Curtain Window is a façade renovation of an historic building in Downtown Los Angeles. The original building, constructed in 1906, was designed in the Chicago School Beaux-Arts style, although this style is most apparent in the top five stories. The building previously rested on a style-less foot at the street and mezzanine levels that were originally open-air entrances to the manufacturing facility inside. Later this changed to a series of roll-up shutters. The LADG project addresses these first two levels with a new glass and aluminum system. It is the first time the building has had a public face at the street level.
The project differentiates itself from neighboring renovations in Downtown Los Angeles because it operates at the scale of the sidewalk. Conceived as a kind of Band-Aid or patch that is entirely visible from the point of view of the pedestrian, it merely grips the existing building facade as an obvious addition and does not attempt to continue invisible games of proportion or decorative motifs that are set up in the facade far above the passing observers’ heads: The facade is interested in street life.
The project is something of a departure for The LADG – less remarkable for how it looks than what it does. The slip of the facade in and out of the existing building frame pushes and pulls on the space available for the sidewalk, visually tying the territory of the sidewalk to the vertical space on the first two floors of the building elevation. These pushes and pulls establish different viewing relationships: on one side, the facade is a traditional retail storefront, pushing the space of window display toward the sidewalk to encourage gawking; on the other, the facade tucks in to provide an occupiable nook that affords smaller-scale domestic-type views like peeks and peers into the residential lobby beyond.
The project name is a hybrid of two common systems for using glass in a building envelope: the “curtain wall” which wraps the exterior of building in front of floor plates and columns, hanging from the building structure like a curtain; and the “window wall” which sandwiches glass between floor plates, which are generally expressed as opaque horizontal stripes interrupting the transparency of the glass.
Both systems enforce old architectural orthodoxies about the relationship between structure and skin. Curtain walls are pre-occupied with being lookers, concealing the structure of building behind a monolithic glass wrapper to present buildings as shiny, crisp figures in the urban field that aspire to achieve the status of an icon. Window walls are preoccupied with being talkers, didactically presenting the relationships between structural elements (the opaque stuff) and non-structural elements (the transparent stuff). In either case, the outcomes are limited. The function of the observer is to read and read right – correctly interpret the icon or understand a structures lesson that enshrines the role of load as a visual ordering system for the public.
Curtain Window is neither or a looker or a talker; it’s a wrestler. It begins on the south edge of the building of the façade as a curtain wall that covers two stories of the existing building, wrapping in front of the existing columns and floor plates. Toward the north end of the building, the glass pinches and splits in elevation, becoming a window wall system as it moves inside the building in two parallel “fingers.” It grips. Structure is only of interest to the extent that it provides something to grab onto, an infrastructure for the wrestling entanglement between historic building and new insertion. The move invokes a chain of visual associations (a knuckle Band-Aid, or maybe a prawn tail) that are meant to be open-ended, likeable, or even funny.
Curtain window organizes the mixed programs of the first two stories. At the south end, the curtain wall projects out toward the sidewalk, forming a two-story vitrine for retail display in the commercial space. At the north end, the window wall tucks into the building, making a sheltered vestibule at the residential entrance. Lighting systems reinforce these distinctions by using exterior light only at the north side, emphasizing the depth of the glass’ intrusion into the space by casting deep shadows and bouncing reflected light back to the street.
Mercantile Lofts was commissioned by ICO Development, a real estate investment firm with holdings throughout Southern California. ICO has recently completed several residential projects in LA’s Historic Core, emphasizing a commitment to the revitalization of Downtown.
Phase One of the Mercantile Lofts project, also designed by The LADG, renovated common spaces in the residential portion of the building. Portions of this new interior use an Op-Art pattern of stripes to blur the boundaries between three-dimensional pieces of furniture and two-dimensional wall graphics.