Monday, June 13, 2005

Superb LA Times Article On SCI-Arc - Other Than It's Totally Wrong!!,2,5836473.story

LA Times architecture critic, Christopher Hawthorne (another all too recent arrival in LA), last Friday June 10th, proposed that the dispute between SCI-Arc (alas, misspelled - endlessly - in the 'LA' Times as... Sci-Arc) and its landlord be resolved by SCI-Arc leaving its present home and joining the Related Companies Project along Grand Avenue on Bunker Hill. Read the above linked full article, but below are a few of his thoughts:

"Over the last few weeks, two seemingly unrelated architectural dramas have been playing out in downtown Los Angeles.

Inside Department 18 of the Los Angeles County Superior Court, the Southern California Institute of Architecture, or Sci-Arc, has been fighting a nasty legal battle over the fate of its single-building campus on the eastern edge of downtown. A decision in the case is expected shortly, perhaps as early as today; a victory for Sci-Arc, allowing it to buy the renovated rail depot it's been leasing for five years, appears unlikely.

Meanwhile, along Grand Avenue, New York-based developer Related Cos. has been working to flesh out and win final approval for a plan to build two huge mixed-use commercial parcels to accompany a 16-acre park. The $1.8-billion project doesn't include a single educational or cultural component or, at least so far, any prominent local architects to complement its roster of established and largely risk-averse firms from Chicago, Boston and New York. Without a change of architectural course, its commercial sections may provide little more than a shiny, joyless parade of high-end chain stores.

Remarkably, there's an attractively simple solution to Sci-Arc's real estate woes and the Related plan's essential conservatism that no one has suggested: Dedicate one of the publicly owned parcels in the new Grand Avenue development for a new, free-standing Sci-Arc campus building, and give the job of designing it to an emerging, experimentally minded architecture firm based in Los Angeles.

In a single stroke, the gesture would give Sci-Arc the permanent home it has been seeking downtown and offer an early sign of reassurance that Related is committed to more than the bottom line. It would bring to the heart of the new development hundreds of architecture students, not to mention audiences for evening lectures, exhibitions and other Sci-Arc events that are open to the public.

More than that, the move would provide the youthful and architectural energy that the project is now lacking.

Sci-Arc's 450 students and 80 faculty members, once in place, could help transform the development from within. Their presence could help attract a diverse mixture of retail outlets as well as, in time, residents who might not otherwise consider living there."


Now while I very much like Christopher Hawthorne as a writer, as an architecture critic and as an urban critic (which are three very different things), he is operating under a considerable handicap.

As someone new to Los Angeles, much less downtown, he is not yet fully able to understand the differences between the two neighborhoods (other than the obvious) the cultural history of SCI-Arc (or even how to... spell its name), the financial aspect of the Grand Avenue deal, certain political realties or the true nature of the relationship between Richard Meruelo and SCI-Arc.

To begin with, Hawthorne does not even label SCI-Arc's existing neighborhood as the Arts District - so I am curious how much he actually knows about the long history of that neighborhood. I also wonder if he is at all really aware of just how deeply the arts community and the architecture community have been intertwined in this city - particularly since the 1960's.

I know he must have read in the textbooks about Gehry and the artists and the car culture in Venice, but seeing, living and breathing that relationship is far different than reading about it in a book. From my personal experience, it's no accident that most of the architects I know, I first met in an art gallery - or in an artist's studio.

Nor is it likely that Hawthorne fully appreciates how the loft buildings in the Arts District are places where young architects can afford to live and set-up their practices long after they leave their dorm rooms and thus form a true rather than a merely transitory community; a community where they can daily interact with their peers within the living and working spaces of other visual artists and architects and designers - something that could never happen on Grand Avenue.

Nor does Hawthorne likely fully comprehend that the opportunities for building small projects - and loft remodels - are far larger in this area - making it a potential living showcase for young architects. Nor has he likely considered how the ever endless recycling of (comparatively) inexpensive spaces for shops and restaurants and the newest art gallery will also provide opportunities for upcoming architects in a way that the more homogenized - and far more expensive - retail and restaurant spaces along Grand Avenue would never be able to do.

