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A Tricky Move

Southern California Institute of Architecture's choice of a new home could have a lasting effect on L.A.

October 04, 1998|Nicolai Ouroussoff | Nicolai Ouroussoff is The Times' architecture critic

Most academic institutions would cringe at the idea of having to redefine their identity overnight. But the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc)--which has become one of the country's most offbeat and inventive architecture schools since its inception 25 years ago--soon will have no other option.

Although SCI-Arc moved to its current location at 5454 Beethoven St. in Mar Vista a mere six years ago, the school recently has launched an intense search for a new home in the face of unexpected escalating rent increases. If it does not move within the next two years, according to school officials, SCI-Arc will eventually be forced to implement significant tuition hikes or face dropping critical academic programs. Those problems are compounded by the fact that the school's revenues are 98% tuition-generated, a figure that is almost unheard of among major academic institutions.

SCI-Arc's impending move has launched an intense internal debate about the school's ultimate mission. The faculty is currently considering three possible sites: 33 acres of former naval housing in San Pedro, a strip of land along the northern edge of Los Angeles International Airport and a still-undetermined downtown location. And each choice, in a sense, represents a competing ideological stance within the architectural profession. Should architectural study continue its obsession with the dense metropolis or turn its gaze toward the sprawling urban megalopolis? Should an architecture school be an intellectual sanctuary for theoretical debate or a laboratory for studying the urban landscape?

So far, SCI-Arc officials are undecided. But the decision touches on a long-standing crisis in architectural education in this country. As architecture has struggled to escape its imageas a marginal profession, architecture schools have traditionally been places where the profession's most radical thinkers have been able to retreat during times of economic stagnation, working out theoretical proposals as they wait for the next building boom. But that isolation from the problems of the real world has fed an architectural community that often mistakes flamboyant forms for radical thought, one that is often reluctant to investigate deeper social realities.

SCI-Arc now has an opportunity to change all that. By choosing to move closer to the inner city, the school could recast itself as a public forum for re-imagining Los Angeles' urban landscape--a landscape that includes the Latino and immigrant enclaves that are already shifting the city's center eastward. Imagine, for example, an architecture school where urban policies and various theoretical visions of the future metropolis are not only conceived but publicly debated? That would do much to bring urban theorists closer to the political forces that actually shape the city. More important, it could serve to raise the level of the current debate about the fate of the city's urban center.

Of the three proposals, San Pedro so far is the only one that comes with a well-conceived financial plan. In April, the San Pedro Area Reuse Committee recommended that city planners turn over for free 138 units of housing to SCI-Arc on two separate sites. The development deal is part of a larger package that would transform the former naval housing site into a vast academic enclave and would include a UCLA medical facility and off-campus housing for Loyola Marymount College. If SCI-Arc accepts the deal, it could move there within the next two years.

Yet the San Pedro setting is the Southern California landscape at its most surreal. The existing units--banal, 800-square-foot bungalows set in groups of three or four--are strung out along a series of cul-de-sacs on a hillside overlooking the massive tanks of an oil refinery. (The streets still bear the names of naval warships: USS New Jersey, USS Missouri and so on.) To the east is an endless carpet of suburban subdivisions.

For an architecture school, the site's biggest asset is its scale. Over time, SCI-Arc could essentially build an entire new campus there, and it is easy to imagine a series of architecture competitions that would allow the school to rethink itself as a physical plant. The location's biggest drawback, however, is its detachment from a vibrant communal hub: The sleepy town center is a 10-minute drive away, the port just beyond. The task here, for SCI-Arc, would be to overcome that aura of suburban isolation.

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