SCI-Arc at Forty: The Original “Alternative” Architecture School

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Oyler Wu Graduation Pavilion, 2011
It has been a monumental, and monumentalizing, year for SCI-Arc, Los Angeles’ famed experimental architecture school. The Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc) celebrates its fortieth anniversary this year, with special programming, building initiatives and a new digital archive of decades of guest lecture videos. The school was also the focus of an exhibition at the MAK Center for Art and Architecture.

The anniversary coincides with a particularly strong year in academic rankings. recently rated SCI-Arc number one in their roster of the top ten international architecture schools, citing its ability to develop students into “well rounded architect[s]” and specifically praising the school as “the leader in sustainable design and one of the best institute’s for computational design.”

alternative to the dominant currents in architectural education at the time – both the Los Angeles modernist strongholds of USC and UCLA and the hyperintellectualism of the East Coast ivies. In light of these recent milestones, DnA asked architectural historian Maura Lucking, a recent LA transplant who wrote her MA thesis at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago on SCI-Arc founder Ray Kappe’s design philosophy, to revisit SCI-Arc’s countercultural origins and examine recent changes that may have irrevocably changed the direction of the school.  

From her perspective as a non-native, Maura was intrigued by the transitional role SCI-Arc seemed to play between the mid-century years and the Santa Monica School – what postmodern theorist Frederic Jameson called the “evolutionary mutation” of the Gehry Residence in 1978.  Both movements are hugely popular among international audiences, but how did Los Angeles architecture move from point A to point B?  And if SCI-Arc played a crucial role in creating a place for experimental practice in the city, what’s become of it today on the verge of a new era?  Maura spoke to Eric Owen Moss (right; his work in Culver City is the focus of a tour this Saturday), longtime faculty member and, since 2002, SCI-Arc director, an intellectual and unapologetically outspoken architect and academic, and asked him, has SCI-Arc moved toward the proverbial center, or has the center simply moved closer to the edge?

The school was born out of the post-’68 youth movement in its Californian “hippie” incarnation. The “turn on, tune in and drop out” mentality was channeled by SCI-Arc’s founders through a new, more democratic bureaucratic hierarchy that narrowed the gap between students and teachers and, they hoped, would keep students in school and producing new work through collaborative studios, visiting lecturer seminars, and frequent field trips into the urban environment.  The school became a prime example of a pre-existing educational concept that had gained popularity in the late 60s –known as the “college without walls” approach— that seemed just the right strategy for pulling architecture out of the university and unleashing its energy onto the city itself.

In 1972, Los Angeles architect Ray Kappe was dismissed from his position as the founding chair of Cal Poly Pomona’s department of architecture due to a scuffle with the dean over his somewhat unorthodox teaching methods, including student homesteading projects in the desert and the building of huge geometric plywood structures on school property.  Kappe, a serious but impassioned idealist and proponent of architecture’s role as a tool for social advancement, fought the dismissal in a school-wide battle, yet ultimately the majority of the department’s faculty and about half the students, too, chose to leave in solidarity.  Some of the younger faculty members suggested that the group continue to meet, not as a school yet, exactly, but an independent program for studio space and conversations about work.

Thom Mayne,  Bernard Zimmerman, Glen Small, Bill Simonian, James Stafford, Ahde Lahti, and Gary Neville – began looking for a building in Santa Monica, where open space was abundant due to the dwindling aerospace industry.  The building they eventually found was a derelict industrial warehouse-cum-LSD factory, according to school lore and a 1976 LA Times profile.  A wild party was thrown to christen the building, setting the tone of informality and exuberant energy dominant in the early years, and the fifty original students as well as twenty-five new recruits began classes that fall at what was called “The New School.”

Giving up accreditation, the potential for professional licensure for students and tenured institutional security for faculty, the school sought to explore a new bureaucratic structure.  Here, students and lecturers could work collaboratively and faculty would be evaluated for their teaching skills rather than competing with one another for limited positions. The curricular structure was similarly flexible, with greater allowance for students to select their own coursework of interest under faculty supervision and core architectural classes were supplemented with an unusual focus on the humanities and the social sciences. No letter grades were issued, and an early university mission statement read: “the school does not recognize failure, but instead encourages that projects be repeated and improved upon until a successful conclusion is reached, or the student is redirected.”

