Campus as canvas

Times Staff Writer

Nestled deep in the hills of a residential section of Pasadena, Art Center College of Design has long been the definition of a sleepy academic sanctuary. Its landmark campus -- a low, 1970s-era glass-and-steel structure designed by the late Craig Ellwood -- embodied a world detached from the realities of urban chaos.

All of that began to change with the arrival of Richard Koshalek, who was appointed president of the school in 1999. The union seemed logical enough. Art Center is known for its art, photography and industrial design programs; Koshalek, a former director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, has had a long-standing love affair with architecture and design. Soon, Koshalek began musing over big architectural dreams: multimillion-dollar building proposals, a collaboration of world-class designers, a new campus buzzing with intellectual energy.

Initially, some longtime Art Center faculty members balked. As recently as two years ago, students protesting tuition hikes seemed in no mood for a costly building program. But Koshalek persevered. As he recently put it, "I want to bring the institution out of its cocoon, to allow it to play a more aggressive role in the life of the city."

The early stages

Those fantasies are just beginning to bear fruit. Next month, Art Center will break ground on the first phase of a new South Campus in a light industrial neighborhood located just south of downtown Pasadena, 4 1/2miles from the hillside campus. Designed by Santa Monica-based Daly Genik Architects, the $13.5-million building will include a 20,000-square-foot exhibition hall, adult education facilities and after-school art and design programs. Its jagged, urban forms will offer a striking contrast to the old-school Modernity of the existing campus.

Art Center is also negotiating with Pasadena officials to lease the massive 1930s-era Glenarm power plant across the street, which the college hopes to transform into an 80,000-square-foot exhibition space designed by Frank Gehry. Gehry is also working with Portuguese architect Alvaro Siza on the design for a major expansion of the main campus that would include a new library and a technical skills building.

School officials estimate that completing all three phases of the plan could take 25 years. They have yet to establish the cost of renovating the power plant or expanding the existing campus; nor are there any plans to launch a capital campaign to pay for the project. .

But even if only the first phase is built, the new campus will have a significant effect on the city's cultural landscape. In essence, the move represents a radical reworking of the school's public mission -- its desire to break down conventional barriers between academia and daily life. Daly Genik's task was to give shape to that vision. They have done so with a design that crackles with urban energy.

The new campus will occupy a cluster of existing buildings that includes a massive wood-frame shed once used as a testing facility by aircraft manufacturer McDonnell Douglas and a more banal concrete structure along Raymond Avenue. The power plant looms just across the street to the west. Metro Rail's new Gold Line, which is scheduled to start service this summer, will extend along the site's eastern edge. A block away, the Arroyo Parkway links Pasadena to the 110 Freeway.

Rather than obliterate the existing structures, Daly Genik chose to articulate the tension between new and old. The majority of the complex's public education facilities -- classrooms, gallery, print shop and rooftop restaurant -- are set along Raymond Street. The exhibition hall is tucked behind this space in the former aircraft testing facility. Two courtyards anchor the complex at either end.

Seen from Raymond, the building seems to have been carved apart with the precision of a surgical knife. Large windows are cut out of the building's facade, opening it up to the street. An asymmetrical pattern of small circles is embedded in the facade, giving the it a porous, sponge-like appearance.

But the design's most dramatic feature is the roof. There, a restaurant is housed inside a series of interconnecting, tent-like structures that seem to burst out of the top of the building. Clad in translucent ETF panels -- a high-tech plastic -- the structures snake their way across the rooftop before spilling over one side to enclose a stair tower. A small reflecting pool anchors the restaurant at one end. A secondary trellis-structure frames an outdoor garden.

The effect is surreal. The roof forms evoke strange, parasitic organisms. But they also imbue the existing structure with new meaning. The project represents the collision of two worlds -- the grinding assembly-line technologies of a recent industrial past and the high-tech, ephemeral imagery of the emerging global culture.

It would be wrong, however, to regard Daly Genik's design as a purely aesthetic experiment. The dual courtyards, for example, are conceived as social mixing chambers, a way of giving the school a public presence along the street. That notion of a communal roof terrace has deep Modernist roots. That idea was first promoted by Le Corbusier in his celebrated 1953 Marseilles housing block, whose roof was conceived as a gigantic ship's deck, floating above a natural landscape.

The communal theme continues inside. In renovating the former McDonnell Douglas facility, for example, the architects have left the main, 20,000-square-foot space virtually intact, including a series of elegant bow-string trusses that supports the hall's soaring, 60-foot ceiling. A series of classrooms will be added along one side of the hall, its forms cantilevering out toward the exhibition space. Koshalek also envisions a series of movable, temporary structures that could be used to give form to various exhibitions.

The idea is to preserve the raw beauty of the existing space while imbuing it with a renewed vibrancy. Suspended inside the capacious hall, the cantilevered classrooms are vaguely meant to evoke the structure's previous incarnation as a wind tunnel for testing supersonic jets. They also suggest a more unstable view of architectural history.

The entire complex, in fact, becomes a kind of social filter -- one that induces a high degree of interaction between inside and out, public and private realms. It reminds us that the imagination can act as a tool for social transformation.

It is too soon to tell whether Gehry's and Siza's designs will match this level of creative exuberance. In terms of public impact, the power plant seems to offer the more compelling challenge. With 80,000 square feet of possible exhibition space, it would be three times the size of the Museum of Contemporary Art's Grand Avenue building, and nearly twice the size of the Geffen, which Gehry designed in 1983.

Tapping into natural beauty

Meanwhile, Gehry and Siza have completed a preliminary master plan proposal for the expansion of the hilltop campus. Gehry's contribution includes a spiraling library building that would nestle in a shallow canyon just below the existing structures. Siza's Technological Skills building would extend southeast from the existing campus, its faceted forms echoing the contours of the hillside. Both schemes are intriguing. But their potential is more about tapping into the natural beauty of its context than in any desire to engage a larger world.

Whatever the results, the ambition of Art Center's various plans evokes a time when art and architecture schools were often perceived as centers of social activism. The most famous precedent for this, of course, is the Bauhaus, where Walter Gropius' sleek, machine-like campus was a perfect expression of the school's almost mystical faith in the new Industrial Age. In America, Mies van der Rohe's design for the Illinois Institute of Technology campus performed a similar symbolic function, even if by then the language of early Modernism seemed comparatively tame.

Art Center's ambition, clearly, is to join that short, celebrated list. But where Koshalek's dream differs is in the tone of its idealism. Over the last decade, architects have lost faith in the profession's revolutionary function. The world is a more fractured place, one that cannot be reformed through dogmatic formulas -- creative or otherwise. The trick is to engage the messy realities head on. Art Center is well on its way.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Friday April 04, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 78 words Type of Material: Correction Art Center College of Design -- In an article in the March 30 Sunday Calendar about a planned expansion of Pasadena's Art Center College of Design, a caption incorrectly identified the school's proposed South Campus. In fact, the photo depicted the master plan for a proposed expansion of the existing hillside campus. The story also said that no capital campaign had been launched. In January, a capital campaign was launched for the first phase of the three-part expansion. For The Record Los Angeles Times Sunday April 06, 2003 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 2 inches; 78 words Type of Material: Correction Art Center College of Design -- In an article in the March 30 Sunday Calendar about a planned expansion of Pasadena's Art Center College of Design, a caption incorrectly identified the school's proposed South Campus. In fact, the photo depicted the master plan for a proposed expansion of the existing hillside campus. The story also said that no capital campaign had been launched. In January, a capital campaign was launched for the first phase of the three-part expansion.
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