What is that weird Downtown LA building near the 101?

One afternoon in late October, Candice Yokomizo (a Curious Coast listener) reached the pinnacle of her lunch-hour trek through Downtown L.A.’s Civic Center when she spotted a structure she didn’t recognize: a steel-toned tower, encircled by what looked like some kind of futuristic wrap-around staircase, jutting out over the northern end of the 101 Freeway.

“As I’m standing there, I look across the freeway and I think, ‘What is that? It’s so interestingly shaped,’” she said.

Bizarrely-shaped structural anomalies have become par for the course around the Civic Center’s cultural corridor. A 10-minute stroll along Grand Avenue doubles as a lesson in L.A. architecture — with a masterfully-constructed landmark at almost every intersection (think: Walt Disney Concert Hall, MOCA, The Broad).

However, this building wasn’t a clearly marked cultural institution. When Yokomizo googled it, her search came up empty. “I just thought it was odd that I could never find anything about it,” she said.

Fellow Curious Coast listener Suzanne Roady-Ross had also been wondering about the unmarked structure. Speaking to KCRW, she likened the building’s exterior to the mast of a construction crane, “with pieces fitting together and bolted together.” Suffice to say, Roady-Ross had a couple of questions, like: Where’s the door? Is there even an entrance? What if it’s underground?

“I thought, ‘Could it be a heliport? No. Could it be an elevator? No,’” she said. “It’s such a conundrum. I have no idea what it could be.”

As it turns out, the angular super-structure is neither elevator nor heliport. The protruding tower is actually a sculpture, buoying up from the campus of the Ramon C. Cortines School of Visual and Performing Arts. Or, simply, Grand Arts High School.

Grand Arts High School Photo: Emily Mae Czachor

The magnet school, which houses some 1,600-plus visual and performing arts students, was borne out of an LAUSD flagship project aiming to provide artistically-inclined students enrolled in the public school system with a comprehensive, arts-focused education.

Initially, the tower was designed with the intent to open the space for public use. The “futuristic wrap-around staircase” was actually supposed to be a ramp, providing folks with access to a viewing platform at the tower’s top floor. For safety reasons, school officials nipped that idea in the bud pretty quickly. So, for now, the tower remains an entirely inaccessible (albeit, striking) non-functional sculpture.

Since it was first established in 2009, Grand Arts has received acclaim for its architecture, which — as both Yokomizo and Roady-Ross remarked — is staggeringly unorthodox. Helmed by Austrian architect Wolf Prix and his firm Coop Himmelb(l)au, the 9.9-acre campus looks sort of like a Dr. Seuss-illustrated episode of The Jetsons. That’s probably mostly thanks to Prix’s architectural style (formally called deconstructivism, a branch of postmodernism) which calls for a conceivably “distorted” building design.

Grand Arts High School. Photo: Emily Mae Czachor

Prix’s fragmented, postmodern technique comes to life on Grand Arts’ campus, with a conglomerate of seven unconventionally-shaped buildings (each wholly distinct from one another) protruding from the ground in fragmented metallic clusters. The campus, in and of itself, is an unmistakable work of art; so it makes sense that the school’s facilities cater to students with a penchant for all things creative. Architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne echoed this idea in his 2011 review of the campus and its markedly offbeat design.

Drawing similarities between the school’s aesthetic and the students who attend, Hawthorne wrote, “Like them, it is something of a proud outcast: gangly, dreamy, and beautiful at the same time, trying to make its way in a culture that prizes familiarity over strangeness and sameness over individuality.”

Unfortunately, for the curious folks who’d like to take a look inside Grand Arts’ wacky, architectural wonderland, making it past the campus’ gated main entryway (without a permit or pre-scheduled tour guide, anyway) is next to impossible. But perhaps that’s part of what makes Grand Arts’ campus so miraculous. With iron-clad bars lining the main entryway and concrete walls encasing most of its perimeter, it’s evident that the school serves as a kind of sanctuary for its students.

For now, that means inquiring Angelenos like Yokomizo and Roady-Ross might have to settle for a virtual walking tour of Grand Arts’ campus (the school’s website has a nice collection of photos) rather than experiencing its structural majesty in person. That being said, who knows? The tower’s supposed “viewing deck” might eventually come to fruition, though standard safety protocol suggests probably not holding your breath on that one. Perhaps the school should take a note from Roady-Ross — a heliport, for what it’s worth, sounds like a truly postmodern idea.

DNA covered the school when it opened in 2009. Listen here:

What do you want to know more about?