It is also unlikely Hawthorne is fully aware of the essentially blue collar history of SCI-Arc itself and its old factory building on Beethoven. And he might not be completely cognizant of how perfectly the school fits into its linear space, and how it makes the campus a wonderfully urban/suburban hybrid strip city - the perfect metaphor for the linearity of Los Angeles with its open air freight docks ideal for barbeques and parties and outdoor Southern California living in a way that could never be done on Bunker Hill.

It is obvious that no one could - or would - ever again build a building this way again in the heart of the city - thus making it a uniquely oddball place perfect for human interaction where everyone has to walk through and share and experience everyone else's space to get any where.

No high rise or traditional low rise could or would ever create the sense of community that SCI-Arc now has within its walls; its own community within the heart of a true urban arts community.

As for the Bunker Hill option, Hawthorne neglects to mention that the Colburn School for the Performing Arts is already on Grand Avenue or that Colburn is building a massive expansion far larger than the existing campus - complete with dormitories. Therefore he does not consider how that that will already bring 24/7 student life into the area - along with the students from the arts magnet high school three blocks down, past Grand Avenue's performing arts palaces.

And that synergy is why Colburn belongs on Grand Avenue with the Music Center/Performing Arts Complex and the many theaters and rehearsal halls that are all a perfect complement for Coburn. On Grand Avenue is where performing arts students can find the inspirations and the mentors they need for their careers, and here is where they can daily experience music and dance and drama, making them active participants in this neighborhood in a way that the architecture students at SCI-Arc would never be.

As for the non-social issues of Grand Avenue, Hawthorne seems to be unaware that the land on Bunker Hill is being sold to a developer - and so it can not be given to SCI-Arc by the Country or the CRA.

(UPDATE! - After talking to some more people, it is not impossible that the County could arrange a land gift, but not in the first phase; this still does not, though, make the project any more financially feasible as SCI-Arc would have to build a very expensive campus - far more expensive than buying their existing building. This fact alone fully negates the reason for the move. It simply makes no financial sense to do this, anymore than it makes any social sense.)

There are also a number of other observations and conclusions about Bunker Hill and the Related proposal in the article that are not valid, but my main objections to the site those already stated.

Lastly, the present courtroom antics and the adversarial role playing between Meruelo and SCI-Arc described in the article, makes the true dynamics of what is going on among the principals impossible to know without a first hand knowledge of the players and their pasts, much less their past and present interactions - or their long term goals.

Again, a newcomer to the city can hardly be expected to parse out what is really going on here - much less what is really likely going to happen - as opposed to what is going on in public in the press and in a court room.

Now this returns this cowboy to a well ridden theme - how the ceaseless purge of LA voices from the LA Times by a Chicago corporation and its hired hands who care not one lick about this city... is the major civic tragedy of our time. A local urban critic such as Sam Hall Kaplan would be far less likely to misunderstand a situation like this.

However, on the other hand, when on the very rare occasion where a fait of corporate deus ex machina does give us a true advocate for serous architecture, great urban design - and true urban communities (such as Christopher Hawthorne), at least we can be grateful for that.

And Hawthorne has already shown a passion for his briefly adopted city that his universally despised predecessor, Nicolia Ourooussoff, never bothered to even try and fake. So when one adds to this his willingness to throw out some very exciting ideas to get a public debate going, this makes Hawthorne one of the very few new hires of the Times to add to this city rather than subtract from it, as most of the new hires do (take Steve Lopez - please!).

Hawthorne is a keeper!

In closing, as I said up front, Christopher Hawthorne has a wonderfully thought out idea in proposing to move SCI-Arc to Grand Avenue - other than the simple fact that he's completely and totally wrong.

1 comment:

Tim Quinn said...

Hey, why doesn't the Times give their downtown property to SCI-Arc. They obviously don't need it anymore.

Thanks for pointing out what was bothering me about this proposal