There's a large room on the upper floor of the new Studio Art Hall at Pomona College, designed by the Culver City architecture firm wHY, called the "Gray Space." It doesn't have any fixed furniture. It's used variously as a studio, classroom and place for students to hang out; it has polished concrete floors and floor-to-ceiling windows offering dramatic glimpses of the San Gabriel Mountains, which this month are topped with an unusual amount of snow.
The room is also a pretty good stand-in for the architectural goals of the project as a whole. The building — which includes spacious, sunny studios for painting, drawing and other media as well as a lecture hall and two-room art gallery — is an extended exploration of various kinds of gray areas, conceptual and practical alike.
Actually, it's more interesting than that: wHY's design argues, in part thanks to the stylistic and other constraints the architects were operating under, that grayness as an architectural condition can be as compelling as brightness, boldness and big gestures. It aims to find in the in-between, the undefined, the transitory and even the banal a kind of architectural staying power.
And it almost pulls it off. The effort alone, something of a high-wire act on a narrow line connecting the bold and the value-engineered, makes the building absolutely worth visiting, despite the imperfect results.
WHY, a firm co-founded in 2004 by Thailand-born architect Kulapat Yantrasast, has in the last few years become one of the most prolific midsized offices in Los Angeles. Yantrasast, who worked for seven years for the Japanese architect Tadao Ando, got a big break early in his career when the firm won the commission for the Grand Rapids Art Museum, which opened in 2007.
In the years since, it has designed a handful of art galleries and houses. Since 2013, the firm has been working to transform Millard Sheets' huge, nearly windowless 1961 Scottish Rite Masonic Temple on Wilshire Boulevard into a private museum for the blue-jean moguls Maurice and Paul Marciano.
WHY's typical approach, particularly in its art-world projects, combines Ando-style clarity and weight (board-formed concrete walls, prominent in the Pomona building, are a staple) with familiar white-cube modernism.
Yantrasast also has an interest in energetic form-making of the kind you'd never see in Ando's work. His installation design for "Samurai: Japanese Armor from the Ann and Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Collection," an exhibition now at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, is drenched in red.
At Pomona, the gestural form-making is very much in evidence, and the bold color not at all. It's hard to think of another recent project in Southern California where the forms are so forward and the material and color palette so muted. Imagine a piece of writing in all caps but small type, or the Sex Pistols played at extremely low volume.
The Studio Art Hall, which had construction costs of about $21 million, is on the quiet eastern edge of the Pomona campus. It replaced an orange grove. To the east is a stand of oak trees (and beyond that an area known as "the wash," with a small clearing and an amphitheater), to the west a parking lot.
It's an odd site, the closest the idyllic Pomona campus comes to feeling desultory or overlooked. You can understand the temptation to put a big, magnetic piece of architecture here, which wHY's building sort of (almost, nearly) is.
At the same time, according to wHY's Brian Kenworthy, the site was marked on Myron Hunt's original 1913 campus plan as the potential site of a building that would extend the college to the east. This part of campus gets steady pedestrian traffic throughout the day, with students heading to and from class, practice or the dining hall.
This is the first gray area: The building has to operate both as a place to gather and as a place to walk through, as a destination and a kind of threshold. Accordingly, the architects have carved out a large courtyard, anchored by an oak tree, but left the edges of the building open and fluid at ground level.
The walls lining this courtyard — scored stucco embedded with a pebbly aggregate and colored a dark shade of, well, gray — make up the least inspired part of the design. This is one of the places where the building comes across as the product of sustained and not always happy mediation between architect and client, not to mention a bit flimsy just where you want it to feel solid.
The real action is upstairs. A wide staircase extending from the front of the building like a tongue leads to an open-air corridor on the second level.
The painting studio at the front of the building and the drawing studio at the far back corner are the most memorable and impressive spaces. Each has both clerestory windows and skylights, an idea that seems like brilliant overkill, since the quality of light is remarkable. The upper story also includes small offices and a lounge for faculty, a photo studio and that "Gray Space."
Like much of Hunt's great classroom architecture of the early years of the 20th century — at Occidental College, Pasadena's Polytechnic School and elsewhere — the wHY building not only takes advantage of a gentle climate to put most of the circulation outside but also turns its open-air corridors into wide, sociable gathering spots.
Hunt was fond of big, overhanging roofs, but he never designed one quite like this. A composite of steel and wood (the original design called just for wood), it suggests a bird's wing and the San Gabriels at the same time; it also recalls recent examples of museum architecture, primarily Shigeru Ban's 2010 branch of the Pompidou Center in Metz, France.
In fact, wHY's roof is like Ban's roof not just in undulating and oversized form but also in spirit. The point is to call attention to the building from afar but also underscore an interest in inclusivity (and in wHY's case in shading, energy efficiency and camaraderie as well). This is formalism that wants to have its cake and eat it too — formalism that doubles as environmentalism and triples as communitarianism.
Which brings us to perhaps the major gray area: How much autonomy have the architects been given here? Is the roof a sign of a growing faith at Pomona in forward-looking, even unorthodox architecture? Or the product of a firm reined in everywhere else and going for one big formal splash where it feels it can get away with it?
Give the architects this much: The roof, however unresolved or ungainly as a sculptural feature, does help the building feel much larger than its square footage (35,000). Relying on it allowed the architects to pull the various rooms of the building apart from one another, leaving big outdoor spaces in between, while maintaining some visual coherence for the design as a whole. They wanted the building to feel like a small village for making art, and using the roof as a unifying element helped make that possible.
Like a lot of selective colleges with deep pockets — Stanford is another — Pomona is working hard to beef up its infrastructure for the arts. (In Pomona's case, the effort is overdue, given that its alumni include artists Helen Pashgian, James Turrell, Judy Fiskin and Chris Burden.) In addition to the Studio Art building, Pomona is also planning a new art museum.
Aesthetically these buildings can be challenging, for architect and college alike. They offer a chance to break from the contextual, red-tile-roof mold, but only to a degree: Though Pomona is no longer commissioning historicist buildings like Robert A.M. Stern's 1999 Smith Campus Center, it is not quite ready to throw in its lot with experimental architecture unreservedly. Like many colleges, it still feels wounded by severe examples of late modernism and Brutalism in campus buildings from the 1960s and '70s.
And so, in the Studio Art Hall, we're left with a thoughtful, ambitious but ultimately ambivalent piece of architecture: A design that is mostly polite and well behaved and then at a couple of moments decides that it doesn't want to be. The building is a step for Pomona in the direction of searching and important new campus architecture, but a halting one.