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Building blocks

June 22, 2003

Nicolai Ouroussoff's article ("The Bold School Try," June 8) leaves the impression that Los Angeles Unified could have greater success by having individuals from the private sector add to the budgets. This is a wonderful dream but a highly unrealistic strategy to depend upon for construction of facilities that are so critical to the future education of students in Los Angeles. As Ouroussoff points out, the project is $20 million over budget and a year behind schedule. Lacking a private gift, the project must be redesigned or money added by not constructing another school. The district must carefully balance its funds and cannot and should not rob one school to pay for the excesses of another.

Other architects have been able to work within limited budget constraints. New schools designed for LAUSD by Thom Mayne, Jon Jerde with Studio Works, Johnson Fain, Marmol Radziner, and Perkins and Will have been published, exhibited, or have received design awards. Good architecture does not have to be expensive.

The article starts with the phrase "Think small," leading into a criticism of Los Angeles Unified for not having grand architectural visions for its new facilities. "Think small" should have been presented as a reference to Los Angeles Unified's decision to develop smaller, more manageable, and more humane learning communities. Los Angeles Unified is committed to schools and academies with student populations of about 500 students. The Coop Himmelblau Arts Academy is based upon this concept with a fine arts, music, theater and dance academy. These academies are, in effect, small schools.

The real success of the Performing and Visual Arts Academy may ultimately rest not in the architect's ability to create monumental urban forms, which are likely to be lost for budget considerations, but rather in the firm's ability to respond to the need to create an architecture that fosters the development of four arts learning communities.

Robert H. Timme

Los Angeles

Robert H. Timme is chairman of the LAUSD Design Advisory Council and dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Southern California.


Ouroussoff's review of the Coop Himmelblau-designed Performing and Visual Arts Academy is typical of the author's work -- a cheap shot at the sincere efforts of the LAUSD to grapple with real problems and a rave for one of the favored few firms that have been selected for star status.

Even a cursory review of the pedestrian planning and unresolved circulation would call the scheme into question. Because the project has a patron willing to spend additional money to raise the bar above basic accommodation, it does not justify spending that generous offer on unresolved self-conscious displays of self-importance. Architecture is a blending of art and science, not just an excuse for self-promotion.

The real challenge is not to reserve praise for the "high-profile firm," which, in Ouroussoff's own words, is $20 million over budget and at least a year behind schedule, but to focus on the 30 or so architectural firms that have brought in projects for the LAUSD on time and within the limited original budgets, and also managed to create buildings that respond to community values and context.

Charles A. Lagreco


Charles A. Lagreco is the principal of Architectural Collective.

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