A Graduate's Memories Were Worth Building On

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Most people just give money to their alma mater. Kip Kelly gave his creativity.

An alumnus of Notre Dame High School in Sherman Oaks, the 42-year-old architect designed its new mission-style arts and technology center. At $5.3 million, the project was his most important commission to date. But, more important to Kelly, it was a chance to leave his mark on a campus that indelibly marked him.

"It's because of this campus that I became an architect," said Kelly, now head of Nest Architecture in Culver City, who grew up in a suburban tract in Northridge, surrounded by what he described as "throwaway architecture."

When he first visited the private high school run by the Brothers of the Holy Cross, two things about the campus won the teen over--its mission architecture and the pool.

Kelly, who graduated in 1976, said he instantly responded to the warmth and serenity of the campus, with its terra cotta-tiled roofs, cream-colored stucco walls and its graceful arcade facing Riverside Drive.

Fellow graduate James Amato was the general contractor for the project, and half a dozen other alumni were involved as well.

Private high schools often tap the professional expertise of their alumni, including architects, just as colleges and universities do. In the early 1900s, St. Paul's School in New Hampshire had a troika of prominent alumni architects who made planning decisions and designed campus buildings. A Roman Catholic high school in Tampa, Fla., currently has alumni architects on the committee developing a campus master plan.

Universities, especially those with architecture programs, routinely turn to alumni architects. In recent years, the Georgia Tech campus has been reshaped by an Atlanta architectural firm that includes about 30 graduates.

Notre Dame President William Nick said he thought having alumni design and build much of the complex was a real plus. It piqued the interest of other alumni and parents, who were asked to pay for the building. Kelly and the other graduates were unusually gung-ho.

"Alumni tend to be passionate about their alma mater," Nick said. "It's more than just a business relationship. It's a labor of love."

The new complex is the "aesthetic center" and "focal point" of the campus, Nick said.

Kelly, a graduate in architecture from UC Berkeley, was thrilled to be offered the commission. And he had a clear vision for the campus he knew so intimately.

"I wanted to retain the warmth and wonder that the original buildings had," he said.

Trusting Traditional Architectural Styles

Traditional design doesn't have a lot of cachet in architecture today--pushing the envelope tends to be much more prized. But Kelly said he believes traditional architecture has its place.

"Done well, it's difficult to beat, especially when you're going after that peaceful feeling."

Besides knowing every inch of the campus, Kelly felt he had the right professional experience for the job. In addition to designing restaurants and other commercial buildings, he has remodeled many homes.

As a result, he said: "I've had a lot of practice in trying to figure out what was in the original architect's mind and in getting into the spirit of a building."

Kelly did his homework. The school's first architect--the designer of the 1947 arcade Kelly so admired--was the late Laurence Viole, who designed more than 150 schools and churches in the Los Angeles area. Kelly interviewed Viole's son, Tim, a general contractor in Reseda, who is also a Notre Dame alumnus. Kelly learned that Viole had visited 19 of the 21 original missions in the course of designing the Notre Dame campus.

"Since this was a religious school--a Catholic school--Viole felt the missions were an appropriate model," said Kelly, who noted that Viole viewed the mission as the "indigenous architecture" of Southern California.

Kelly then got to know half a dozen missions firsthand by wandering through them with his young sons.

His assignment was to build an arts and technology center in the heart of the 14-acre campus. The 35,000-square-foot complex was to include a theater, art gallery, music rooms, film and TV studio, classrooms and offices, all wired for digital technology. Although the innards would be pure 21st century, the package needed to reflect a 200-year-old architectural tradition.

"They would evolve the missions over time," Kelly said. "Once the first building was built, the goal was always to build a quadrangle so they had a protected courtyard."

Kelly began thinking of his new structure as the fourth element that would finally complete the Sherman Oaks campus.

When he was a student, Kelly remembered, it was hard to find a shaded place outside to have lunch, meet with friends or simply sit down. So Kelly built covered arcades, interior courtyards and other sheltered places into his design.

Summer and early fall temperatures in the Valley are brutal, he remembered. "Now they have places where they can sit and eat lunch and not boil an egg on the sidewalk," he said.

Tougher, New Materials Used Throughout

The original missions had thick walls and other features well adapted to the Southern California climate. Kelly's design called for walls 2 feet thick, instead of the standard 6 inches. Thick walls, he explained, allow the windows to be recessed, minimizing the buildup of heat from the sun.

Unusually thick walls also allow bookcases and other interior features to be built in. Outside, the walls accommodate built-in benches beneath the windows, where students can sit and read or talk with friends.

Although Kelly admired many things about the missions, he felt no obligation to honor every detail. When mud is your building material, as it was in the missions, he explained, you can't build very large open spaces into a wall. Modern technology allowed Kelly to include a large opening on the second floor that provides a panoramic view of the cool, green athletic fields.

Kelly chose tough materials whenever possible, including a durable, richly colored form of linoleum used for the hallways.

"That was a big part of this project, making sure the kids couldn't destroy it," said Kelly, who remembered from his own student days what teenagers can do to a school building.

As Kelly recalled the opening of the complex earlier this year, it became clear that the dedication of a building designed for your own high school is more fun than a class reunion where everyone looks older.

"When the building was christened, it was really wonderful," Kelly said.

When asked what he likes most about the complex, Kelly said: "It doesn't say, 'Look at me, look at me.' A few people have paid it the greatest compliment. They've said it feels like it's always been here."

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