OCC considers ways to maintain Neutra's vision

The business education building has sat nestled in the interior of the Orange Coast College campus for the past 61 years.

The modern, one-story building, sheathed in red brick and stucco, has remained relatively untouched since it was designed by world-renowned architect Richard Neutra and his associates, Robert Alexander and Richard Pledger, in 1953.

However, the future of the structure is hazy as the college moves forward with its Vision 2020 plan for campus development, which calls for the removal — or repurposing — of several Neutra-designed buildings.

Orange Coast College, as it stands today, is a mix of recently built, state-of-the-art buildings and structures that harken back to the look and feel of a campus that was transformed from an Army base 65 years ago.

Now, as the college pushes to modernize, people are speaking out against removing the historic buildings at the core of the Costa Mesa campus.

Preservationists and neighbors gathered in the OCC library Tuesday night to voice their concerns about the removal of the Neutra-designed and -inspired buildings that, they say, have become part of the college's legacy.

"These buildings have character," said local architect John Linnert. "They're worth preserving. Demolishing them would be a grave mistake."

Neutra boasted a noteworthy resume in Orange and Los Angeles counties, designing homes featuring large windows and sliding glass doors based on his philosophy of dissolving the artificial barrier between the inside and the outside. The famed Tower of Hope at the Crystal Cathedral stands among his best-known work in Orange County.

And, fans say, he stayed true to his vision at OCC as well.

The architect designed the still-standing planetarium, the business education, reprographics and speech arts buildings — the latter now known as the Robert B. Moore Theatre — and the football stadium.

Several of his buildings feature staggered walls, which not only protect classrooms from the elements but allow breezes to flow into the rooms, keeping them cool in the summer, according to a historic resources technical report published by the college.

They also have large opening windows in the rear of the classrooms that allow natural light to fill the space.

The design nearly eliminated the need for air conditioning, Linnert said. Nonetheless, air conditioning was eventually installed in several of the buildings to accommodate increasing class sizes.

As the campus population grew and technology advanced, the administration and the Coast Community College District several years ago came up with a plan for the school that includes a central quad surrounded by multistory buildings, as well as student housing, a parking structure and a building that could act as a boutique hotel, said OCC spokesman Juan Gutierrez. Some buildings are in the process of being built.

"It's a natural progression that as the need for education grows, it's important for us to provide those services," he said. "We're trying to balance the needs of the community with the wants of the community."

Keeping all of the Neutra structures in their current position would overcrowd the campus and take away from the open feel of the college, OCC officials have said.

However, college officials aren't opposed to incorporating aspects of the Neutra buildings into the new designs, according to a presentation they made at the meeting Tuesday.

College officials are considering one of two options — either strategic reuse or limited reuse — for the older campus buildings that are slated for removal.

With strategic reuse, the college would select a building or several buildings that represent Neutra's designs to save and incorporate elements from his other buildings into the hardscape of the new structures and the surrounding landscape.

If officials favor limited reuse, all of the structures currently up for removal would be demolished, but elements from the buildings would be incorporated into the new buildings and surrounding landscape.

Either way, Neutra's vision would still be present at the college, said President Dennis Harkins.

"We're trying to respond to immediate needs, as well as plan for the future," he said. "Our goal is to continue to make Orange Coast College a destination campus."

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