Whole Earth Catalog and geodesic dome communes like Drop-City,Colorado, moved into the urban environment. Students actually lived in the rhombics, hauling sleeping bags and other personal belongings up the shaky metal framing.  Kappe remembers:

“It was almost like a zoo at that time. Of course, those were pretty heavy pot-smoking days, in the early seventies, with the sixties mentality. It was pretty difficult to control.  We didn’t want to control it. What we did say was that we had all made this commitment, and they had made a major commitment. If we were shut down because of drugs or any kind of a problem like that, well, it would all be over.”

The loose interdisciplinarity of the early years made way, over time, for new methods of formal and technological experimentation.  In our interview, Eric Owen Moss suggested that perhaps it was not that the school’s initial format was unique or revolutionary, but that its openness and energy were what allowed unconventional ideas about what might constitute “architecture” to flourish in the space.  Moss came to the school’s faculty in 1974 from Harvard’s GSD, and remembers the years that followed as a period of rigorous intellectual thinking, writing, and professional practice.

Without the salaries or security of a major university, the faculty all maintained professional careers outside of the classroom, somewhat unusual for the time.  Thom Mayne, less than a generation younger than Kappe but a highly opinionated voice from the first, formed Morphosis in 1972, concurrent to joining the SCI-Arc experiment (in 2005 he won the Pritzker Prize, the architecture profession’s highest international honor). With his collaborators Livio Santini, James Stafford, Michael Bricker and, later, Michael Rotondi, Mayne scraped by on conceptual projects for several years, even briefly running a guerrilla architecture gallery out of his own home.  With small early commissions, like the Angeli Caffe (1984; Angeli, by the way, was owned by Evan Kleiman, host of KCRW’s Good Food, and remained in business until January of this year), Morphosis developed their signature sculptural building envelopes that abandoned the city’s mid-century modern lineage and embraced the material and compositional ruggedness of the west side (and SCI-Arc) industrial landscape.

Architect, curator and current director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, Aaron Betsky, remembers his time on faculty in the 1980s in this piece from Architecture Magazine.  He describes the nondescript school building as “no more than sheds with large doors that opened up to the parking lot where a lot of building and fabricating got done, with skylights and leaks and a general sense that the enclosure was about as solid as the incredibly complex sections the students drew obsessively in lieu of proper plans and elevations.”  In an economy that wasn’t commissioning much new work and a post-industrial city rife with abandoned sheds just waiting for decoration, the work of students and later faculty – eventually including Michael RotondiRobert Mangurian, Craig Hodgetts, Mary Ann Ray, Coy Howard, and others – took on an expressive post-modern eclecticism.  Their identity of rebellious bohemianism took center stage sometimes as much as their architectural projects, as a 1980 article in Italian architecture bible Domus photographed the group, along with Frank Gehry, with blustery hair, unbuttoned shirts and even an agreeable dog in the middle of Venice Beach.  In Betsky’s words, this wasn’t about building, persay, but “architecture as set decoration.”

By the 1990s, however, the founding administration had been largely pushed out by changing ideological tides and SCI-Arc had fallen on hard financial times. The school was forced to move from Santa Monica to a new warehouse in Marina Del Rey and, in 2000, their current home in the Santa Fe Freight Depot downtown, in a then quote-gritty neighborhood on the edge of Little Tokyo. Moss famously quipped, “We used to be considered one step ahead of the IRS, one step ahead of creditors.” While it is by no means unusual for alternative schools to focus more on avant-garde course material than institutional pragmatism – two of the most famous, the German Bauhaus and North Carolina’s Black Mountain College, both survived only to that two-decade mark – SCI-Arc was able to navigate the difficulties via significant institutional restructuring. Administratively speaking, the school changed entirely, bringing in differentiated tracks (though still not tenure) to attract and retain faculty and a chief operating officer role, today filled by Harvard MBA and business executive Jamie Bennett.

