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CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

Lessons unlearned

Smart design should drive this building boom, but LAUSD isn't making the grade.

October 02, 2005|Christopher Hawthorne | Times Staff Writer

IN early 2002, just as the massive Los Angeles Unified School District building campaign was rumbling into gear, dozens of local architects joined district officials for a weekend symposium at the Getty Center.

The tone was decidedly upbeat. Supt. Roy Romer spoke during the opening session, eager to convince the crowd that the district had recovered from earlier missteps -- notably the environmental debacle at the Belmont Learning Center. But the real star of the event was architecture itself. Twenty promising designs for the construction program's first phase were on display, including schools by Steven Ehrlich, Thom Mayne and Mark Rios.

"That was really the high point in terms of our hopes" for the campaign, recalls Robert Timme, dean of the USC architecture school and chairman of the Design Advisory Council, a review panel set up by LAUSD. "The approvals for some of the Phase 1 schools were coming in from the state, and the architects were really hitting their marks."

These days, with 45 schools finished and another 115 in the pipeline, that optimism seems somehow quaint, if not altogether naive. As LAUSD seeks voter approval next month for a $4-billion bond measure -- the building campaign's fourth in eight years, which would push the budget for the construction and renovation campaign to a staggering $17.2 billion -- the architectural promise on display at the Getty has largely faded.

Certainly the district deserves praise for confronting, after years of official neglect, the twin problems of overcrowding and aging facilities. The building campaign's central goals -- to move every student back to a traditional two-semester calendar and into a neighborhood school -- are finally within sight.

But as the district has become more aggressive about asking for money and tackling new lists of educational problems, on the design front it has shrunk into caution and insularity.

Timme now complains that the Design Advisory Council has been "marginalized" during the tenure of Jim McConnell, a former Navy captain who has served as the district's chief facilities executive since 2001. Kathi Littman, who had been McConnell's top deputy for new school construction and worked closely with Timme, left the district in early 2003 and returned to the private sector, replaced by another Navy veteran, Guy Mehula.

Inside the LAUSD facilities division, McConnell and Mehula have created a back-slapping, can-do spirit that views architecture from a cultural remove, if not with active suspicion. The newly hired director of design management, Jeffrey Brickner, is a former construction-industry executive whose office walls are lined not with images of new schools or architectural icons but with pictures of the We-Ko-Pa golf course in Fountain Hills, Ariz., and a framed copy of Sports Illustrated announcing Joe Paterno as the 1986 Sportsman of the Year.

Even some architects who continue to work for the district say they have sensed a growing backlash from facilities officials in the last couple of years against high-profile firms and progressive design. The district's goal now appears to get the remaining campuses finished without incident or controversy -- to keep the assembly line moving. Given how dramatically the building program is remaking neighborhoods from San Pedro to Canoga Park, you don't have to be a parent to find the shift troubling.

Still, despite the campaign's recent turn, the district has a chance to recapture at least some of its early potential. While design work is virtually complete for the first two phases, LAUSD is selecting architects this month for a group of nearly three dozen schools that will make up the third phase. And there may well be a fourth.

Best, and worst, of designs

TO be sure, the schools completed so far include a handful of impressive designs whose success the district can build on as it moves forward. The most attractive -- the Mayan-influenced South East High School in South Gate by Gonzalez Goodale Architects, for example, and a brightly attractive elementary school in Huntington Park by Rios' firm, Rios Clementi Hale Studios -- qualify as models of how to produce appealing schools without spending a lot of money. On the other end of the spectrum, the very worst -- such as the Washington New Primary Center No. 1 on 112th Street, near the intersection of the 110 and 105 freeways -- are depressing reminders of where public education ranks on our culture's list of priorities.

Far more typical are the dozens of new campuses occupying a wide swath of architectural middle ground. These buildings aren't terrible, but they show the considerable strain of tight budgets and limited thinking. Their architecture is dispiritingly identical. They are clad in the same scored-stucco walls used for strip malls all over the western United States, a look synonymous with expediency.

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