A year ago, the plan to create a new fine arts building for the Otis College of Art and Design looked doomed. The college had sponsored an ambitious competition for the project, and in 1998 school officials proudly unveiled a preliminary design by the Santa Monica-based architectural firm Hodgetts and Fung. But as the firm developed its scheme, projected costs began to spiral out of control. The budget ballooned from $6.4 million to $9.6 million. Design revisions brought it back down to $8.4 million, but Otis, now unhappy with the design and the cost, fired the architects anyway. The school then turned to another local architect, Frederick Fisher, who was left with only eight months to complete a new design.
Given the overwhelming restrictions on time and money, there was little reason for high expectations. Yet anyone predicting an architectural catastrophe would have been wrong. Fisher's design indicates his understanding that, to build anything of value, he first had to accept the project's limits and then identify where architecture could have its greatest impact. The result shows how a few bold moves can lift a project above the mundane.
The fine arts building, with a final budget of $7.2 million, was unveiled at a groundbreaking ceremony Monday. It will pack painting, sculpture and design studios as well as administrative offices and a public art gallery into a two-story, 40,000-square-foot box reminiscent of a factory shed. Clad in corrugated metal, the two-story building's simple geometry and tough aesthetic have an appealing clarity that should go far in reviving what is now a somewhat lifeless campus.
Since 1997, Otis College has been housed in a 1961 Eliot Noyes-designed building on a small campus just north of the Los Angeles International Airport. A former branch headquarters for IBM, the Noyes structure anchors the corner of Lincoln and La Tijera boulevards, while a four-story parking garage extends along La Tijera. The fine arts building will stand along Lincoln Boulevard, creating an L-shaped composition that will frame a large lawn scattered with coral trees.
Rather than fit the new building snugly into the existing context, Fisher has cranked it 25 degrees in relation to the campus. The gesture sets up an unexpected tension among the various structures, and it allows Fisher to shape a series of elegant outdoor rooms. The old and new school buildings, for example, will frame a small triangular garden, with a sunken court at its center surrounded by neat rows of bottle brush trees. The walls of the fine arts building and the parking garage, meanwhile, will form a V along two sides of the main lawn in back. And a smaller lawn along Lincoln Boulevard will function as a public sculpture garden.
As if to underline the importance of these outdoor spaces, Fisher has pulled all of the building's vertical circulation outside, treating the staircases as a sculptural object in the landscape. The main entry to the second-floor administrative offices is a grand stair that faces the sunken court, its dynamic form twisting around a delicate glass pillar. Along the back lawn, another stairway clings to the building's facade, while in front, a third stairway sticks straight out toward Lincoln Boulevard.
Another motive for putting so much emphasis on the exterior spaces, however, was to free up the interior. The conceit is that the studios inside can be reconfigured as the school grows, or as the methods used for making art change. To that end, the building's structure has been reduced to a minimum--with 12 columns along the perimeter and just four interior columns. The perimeter columns also lend the facades a sense of lightness and flexibility. A kind of billboard--made of cement-board panels--will announce gallery exhibits to passing cars on Lincoln Boulevard. At the main approach to the building, a glass-enclosed corner will give the structure a fragile, temporary air.
Of course, these are all ideas we have seen before. The industrial shed has long been an icon of Modernism. The notion of treating buildings as distinct components in a sculptural composition was a central theme of Frank O. Gehry's early work. And the conceptual link between factory-like spaces and the production of art can be traced back to Richard Gluckman's 1970s-era loft-like gallery spaces in New York's SoHo, or to Max Gordon, who first popularized the style in London in the 1960s, or even to Andy Warhol's chaotic art factory in Manhattan.
Where Fisher's design seems likely to fall short is in its inability to capture the loose, spontaneous feel of those precedents. This is especially true in the design of the studios--at least in their current incarnation. You expect the grand, open spaces of an industrial warehouse. You get a warren of tightly packed rooms. On the first floor, the gallery and studios are generic spaces laid out around a cluster of offices. On the second floor, the same kind of generic studios surround a small, open-air court, which is meant to provide an oasis of tranquillity amid a maze of activity.
It's hard to blame Fisher for the weakness of the interior spaces. Constrained by the budget, with little time, it would have been hard to achieve the kind of compositional complexity that would give these spaces architectural meaning.
But to those who are familiar with Hodgetts and Fung's abandoned scheme, it's also hard not to feel a tinge of disappointment. Hodgetts and Fung's focused almost exclusively on the studios. Bridge-like balconies spanned raw, open work spaces, with light spilling down through an elaborate, undulating roof structure. Outside, however, the building's depressing, sloped concrete facade recalled a military bunker.
Ultimately, the only similarity between the two designs is their incompleteness, since neither fully resolves the relationship between inner and outer worlds.
It may be that--after one pointless competition, a rejected design and years of grappling with a frustrating budget--Otis' board simply succumbed to exhaustion. Don't take risks. Cut your losses. Keep to the straight and narrow path. It is an understandable strategy. But schools should be places of optimism, and with a little more patience and vision, Otis might have gotten a project worth savoring instead of a workable compromise.