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COUNTERPUNCH

Schools must serve students, not critics

June 16, 2003|David C. Martin | David C. Martin, FAIA, is design principal at AC Martin Partners in Los Angeles.

Nicolai Ouroussoff's critique of the planned Performing and Visual Arts Academy in downtown L.A. ("The Bold School Try," June 8) misses the point of school architecture completely. He never once mentions the needs of the students. Isn't that who schools are designed for?

Whether a general high school, as my firm, AC Martin Partners, was initially asked to design, or a performing arts school, as the concept was later changed to with a different architecture firm on board, the school's facilities should be designed to serve the needs of students and teachers first. What good is a beautiful school that does not provide spaces that actually help teachers to teach and students to learn?

Designing and building for almost 100 years, we believe architecture is for clients, not critics.

"All architecture is shaped by politics, money and the hidden agendas of clients," Ouroussoff writes. While his point may arguably be true in the larger world of public architecture, in this case there are very straightforward agendas of the client that need to be addressed.

A school needs to inspire students and teachers and be a part of the community fabric, but it also needs to be functional and secure, provide natural light to classrooms and be easily maintained. While Ouroussoff may consider all of this banal, anyone who will either work at or attend the school would consider these aspects absolutely vital.

And to be straightforward about it, spending $25 million to $40 million more to serve the same number of students while pushing the proposed opening date back several years and putting the entire project in a precarious position that is dependent on additional (as yet unsecured) private funding does not seem to have the students' best interest in mind. (And how elitist of Ouroussoff to proclaim that only with more money can "architectural substance" be delivered.)

With that glaring oversight noted, the politics of the situation becomes much more complicated than the one-sided view presented by Ouroussoff.

First, Ouroussoff attacks AC Martin Partners for being part of a politically connected old guard that makes decisions based on connections rather than talent. While it may be true that AC Martin Partners is known among many of the decision makers of Los Angeles, particularly downtown, that reputation is based on nearly 100 years of creating buildings in L.A. It is a reputation based on years of proven talent and the ability to build buildings that serve the needs of clients. It is not based simply on friendships or fashion.

When referring to buildings that "sap the soul," does Ouroussoff mean the Department of Water and Power headquarters, the May Co. building, the Sanwa Bank building and L.A. City Hall? All were designed by AC Martin Partners.

The really disturbing political issue is not that the Los Angeles Unified School District initially entrusted the school to an established firm with a proven interest in building the civic and urban fabric of Los Angeles but that it has already wasted so much time and money trying to appease Eli Broad rather than focusing on the real needs of the students. It seems that billionaires are L.A.'s new ruling class, with the political power to curtail public projects or use them to aggrandize their own egos and build monuments to themselves.

LAUSD already had a completed design that had been publicly praised by Supt. Roy Romer and acknowledged as one of the best of a new generation of school designs by a panel of practicing architects, scholars and educators, not critics

If I were a central city parent, I would be appalled. LAUSD, after bungling Belmont, has been impotent in its ability to deliver much-needed classrooms to the core of our city. This is another expensive delay. All for the sake of catering to the aesthetic preferences of a non-elected "political meddler."

It is indeed a Faustian bargain. And the people who will pay the price are the students in desperate need of high-quality, well-designed and, yes, aesthetically inspiring schools. The needs of those students are not something that can be sacrificed in the bargain. LAUSD's ability to be manipulated by the special interests of a few has yet again derailed a project to build a school and turned into a project to feed an ego.

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