If you’re tooling down South La Brea Avenue in Inglewood and get to Queen Street, it might seem that the old bank building on the corner is the same as it ever was.
Completed in 1965 as a Security Pacific Bank branch, the building was designed by Austin, Field & Fry, a midcentury architectural office that also produced the U.S. Customs House at the Port of Los Angeles and the original Otis Art Institute in MacArthur Park. The bank building is evocative of its era — a low-slung, flat-roofed structure supported by slender, steel columns — but not the sort of architecture that turns heads. Its biggest flourishes are the gently curving sand-colored brick walls on the north side of the structure, broken up by tasteful strips of mosaic tile — but even that is subtle. Drive by too fast and you’ll miss it.
Over the decades as Inglewood’s fortunes changed, so have the building’s. For long periods, the bank branch sat empty. At other times, it has harbored businesses for which it was not designed. That has included a nonprofit academic learning center and a Burger King.
Now the old bank has found new life as a rehearsal space and concert hall — though other than a cleaned-up facade and new signage it can be hard to deduce that from the street. And that’s exactly how it was intended.
Welcome to the Judith and Thomas L. Beckmen YOLA Center in downtown Inglewood, where the outside is all 1960s branch bank but the inside is a dynamic, daylight-saturated community music center — the first permanent space for the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Youth Orchestra Los Angeles. The low-key reconfiguration comes courtesy of Frank Gehry and a team of designers at Gehry Partners in collaboration with the Los Angeles-based Chait & Company, which served as the executive architect firm on the project.
“It’s not a precious building,” says Gehry via telephone. “But it’s precious in what it does.”
We listen in on the first acoustical test of the new Beckmen YOLA Center in Inglewood, which promises to be revolutionary.
YOLA, a program devised by L.A. Phil Music Director Gustavo Dudamel, trains budding musicians in under-resourced communities around Los Angeles. It serves more than 1,300 students, ages 5 to 18, with free instruments and intensive musical training.
Since the orchestra’s 2007 inception, YOLA musicians have studied at improvised locations around the city. But Dudamel was intent on creating at least one site that could be more lasting. To make that happen, all the players involved moved with remarkable speed.
In August of 2018, the L.A. Phil announced that it was acquiring the old bank from the city of Inglewood, a structure that though generally unremarkable, has a prominent place adjacent to the city’s civic center. At that time, Gehry unveiled his design proposal for the $14.5 million renovation.
Now, just three short years after making the designs public — a blink of an eye in architecture time — the YOLA Center will officially open its doors to area students. The first classes are scheduled to take place in September with the start of the school year. (A community celebration, originally scheduled for Sunday, was postponed due to rising infections from the coronavirus Delta variant.)
Gehry may seem an unlikely architect for what is essentially a low-key adaptive reuse project. His public profile is built on elaborate form-making — of the kind he and his firm have deployed on high-profile cultural institutions such as Spain’s Guggenheim Bilbao and L.A.'s Walt Disney Concert Hall.
But Gehry has long been a designer who knows how to make the most of preexisting space. In the ’80s, he turned a police car warehouse in Little Tokyo into the so-called Temporary Contemporary galleries (now the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA) for the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles. His recent renovation of the Philadelphia Museum of Art clarified a jumble of ground-level spaces and perforated them with light. (I saw the building on a recent trip to the East Coast. The effect is restrained and ethereal.)
His design for YOLA was inspired by another of his works of adaptive reuse — one that happens to be for a music hall. The Pierre Boulez Saal in Berlin occupies a historic warehouse that was once used to store sets for the Berlin State Opera. Gehry remade that space by inserting a pair of gently undulating circular seating areas around a central stage within the boxy geometries of the old building — a pair of circles within a square.
Times classical music critic Mark Swed has written that the design creates “a communal effect, along with providing a singular perspective visually and aurally. No one hears or sees quite the same thing, while at the same time, musicians and audience feel as though we are in it together.”
Gehry has brought some of that adaptive magic to the YOLA Center, which should serve as a fine example of what can happen when a starchitect uses power for good instead of evil.
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The old bank building on La Brea may look almost the same on the outside, but its insides now boast a nearly 4,500-square-foot performance space, the Edgerton Foundation Performance Hall, which features a resonant sprung floor that has been crafted from oak as well as 10 rows of wooden, stadium-style seating (no obstructed views!) that can accommodate up to 272 spectators.
On days in which there are no public performances, the seats can be collapsed along one side of the room and a series of retractable plywood walls deployed to divide the hall into two. This creates additional rehearsal and teaching spaces — meaning that this is a performance hall that will never lay fallow. Flexibility is key to other aspects of the building too: The main performance hall is ringed by two stories of rooms of various dimensions that can be used as rehearsal spaces or as green rooms in advance of performances.
Plus, the design doesn’t skimp on sound. The acoustics are by Nagata Acoustics International, the same designers who worked on Walt Disney Concert Hall.
