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Putting Up Walls That Break Down Barriers

The plans for Otis College of Art and Design's fine-arts building draw on '60s ideas about how design can reflect a culture in flux.

November 15, 1998|NICOLAI OUROUSSOFF | Nicolai Ouroussoff is The Times' architecture critic

It has become commonplace for even the humblest cultural institutions to commission architecture as the supreme tool for self-promotion. Yet occasionally an institution will have higher aspirations, and design becomes part of a more serious-minded exploration of an institution's values.

The competition for a new fine arts building for Otis College of Art and Design is such an occasion. The building--projected to cost $5 million, a modest budget by most standards--will increase the school's size by 50%. It will include 38,000 square feet for painting, sculpture and design studios, a public art gallery and new administrative offices. School officials also hope eventually to add an auditorium on an adjacent lot.

Five firms participated in the competition, four of them local: Hodgetts + Fung Design Associates, Frederick Fisher & Partners, Guthrie + Buresh Architects and MACK Architects, as well as the more internationally known Vienna-based Coop Himmelblau. Together, the proposals offer a glimpse into how thoughtful architectural competitions can become incubators for good design. The winning scheme, by Santa Monica-based Hodgetts + Fung, has yet to be fully developed; nonetheless, it embodies provocative notions about the process of creative interaction. An open, loft-like warehouse crisscrossed by elevated bridges and bisected by an internal street, the building takes advantage of a dense urban lot to create a buzzing forum for the exchange of ideas.

Otis' examination of its own identity began in the mid-1990s, when it decided to abandon its home on Wilshire Boulevard alongside MacArthur Park in the wake of the 1992 riots. In early 1997, the school moved to its current location at 9045 Lincoln Blvd., in a former IBM branch office designed in 1961 by architect Eliot Noyes, not far from Los Angeles International Airport. Rows of vertical slots puncture the building's taut, planar facades--a dated reference to the computer punch card and a perfect emblem for the rapid acceleration of technological change.

Fittingly, that theme--of a culture in a continuous state of flux--is at the center of all of Hodgetts + Fung's best designs. The firm, founded in 1984, is best known for its design of Towell Library at UCLA, completed in 1992 as a temporary replacement for the school's Powell undergraduate library, then undergoing seismic renovation. The design, with its corrugated metal, plastic and fabric skin draped over a loose geometry of lightweight aluminum frames, drew upon the work of '60s architects, such as the British group Archigram, who sought to develop a more open, spontaneous architecture.

Hodgetts + Fung's design for the Otis building has a more institutional feel, yet it retains the same sense of impermanence. The campus is arranged in an L-shaped plan, with the Noyes building anchoring the corner of Lincoln and Tijera boulevards, the four-story parking structure extending along Tijera and the future fine arts building along Lincoln. The school's main entrance currently opens onto an alley between the two existing structures.

The new building will be a vast arts factory, its plan slightly twisted to create a trapezoidal form and frame an exterior plaza that links it to the Noyes building. A uniform undulating roof cut in alternating parallel strips will let in light and air, a metaphor for the rhythms of activity inside. The roof gives the building its distinctive identity, its goofy sense of play, yet it has a more pragmatic function. Eye-shaped openings between the bands will let an even, diffuse light into the studios below from the north, while openings to the south will provide ventilation.

The building's design will transform the existing alleyway into a vibrant urban event by extending it right through the structure. Huge garage-like doors will open up on either side of this internal street so that students can flow freely between various studios. A large splayed exterior stairway set at the edge of the plaza will lead up to the building's second level then split into two walkways that run along either side of the passageway below, one leading to faculty offices, the other through the student gallery. Hence, both street and gallery become part of a public procession through the site, a blunt acknowledgment of the fading distinction between the production and consumption of art.

But the scheme also challenges the notion of design as a solitary act, as the private realm of the lone artist. Instead, design here creates an intense interplay of ideas, one that revels in the anarchic flow of the imagination. The idea is to break down the formal barriers between various disciplines and attitudes, between work and play, viewer and participant.

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