The board of trustees was also entirely reconstituted, now consisting not only of architectural figures but also scions of local business, including real estate developers Tom Gilmore, Kevin Ratner and Ted Tanner.  This marks a new relationship with not only the fundraising pro forma of most major institutions but also an involvement in city politics: the aforementioned developers are known for their involvement in the downtown revitalization effort heavily promoted by the mayor’s office, and Moss counts councilwoman Jan Perry as a close friend of SCI-Arc for her support during “crucial moments.”

For the ultimate school-on-a-shoestring, the most revolutionary change came when SCI-Arc purchased their downtown building in 2011 for $23.1 million.  The landmark-protected building was an empty shell when the school first arrived, and, in a now familiar-sounding story, was redeveloped by students and faculty in an unorthodox layout.  The quarter-mile long building functions as one continuous corridor, with a cafe and gallery punctuating open studios and workshops.  The new plate glass façade reflects out upon the hundreds of “fixie” bikes chained to the depot’s docking area and the relatively lively surrounding neighborhood now known as the Arts District.

Finally putting down roots, the school is funding new building projects in the vicinity, including their now annual outdoor graduation pavilion commission, a new student gathering space called the “Hispanic Steps,” and a third project in conjunction with the downtown community for the Michael Maltzan-designed One Santa Fe arts theater, made possible by the school’s recent selection for a $400,000 grant from NEA affiliate ArtPlace.  And, though the school is now nationally accredited and widely celebrated by the architectural mainstream (some have even inferred that the small, alternative architecture school banner has passed to New York’s Cooper Union or, in LA, up-and-comer Woodbury University), it has thus far largely maintained the administrative and educational flexibility of its founding days.

Moss gave the example of the much-talked about Robot House, which came from the initiative of faculty members Peter Testa and Devyn Weiser and opened less than a year after its proposal after near unanimous support from the school and trustees.  This relative lack of bureaucratic hurdles, as well as an administration that supports the slightly tongue-and-cheek – see this video of those very robots creating felt pen graphics of Marilyn Monroe’s face in an electronica-scored, choreographed waltz, or this response to an AIA survey asking California architecture schools to self-define their pedagogical agenda submitted in the form of a free verse poem— still seem ad hoc and more than a little left of center.  Perhaps, as suggested, the center may have simply moved toward supporting the periphery in recent years.  Temporary architectural interventions have gained mainstream popularity due to the infrastructural ingenuity of protest movements like Occupy and (as previously noted by Janelle Zara of ArtInfo) David Chipperfield’s U.S. Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale of Architecture features several projects with this guerilla or countercultural attitude.

It seems only fitting, then, that the award focuses on sustainable and computational design.  Sustainability at SCI-Arc, which Moss defined as a focus of critical exploration, rather than an advocacy position, still has roots in the social agenda of the 1970s, as contemporary environmental concerns (both ideological and economic) influence work in much the same way as the 1973 oil crisis.  Moss’s own architectural practice, notable for his adaptive reuse projects of Culver City industrial sites reminiscent of SCI-Arc’s own, more modest, warehouse design using scavenged and repurposed materials.

Now that environmentalism has gained broader public interest, the school has pioneered programs intended to redefine the issue. Moss’ own firm, Eric Owen Moss Associates, was invited in recent years to consult on a sustainable development in Bahia Balandra, near La Paz, on Mexico’s BajaPeninsula.  Moss recalls that he felt the opportunity was better suited to an interdisciplinary coalition of groups, and recommended that a SCI-Arc contingent, in addition to EOM and groups from Stanford and the Ibero-American University, work together to make proposals for the site that go beyond conventional “green” dogma and building practices and aim to “inhabit the Balandra site in a way that sustains its original, natural poetry.”

