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Valley Perspective

A Vision for Pierce College's Future

The agricultural school may provide a much-needed catalyst for new models of urban land development.

September 21, 1997|PETER A. TESTA | Peter A. Testa is an architect and teaches at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is principal researcher of the Future Cities Project, a design research enterprise developing new architectural strategies for American cities in the information age. His Web site is located at http://web.mit.edu/4.155/www/

The San Fernando Valley has come to represent one of the most advanced urban ecologies in the country, a landscape in motion formed by the complex interaction of diverse cultures, natural processes and artificially structured systems.

Not so much lost Eden as the promise of a new synthetic landscape, the Valley has nevertheless reached the saturation point of mechanical development and energy-intensive technologies resulting from 19th-century models. After nature, the consciousness of continuity gained from contemplating nature is elusive, yet at the close of the 20th century the reevaluation of our relationship to the land is essential. A naturalization of this relationship is only possible through the development and application of engineered biology yielding new technologies and new metaphors of landscape.

Pierce College, founded 50 years ago as an agricultural school, may provide a much-needed catalyst for new models of urban land development.

The Pierce College campus and farm establish a poignant connection with the San Fernando Valley's agricultural past. Within the vast infrastructure of transportation grids, subdivisions and office parks, the farm is seemingly anachronistic. The models of agriculture and land use underlying the origins of the college were outdated even before the campus became overwhelmed by hyper-modern development.

The ongoing debate over the future of the farm reflects divergent viewpoints and models of development divided along opposing lines. This binary adjudication is further reflected in the segregation of the campus into two distinct domains, both beleaguered and in urgent need of regeneration.

To be effective, a process of transformation must recognize the interdependence of the elements of the college and reexamine its origins within the context of a radically altered and continuously transforming urban ecology.

The farm is a resource integral to Pierce College and part of its identity and the history of the Valley, yet it must be reinvented to serve a vision of the college and larger community.

This site of contention provides fertile ground for Pierce to develop new infrastructures that integrate information technology and biological science to produce new models of sustainable development. The campus could be a unique laboratory with multiple applications, including interdisciplinary learning and economic development to promote the resurgence of the Valley as a national leader in innovative education and technology.

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Programs that merge health sciences, agriculture and computer science are particularly appropriate. Research and development at the farm may produce new models of decentralized waste treatment processing, energy collection and distribution, intensive hydroponic agriculture and artificial wetlands with potential application across the Valley. These proposals recognize the growing influence of biotechnology and genetic engineering as the central technologies of the next millennium.

A scenario for the future of Pierce College must not be limited to the farm, but extend to a reconceptualization and reconfiguration of the academic campus as networked into the economy of the Valley. The provisional nature of the original master plan and condition of most existing buildings warrant neither renovation nor expansion. What is called for is the evolution of a soft campus for the information age that combines hardware and software in innovative ways to augment traditional teaching with networked technologies. The potential for remote learning via real-time video conferencing and the Internet can expand the reach of the college to include expert teachers and increased enrollment, while reducing time- and energy-consuming commutes.

In place of ersatz monumental architecture and planning of the traditional campus, it is now possible to envisage a mutable landscape that merges agriculture, education, recreation and urbanism. A progressive planning strategy for the physical campus could be implemented over time by applying innovations in computer-aided design and manufacturing (CAD/CAM), areas of development and expertise in the region.

The construction of permanent structures may be limited to the consolidation of the stadium with a new sports and recreation complex, while the remaining built elements could be of a more flexible nature.

To accommodate changing needs and technologies, learning and research may be better served by a network of lightweight electronic classroom / laboratory modules. Made of nonferrous metals and recycled polymer plastics, this organic architecture can borrow techniques from the Valley's highly developed aircraft industry. Over time, the combination of electronic classrooms and landscape can combine to form a digital campus with an innovative operating system.

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