular to each other. Lobbies, conference rooms, bar areas, reception spaces, and service facilities flank either side of the hall and chapel in simple, orthogonal layouts. On the roof, the architects cut a circle that opens to a glass-enclosed sunken garden one floor below, alluding to the temple’s Byzantine dome and establishing a vertical z-axis to the sky. A symmetrical set of stairs zigzags through an airy atrium, connecting the plaza entry to the chapel and the planted rooftop above, “like an Indian stepwell that climbs up,” Forster suggests. “We aimed to build a gathering machine, both formal and informal, at different scales,” Shigematsu says in conclusion, “not just a commercial or conventional event space.”
For all its helter-skelter window patterns and leaning facades, the complexity of the Audrey Irmas Pavilion is more apparent than real. Basically, it’s a box pierced on two levels by double-height voids with ancillary functions fitted between them and the perimeter walls. OMA achieves the maximum impact with a few big moves. The building distinguishes itself from its neighbor both by geometry and attitude: The temple is serious and institutional, bound by tradition and anchored by gravitas; the pavilion is fresh, spirited, and brashly colorful. With a jolting change in visual mode, the contrast in eras jumpstarts the campus into the new millennium. Architectural grandeur and sobriety meets contemporary cool, bringing this stretch of Wilshire into the hip and now.
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