Computation and digital design, likewise, has its own lineage in the alternative beginnings of the Santa Monicaschool.  Frank Gehry, now a SCI-Arc board member, (though long affiliated with USC) pioneered the use of digital fabrication software in the 1990s when he repurposed the use of CATIA, a software developed for the aerospace industry, to design the award-winning Walt Disney Concert Hall. Moss remembers that the school didn’t own a single CNC (computer numerical control, or, in layman’s terms, automated) machine when he arrived in 1974.  However, he was quick to clarify that he felt the school’s strength in computation had less to do with the availability of or the students’ dexterity with tools and more to do with an attitude of imaginative experimentation. So deep is the engagement with digital technologies now that SCI-Arc is known as a school whose students are as likely to go on to work for Pixar as a traditional architecture firm.

Oyler Wu Collaborative (see top, left), was an exercise in digital to analog conversion: the structure was welded, assembled and yes, knitted, using an old-fashioned rope-loop technique, by students and staff over the course of a month.  Barbara Bestor’s “Silent Disco,” described by the designer as “a polyhedrom of hedonism,” left, is another of many temporary exhibits largely hand-built by students and volunteers at the school.

Moss cites the school’s international relationships as a new opportunity to stretch the school’s academic identity while remaining true to its mission to act as the “institute of the provisional paradigm.”  Paradoxically, the ability to work on international projects and attract the school’s diverse roster of faculty and guest lecturers— which Moss sees as a crucial contribution to the continued dogmatic reinvention of the school – stems from its public accolades and the overwhelming professional success of its graduates and trustees.

But how do these international projects reflect on the identity of the school at home, in theLos Angelescommunity, rather than amongst some globalized architectural elite?  After all, the experimental movements— schools, communes, and protest groups— on which SCI-Arc was based were founded on the principle of abandoning political and social majorities in favor of establishing new lifestyles and ideologies on a small scale.  SCI-Arc’s relationship with the hispanophone community makes an interesting case study in how the school is attempting to balance its academic reputation.

In our conversation, Moss made a connection between SCI-Arc’s involvement in the nearby working class Latino neighborhood of Boyle Heights and initiatives inPuerto Rico, Colombia and Mexico.  Whether the linguistic and cultural connections between these projects are really that substantial, or simply because the school’s involvement in the local hispanophone population has presented new opportunities for political and institutional connections in Latin America more broadly, the focus of much of the school’s international focus in Mexico and, particularly, Mexico City, is thought-provoking.

When we spoke, Moss had just arrived back in Los Angeles from a weeklong trip, leading a program at another famous alternative institution: the Museo Experimental El Eco, founded as a modernist artists’ residency and commune by Mathias Goeritz in the 1950s and today serving as a contemporary art museum with a strong architectural focus.  Even the school’s introductory summer program, “Making and Meaning,” led by Argentine architect and faculty member Alexis Rochas, has relocated their program this summer to Mexico City, suggesting that the city is not some laboratory for experimentation but, rather, a site of valuable knowledge for the very foundation of design education.

Maybe, moving into its next forty years, SCI-Arc is better off shedding the mantle of the “alternative,” “countercultural,” or “experimental.”  Still something of an oddity in American architectural education with its artistically and technically sophisticated installations—a far cry from that early warehouse scaffolding— the program nonetheless has a steep task ahead of itself to remain involved and relevant in higher education, avant-garde architectural practice, and global and local community engagement.  An effort to keep SCI-Arc “weird,” as those nostalgic for its past might wish for, would only create the very ideological allegiance that the school has sought to avoid and stifle the creative freedom and flexibility it has fought so hard to maintain.  We can only hope, as these international projects seem to insinuate, that when the center reaches the periphery, the periphery is already running for the border. -Maura Lucking

Note: A centrepiece of Eric Owen Moss’ architectural work, the Hayden Tract in Culver City (see his Umbrella Building in the photo by John Berley, above), realized over the last 25 years for developers Frederick and Laurie Smith for Samitaur Constructs, will be the focus of an tour Saturday, August 18. The tour is produced by the Society of Architectural Historians of Southern California. For tickets, click here.

Correction: Many thanks to Bill Simonian for correcting our error – James Stafford was amongst the original SCI-Arc faculty members from Cal Poly, while later director Michael Rotondi was a founding student.