Gehry’s architectural team — which includes Craig Webb, Meaghan Lloyd, Thomas Kim and Richard Mandimika — was able to achieve all of this by essentially scooping out the building guts (which included a couple of concrete bank vaults) and reorganizing the place.
They dropped the main floor to the basement level and added a skylight that protrudes above the roofline so that the performance hall could have an ideal acoustic height of 45 feet. Anyone entering from La Brea looks down into the performance hall. A mezzanine above provides additional seating. And the added skylight (the one change to the building’s profile) has the effect of bringing daylight to the far corners of the building.
Though it was built with sturdiness and economy in mind, there are nonetheless delights in the details.
Seating is upholstered in a warm shade of burnt orange. Combined with the light shade of oak employed for the stage, it makes the main performance hall feel warm and unfussy. Tucked into the hallways are small seating nooks where a student’s family or friends can hang out while they rehearse. These are lined in simple plywood, but the ways in which they are joined make the most of the wood’s natural patterns. Near the building’s front door is a small kitchenette, which beckons like an informal gesture of welcome.
This isn’t a stuffy opera palace, it’s a youthful place of learning and collaboration.
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Most significant, the building retains its connection to the street. Both the Edgerton Performance Hall and its sound booth are not hermetically sealed off from the rest of the world as they might be in a traditional performance hall. Instead, they are fully visible through the windows that face South La Brea. During rehearsals and performances, passersby will be able to see the components of a performance at play.
Street sounds bleed into the space. (During a recent sound test in the performance hall in which students from YOLA practiced one of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos for the benefit of Nagata’s acousticians, I could hear a siren wailing on La Brea.) But sounds from the space are also designed to bleed out into the world. Practice rooms are double-walled so that musicians can focus, but the doors are standard issue — so that anyone who pokes their head into the building is liable to hear the cacophony of sounds produced by young musicians at work.
“I think the building wants to be part of the community, not created as a cultural object from the outside,” says Gehry. “It has a lot of porosity so people feel like they are a part of it.”
That was part of the equation.
In recent years, rising rents and other issues related to gentrification have rattled the residents of Inglewood, one of Southern California’s last Black enclaves. The construction of SoFi Stadium, home to the Rams and the Chargers, has likely helped fuel real estate speculation. Now there is another venue in the works: an 18,500-seat arena for the Clippers basketball team.
The area around the civic center where YOLA is located is likewise primed for change. Sometime this year, Metro’s new Crenshaw Line is scheduled to begin depositing passengers at the new downtown Inglewood stop at Florence Avenue, just east of La Brea. Nearby, a rising residential development called the Astra, designed by Withee Malcolm Architects, will bring 242 market-rate apartments to the neighborhood.
With the Los Angeles Rams and Chargers’ forthcoming stadium certain to transform Inglewood, a $14.5-million renovation of an abandoned bank building a mile away may seem a smaller emblem of civic renewal.
In addition, there is nearby Market Street, a historic commercial strip with storefronts that date back to the 1920s, which Inglewood Mayor James T. Butts says could be redeveloped to be more “reminiscent of Old Town Pasadena” — a phrase that evokes heaps of old-world charm, but also pricey real estate.
Butts says the city has made some moves to alleviate issues of gentrification. He points to a recently implemented rent cap of 3% on residential properties. But that cap offers shaky protection at best: It only covers properties of more than four units for which rent increases are regulated by the city. Moreover, additional rent increases are allowed if the property is being rented at less than 80% of fair market value — which at a moment of skyrocketing rents, could mean the 3% cap is more symbolic than practical.
All of this comes at a time when art’s role in gentrification is increasingly under scrutiny. Butts says, however, that the YOLA Center is the opposite: a prominent building — one that quite literally fronts Inglewood City Hall — that will be employed exclusively for community use. “It could have been a WeWork,” he says. “It could have been a dozen things.”
“There are going to be about 300 students that are mentored in this program,” Butts says of YOLA. “The commitment is that 160 of them will be Inglewood students. This is in no way a building that is in the community but apart from the community. It will become infused with the DNA of the community.”
That was the case with its construction too. “We have a 35% local hire commitment for all development projects,” he says.
Certainly, YOLA isn’t an art gallery selling high-value paintings. The institution, instead, offers free instruments, free musical training and free community concerts — a program that Dudamel based on El Sistema, the national musical program from his native Venezuela that fostered his own musical studies.
At a time of relentless change in Inglewood, the YOLA Center will serve, instead, as an accessible cultural anchor. Part of that comes from the architecture. In preserving the building’s exterior, Gehry has maintained a familiar aspect to the neighborhood while finding a new use for an outmoded building.
“It’s not necessary to build a bright, shiny object that everybody looks at,” he says. “The programming and the effect on the community — that is the issue.”
One that will be played out one musician, one rehearsal and one performance at a time in YOLA’s handsome new space.