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An Artsy Shantytown

From designing a Tibetan cultural center to building a prototype of a movable light wall, students at SCI-Arc, which has moved downtown, do much more than fiddle with blueprints and T-squares.


Down an alleyway framed by chain-link fences and sagging brick industrial buildings, inside a dimly lit, musty warehouse and up a flight of worn wooden stairs, the future of cities and suburbs, homes and offices, airports and train stations, was literally hanging from the rafters last weekend.

It was in this unlikely venue that students from the Southern California Institute of Architecture--better known as SCI-Arc--presented their thesis projects, their version of finals and the culmination of five months of work. Themes reflected individual lives, as well as global issues: nomadic lifestyles, cyber culture, diversity, urban sprawl. From designing a cultural center for Tibetan refugees to building a prototype of a movable illuminated partition, graduate and undergraduate students shared their vision of the present and the future with teachers, visiting professors, fellow students, alumni, friends and family, and anyone else interested in architecture who happened by.

Though this yearly ritual has been part of SCI-Arc's curriculum for years, there was a distinct difference this time: The cutting-edge, 29-year-old private school moved last fall from its Marina del Rey campus, where it was for eight years, to temporary digs in downtown L.A.--a huge white tent and trailers set up on a vacant lot at the intersection of Merrick and 4th streets, to be exact. The temporary quarters should last until fall of this year, by which time the school's new headquarters, an abandoned railroad freight terminal at Santa Fe Avenue and 3rd Street, is supposed to be renovated.

The planned move from the Westside was hastened when a financial bonus was offered to vacate early so an advertising agency could move in. With no permanent building ready for the school's new home, a full-service, semi-permanent tent was pitched.

Bringing SCI-Arc downtown is also part of a grander plan by the city and developers to bring new life to the area south of Union Station and east of Little Tokyo, which already includes a mix of toy manufacturers and wholesalers, fashion and flower districts, artists' galleries and lofts, and a smattering of retail businesses and restaurants.

Although other locations around the city were considered for the new campus, downtown offered the possibility of spacious studio and classroom space--as well as plenty of room for parking, potential student housing, and the chance to be on the leading edge of an urban renaissance. Indeed, in the near future, students will be able to walk to a new cathedral and concert hall designed by two of the world's leading architects--Spaniard Jose Rafael Moneo and Angeleno Frank O. Gehry.

The transition proved bumpy at first--some of the 385 students, who come from all over the world, grumbled about the precipitous move to unfinished studios and glitchy computers--but they now seem to be adapting well to their new environment.

Thesis projects are set up on the upper floor of a warehouse a block from campus, complete with exposed beams, pipes and cobwebs. The downstairs is used for machine and wood shops. Students are not given specific assignments but are encouraged to develop their own interests. The 45-minute presentations and critiques are a curious mix of formality and informality. Friendly observers sit in a semicircle on folding metal chairs. The front row is reserved for the handful of visiting and resident critics who question and challenge each of the students. Several presentations run simultaneously, with some guests wandering from group to group. The chill inside this cobweb-riddled warehouse found many huddled in jackets and sweaters, gripping cups of coffee.

Tenzin Thokme focuses on the migration of his Tibetan countrymen in his project, "Emerging Sanctuary Within Dispersion (a Tibetan Cultural Center), Cheviot Hills." An increase in Tibetan migration to the United States prompted the 36-year-old graduate student to conceive a cultural center that would help preserve his people's traditions and customs.

"There are first-generation Tibetan-Americans now," says Thokme, who has lived in the U.S. for 10 years. "The parents and elders are thinking about how they can continue the past to the next generation. There are a number of kids who go to school and come home changed. Change is not a bad thing, but some are unwanted changes. The parents and grandparents want to pass ideas and traditions to them, so they can make better decisions about making changes."

Thokme's cardboard model includes a chapel, courtyard, meeting rooms and living quarters that encourage old and young to mingle. Although he decided against using symbolic shapes in his structures, he designed the chapel roof in the shape of the leaf of the bodhi tree, considered the "Tree of Enlightenment" in Buddhist culture.

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