Coming clean in the inner city

“In this neighborhood the most radical thing you could do was make a white building,” architect Michael Maltzan told me on a recent afternoon as we toured the campus of Inner-City Arts, where his firm completed an $8.5-million expansion earlier this fall.

The ICA complex -- which indeed has the surprising brightness of a soap-opera actor’s teeth seen up close, or the pages deep inside a newspaper that has yellowed on top -- offers classes in the arts to students bused in from a number of public-school campuses. Its 1-acre site, at 7th and Kohler streets near the edge of downtown’s skid row, is surrounded by seafood and produce wholesalers, social service agencies, single-room-occupancy hotels and auto-parts shops. Bunker Hill’s gleaming, mirrored-glass towers loom quite visibly to the northwest, but at ground level these blocks are dominated by roll-down security doors and loops of razor wire.

In that context, ICA’s decision to paint its entire campus white is part provocation, part stubborn declaration of hope. The color is also an expression of commitment to several varieties of upkeep, a choice that says to the neighborhood: The buildings may get scuffed, or attract graffiti, but we will be here to keep them clean, and that cleanliness will suggest the steadfastness of what is going on inside. Whiteness equals constancy, and the brighter the better.


Ultimately, though, the design of the ICA campus makes a statement that is stronger and more meaningful than its palette. With the completion of the complex -- after a decade and a half of planning, fundraising, design and construction -- Inner-City Arts now occupies a group of buildings that make up a small-scale essay on the power of architecture to create community, and even a sense of wonder, not with formal fireworks but simply by shaping space.

The materials Maltzan and his collaborators -- landscape architect Nancy Goslee Power and the design firm Ph.D -- are working with the stuff of classic Southern California banality: stucco, concrete, paint, palm trees and limited expanses of glass. If the campus turns a necessarily security-conscious and somewhat blank face to the street, the buildings that make it up -- two rehabbed older structures and a handful of small new ones -- are arranged inside its gates with an unusually effective combination of complexity, practicality, economy and care. The architecture here is layered and intricate without falling into overwrought or self-conscious mannerism, which is among the trickiest tightropes for an architect to walk.

Holding studios, classrooms and performance space, with parking on the rooftop of one of the buildings, ICA provides arts instruction to students from 30 elementary schools, three middle schools and four high schools. Many of the kids it serves live in the neighborhood; others come from families that are chronically homeless.

The ICA job was the first substantial commission Maltzan landed after leaving Frank Gehry’s office to start his own practice.

On the initial phase of the nonprofit’s building campaign, which was completed in 1994, Maltzan teamed up with Marmol Radziner and Associates to turn an old auto repair shop into a high-ceilinged suite of classrooms and studios while adding a new ceramics building and small outbuilding. The new construction includes a dramatic wedge-shaped library, a black box theater (complete with a faraway corner skylight that seems a cousin of the one at Walt Disney Concert Hall), office space for the staff and an expanded ceramics wing.

Maltzan’s architecture, with its echoes of the understated Portuguese Modernist Alvaro Siza, can occasionally come across as too reserved or placid for its own good. Imagine Frank Gehry’s designs after an overly successful stint in an anger-management program.

But if you read the architecture of the campus on its own terms -- as an attempt to weave together geometry and function rather than setting them against one another, and to worry more about the space a building creates than the visual impression given by its form -- you will understand rather quickly that it has a good deal to say.

Maltzan, who like Power and Ph.D worked pro bono on the project, approached it from the beginning as a kind of urban planning; after the first phase of construction, as ICA worked to acquire adjacent parcels of land, he prepared not one but two master plans for the organization. The rhythm and ultimately the personality of the finished product is drawn largely from the way you move through it from sidewalk to garden to studio and back again. The form of the spaces between the buildings is at certain points generous and open, at others narrow and intimate -- or even pinched. Maltzan calls the result “compressed urbanism.”

Each of the new buildings is pulled or crisply folded back at one or all of its corners, bringing a sense of surprise and irregularity to the design. (The library, in particular, takes a number of complicated and assured architectural gestures and packs them into a smallish single room.) Those folds open up the campus to the surrounding blocks even as they work to convince the students that they are inside a protected, kid-sized oasis.

At the same time, the complex recognizes the need to acknowledge urban scale. A pair of towers -- including a new one with an interior colored bright orange, with an ICA logo by Ph.D. running vertically -- allow it to be seen from several blocks away.

In that sense, Maltzan’s hard-won achievement at Inner-City Arts is a beacon not just for the immediate neighborhood but also for our culture’s downcast moment. As funding for the architecture of spectacle drains quickly away, we need fresh models of city-making that suggest what can be accomplished when the resources at hand are far deeper in a creative sense than a financial one. Put this one near the top of the list.