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Putting Up Walls That Break Down Barriers

Nicolai Ouroussoff is The Times' architecture critic

It has become commonplace for even the humblest cultural institutions to commission architecture as the supreme tool for self-promotion. Yet occasionally an institution will have higher aspirations, and design becomes part of a more serious-minded exploration of an institution’s values.

The competition for a new fine arts building for Otis College of Art and Design is such an occasion. The building--projected to cost $5 million, a modest budget by most standards--will increase the school’s size by 50%. It will include 38,000 square feet for painting, sculpture and design studios, a public art gallery and new administrative offices. School officials also hope eventually to add an auditorium on an adjacent lot.

Five firms participated in the competition, four of them local: Hodgetts + Fung Design Associates, Frederick Fisher & Partners, Guthrie + Buresh Architects and MACK Architects, as well as the more internationally known Vienna-based Coop Himmelblau. Together, the proposals offer a glimpse into how thoughtful architectural competitions can become incubators for good design. The winning scheme, by Santa Monica-based Hodgetts + Fung, has yet to be fully developed; nonetheless, it embodies provocative notions about the process of creative interaction. An open, loft-like warehouse crisscrossed by elevated bridges and bisected by an internal street, the building takes advantage of a dense urban lot to create a buzzing forum for the exchange of ideas.

Otis’ examination of its own identity began in the mid-1990s, when it decided to abandon its home on Wilshire Boulevard alongside MacArthur Park in the wake of the 1992 riots. In early 1997, the school moved to its current location at 9045 Lincoln Blvd., in a former IBM branch office designed in 1961 by architect Eliot Noyes, not far from Los Angeles International Airport. Rows of vertical slots puncture the building’s taut, planar facades--a dated reference to the computer punch card and a perfect emblem for the rapid acceleration of technological change.

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Fittingly, that theme--of a culture in a continuous state of flux--is at the center of all of Hodgetts + Fung’s best designs. The firm, founded in 1984, is best known for its design of Towell Library at UCLA, completed in 1992 as a temporary replacement for the school’s Powell undergraduate library, then undergoing seismic renovation. The design, with its corrugated metal, plastic and fabric skin draped over a loose geometry of lightweight aluminum frames, drew upon the work of ‘60s architects, such as the British group Archigram, who sought to develop a more open, spontaneous architecture.

Hodgetts + Fung’s design for the Otis building has a more institutional feel, yet it retains the same sense of impermanence. The campus is arranged in an L-shaped plan, with the Noyes building anchoring the corner of Lincoln and Tijera boulevards, the four-story parking structure extending along Tijera and the future fine arts building along Lincoln. The school’s main entrance currently opens onto an alley between the two existing structures.

The new building will be a vast arts factory, its plan slightly twisted to create a trapezoidal form and frame an exterior plaza that links it to the Noyes building. A uniform undulating roof cut in alternating parallel strips will let in light and air, a metaphor for the rhythms of activity inside. The roof gives the building its distinctive identity, its goofy sense of play, yet it has a more pragmatic function. Eye-shaped openings between the bands will let an even, diffuse light into the studios below from the north, while openings to the south will provide ventilation.

The building’s design will transform the existing alleyway into a vibrant urban event by extending it right through the structure. Huge garage-like doors will open up on either side of this internal street so that students can flow freely between various studios. A large splayed exterior stairway set at the edge of the plaza will lead up to the building’s second level then split into two walkways that run along either side of the passageway below, one leading to faculty offices, the other through the student gallery. Hence, both street and gallery become part of a public procession through the site, a blunt acknowledgment of the fading distinction between the production and consumption of art.

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But the scheme also challenges the notion of design as a solitary act, as the private realm of the lone artist. Instead, design here creates an intense interplay of ideas, one that revels in the anarchic flow of the imagination. The idea is to break down the formal barriers between various disciplines and attitudes, between work and play, viewer and participant.

Those themes are picked up again inside. In order to enter the administrative offices, faculty will cross a bridge overlooking the studios, putting both faculty and students on perpetual display. “Crit” rooms--where students pin up their work for formal review--are set like boxes in the middle of the studios, so that criticism becomes a central aspect of the process of creation. The building’s great strength, in fact, is its ability to weave together disparate activities into an exciting whole.

Such flexible, open-plan schemes evoke the early 20th century’s fascination with industrial imagery, with the cathedral-like expanse of industrial spaces. But they also evoke theoretical projects such as radical British architect Cedric Price’s Potteries Thinkbelt, where the boundaries that separate education from everyday life fall away and technology, knowledge and information all become part of an evolving public dialogue.

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That is where Hodgetts + Fung stop short. The building’s public face--not yet fully developed--is currently its least convincing. Along the street, for example, the architects have created a wedge-shaped berm that separates the school from noisy passing cars and gives it a fortress-like appearance more suited to a corporate headquarters. Even less resolved is the building’s connection to the small park in back. There, a set of shallow, curving steps and two concrete work pits embedded in the lawn seem odd and purposeless.

Other schemes suggest how the project could be pushed further. Guthrie + Buresh’s design, for example, reveals a remarkably sophisticated understanding of urban patterns by a young firm with little built work to its credit. The team proposed extending an adjacent residential zone and greenbelt right through the site and folding it under the building. Rather than create a more conventional central plaza, they chose to retain the urban texture of the alleyway by weaving it tightly up through the building. In an effort to interact more aggressively with the city outside, they placed the New Genres Studios for performance and digital arts along Lincoln Boulevard.

Coop Himmelblau’s scheme showed a similar sensitivity to context. In its design, nature becomes a surreal, man-made composition where an artificial stream weaves right through the studios themselves, while the main gallery hovers above them along Lincoln Boulevard. Video screens along the gallery’s facade would flash images of students at work. Taking this theme a step further, the architects placed an open-air theater on top of the existing parking structure, with a long exterior ramp leading up to it from the street. The school, in effect, would become an exhibitionist fantasy, perpetually on display.

“Education,” Price wrote in the ‘60s, “must be provided with the same lack of peculiarity as the supply of drinking water.” Price was railing against the Gothic pretensions of the typical university setting. His alternative was a university embedded in daily life, a university whose structural flexibility reflected the flexibility of the creative imagination.

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Hodgetts + Fung share that ‘60s vibe. Their design seeks to create an environment open to creative friction, an immense pleasure shed where the walls of the mind are meant to fall open, where ideas are shared liberally and creation becomes a joy. With some tweaking, it could happen.


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