Culver City’s high school auditorium is remade, and a design mystery is solved

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The Robert Frost Memorial Auditorium at Culver City High School has long been heralded for its futuristic design.

It has a dramatic concrete roof in the shape of a splayed fan evocative of the LAX Theme building or the swooping TWA terminal at JFK Airport.

The 1964 building has even been featured in sci-fi films such as “Gattaca” and “Sleeper.”

But there’s been a lingering question about the concert hall: how was it’s unusual roof built, and who designed it?

For architects Craig Hodgetts and Ming Fung the commission to oversee an extensive remodel of Culver City High School’s Robert Frost Auditorium was an exciting one.

It demanded figuring out how to transform “a kind of white elephant space into a very, very dynamic full on performing arts space” (by “taking all of the hardware out of a very large space and positioning it around the periphery which gave us the room to put in a black box theater and dressing rooms and a scene shop”).

And it involved solving an architectural mystery: who was responsible for the remarkable roof, very, very thin but very strong that covers 1200 seats and it's only four inches thick?

A little sleuthing unearthed a young engineer named Andrew Nasser, known best as John Lautner’s structural engineer since the 1970s, and still working on the Sheats Goldstein residence.

At 26 years of age, he was working for an engineer in Pasadena named Carl Johnson, who was consulting to Flewelling & Moody, architects of the concert hall.

A photograph by Julius Shulman of the original construction for The Robert Frost Memorial Auditorium in Culver City that opened in 1964.

Hodgetts explains that he devised the thin shell structure and then a cheap way to build it: by making a big hill out of earth shaped precisely for the engineering requirements and then we cover it with concrete. And then we let it dry and we put another layer of concrete and another layer of concrete and another layer of concrete and just lift them off and position them around a post. You've got the entire roof of the structure.”

Nasser was 26 at the time and tells DnA the project cost a mere $865,000.

But his role in the Culver City high school auditorium had been forgotten, he says, because of a dispute over credit between the young turk engineer and the architect. He says Ralph Flewelling told the Sunday Times that the design had come to him in a dream “so I went into his office and said, I’m very disappointed in your sense of honesty. So he turns red, and he says, ‘young man, I’m going to see to it that you have nothing more to do with this job,’ and he kicked me out.”

Children perform on stage at Robert Frost Memorial Auditorium in Culver City. Photo by Frances Anderton