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Preservation Lesson: UCLA Flunks Test

“Keeping America’s Heritage Alive” is the theme this year of National Preservation Week, which begins today.

Marking the week in Southern California will be tours of historic buildings and districts, lectures, workshops, photo exhibits and award ceremonies, all with the hope of raising the public consciousness of the importance of preserving our landmarks.

Also this week, no doubt coincidentally, a draft contract between UCLA and the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District on the fate of an architectural and educational landmark on the Westwood campus is to be quietly circulated.

If approved, the contract will have the effect of destroying the landmark, an acclaimed experimental elementary school that was designed in part by the late Richard Neutra, a Los Angeles-based and world renowned architect, whose archives the university, ironically, is guardian of.

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The landmark is the Corrine A. Seed University Elementary School (UES), designed over a 10-year period in the late 1940s and early 1950s by architects Robert Alexander and Richard Neutra to accommodate an experimental educational facility in a sylvan setting on the north edge of the campus.

And though UES is not an “official” historic landmark, the UCLA campus being beyond the purview of such local designation, the complex has been recognized internationally as well as by the university’s own educational and architectural scholars as an innovative design worthy of monument status.

The complex includes a variety of classroom types--the single-loaded corridor, cluster and finger plans--in a sensitive arrangement of simple, horizontally accented post-and-beam pavilions oriented to adjoining play areas and patios that encourage their indoor and outdoor use.

The school’s design is very much in keeping with Neutra’s championing of the sleek International style and a design philosophy that he extolled in his extensive writings calling for “an embrace of architecture and nature.”

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His plans in time became a prototype for the design of schools across suburbanizing America in the 1950s and ‘60s.

UES is located on 9 acres that UCLA wants to use in part as a site for a new Graduate School of Management, designed by Henry Cobb.

The school, to be named after attorney John E. Anderson, is a heavily endowed undertaking with a $70-million-plus price tag, and the sort of project embraced by chancellors and their staffs concerned with institutional growth and alumni gifts.

The graduate school promises to be an edifice that, if not an embrace of architecture and nature in the spirit of Neutra, will be an embrace of architecture and industry, bordering Sunset Boulevard and in view of potential patrons residing in Bel-Air to the north.

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To make way for the graduate school, UCLA wants to move UES with its 450 multicultural, economically mixed student body to Ocean Park in Santa Monica, where it would build a new facility for it under the wing of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District.

This is, in effect, what the draft contract calls for, along with guarantees that UES would remain a laboratory school to be operated by UCLA’s School of Education, as it is at present.

The move raises some very debatable educational issues, not the least being the future independence of the last laboratory school in California. For 108 years, UES has been free of state education requirements and a local school board to develop innovative teaching techniques.

But educational considerations aside, the proposal and its variations by UCLA to move UES, have all the earmarks of a raw real estate deal.

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UCLA Chancellor Charles Young has been quoted as saying that the demolition of UES is inevitable, sitting as it does on a valuable piece of real estate that could be put to better use than just serving 400 or so elementary school students.

One has to wonder what sort of object lesson in community values this is for the children, and why there hasn’t been any concerted protest by UCLA’s Graduate School of Architecture and Urban Planning.

Whether a striking structure such as UES, or the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Ennis Brown House in Los Feliz, or an evocative streetscape such as Carroll Avenue in Angelino Heights or Arroyo Terrace in Pasadena, landmarks offer a sense of time, place and pride vital to civic identity.

In effect, landmarks are community compasses of sorts, telling us where we have been and pointing to the direction we might go. As such, they are inspirational, mediating change and transforming values.

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Landmarks also can be educational, presenting fragments of living history that have the potential of a three-dimensional learning experience. It is a potential that goes beyond books, lectures, slide shows and films.

You would think that UCLA, publicly supported and dedicated as it is to the preservation and promotion of knowledge, would be more respectful of a landmark, especially one that distinguishes and celebrates architecture, education and UCLA itself.

Certainly, UCLA and all the architecture, planning and design talent it can muster can find a way to accommodate the new graduate school elsewhere on the campus and save UES. No doubt, an architect such as Cobb should be able to rise to the occasion.

One of the more popular aphorisms of architecture is that it is history set in stone, and that our civilization will be judged by the monuments it builds.

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If this is so, we also will be judged by the monuments we destroy.


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