Getting Centered

The space is immense. There is an arched ceiling as high as a six-story building, and it’s so long across that if you left, say, your soda at one end you’d be loathe to go back. Originally built by Douglas Aircraft in 1942 to serve as a wind tunnel for testing the company’s planes, the Pasadena superbuilding is all timber—rare for a structure of this size—because reverberations from the wind tunnel would have crumbled any concrete. In the 1960s it passed to Dacor Corporation, an oven manufacturer that used the huge central structure as a factory and expanded as the company grew, eventually filling five tightly knit add-ons that are intricately linked to the first.

Now that the Art Center College of Design is taking over, a space that once held airplanes and ovens may soon be filled with Cirque du Soleil­p;style performance pieces, neighborhood parties, giant water tanks, epic teach-ins, and mini­p;monster truck rallies. It is mid-April and construction on the site, at the barely gritty southern edge of squeaky-clean Pasadena, is underway. Workers are cutting the first skylights into the soaring ceilings of the main space, sending down filtered shafts of sun. Eventually these apertures will span the roof and fill the hall with light. The five smaller buildings have been redesigned to hold studios, lecture rooms, and workshop spaces. Here Art Center will headquarter its graduate fine arts department and an extensive public education program: Saturday High and Art Center for Kids, serving students from 4th to 12th grade; Art Center at Night, for adult students; the Center for Design-Based Learning, an education initiative that works with local teachers; and the new Language Arts Program, an intensive ESL workshop. By August M.F.A. students will be able to move into their studios. By next January, the great hall will be ready for action, and Art Center will open its doors to the city and to the world.

But this is just phase one of a stunningly ambitious project that will take at least 15 years and seven phases to complete. In the end Art Center will have a new Pasadena campus for its public programs, an 80,000-square-foot museum/exhibition space, a renovation of its existing hilltop campus, and new buildings by Frank Gehry and Alvaro Siza—all designed to accommodate a more fluid curriculum and a new mandate of openness.

At one end of town is the new South Campus. Currently centered on reconstruction of the Dacor building, the South Raymond Street site also includes a student housing complex and the historic Glenarm Power Plant, which Gehry has signed on to turn into an exhibition space. Four and a half miles away—past the bustling commercial center of Pasadena, beyond the Rose Bowl, up a winding road, and folded between stately homes and overgrown hills—is the extant campus. If all goes according to plan, it will be transformed by the addition of two much needed new buildings: a library and a technical skills center, to be designed by Gehry and Siza respectively. It will be the first time that Siza, a Portuguese architect, has had a project constructed in the United States.

Founded in 1930 by Tink Adams, an ad man who was sick of the job-seeking art students who came into his office with an appalling lack of technical skills, Art Center was established as a professional school. Its signature 1976 Craig Ellwood building, a sleek black box hidden in the hills, was built to simulate a corporate environment. Simulation easily becomes reality for the college’s graduates: half the cars in the world are designed by Art Center alumni, and former students have made their mark on products like Palm Pilot and Play Station. Though the college fulfilled its original purpose of “supplying wrists,” it remained isolated in its hilltop sanctuary.

Enter Richard Koshalek. The affable and disarming recruit, appointed as president in 1999, provided a blast of inspiration for the stagnant college. The director of the Museum of Contemporary Art since 1982, he saw MOCA through the building of an Arata Isozaki­p;designed permanent home in downtown Los Angeles and the Gehry-designed Temporary Contemporary (now an ancillary space called the Geffen Contemporary), in nearby Little Tokyo. Koshalek is familiar with the maze of negotiations and the endless optimism essential to keeping any project going, and he has the courage to voice his expectations.

“We’re providing an educational experiment,” he says. “The world becomes the classroom. It’s an audacious vision.” As he talks he doodles on a white legal pad, punctuating his words with slashes of a thick black marker. “Public institutions often isolate their expertise. My feeling is that you can’t do that anymore.” He stops and considers the box that he’s drawn, a minimalist’s rendition of the central space in the new campus. “Along the way there’s going to be a considerable amount of failure.”

An art and design school is one of the few institutions that can really practice what it preaches and risk public failure for the greater good. Koshalek has spoken at the World Economic Forum at Davos on what he sees as the designer’s role in the future: leader and activist. “At Art Center we want to develop among our students an awareness of the larger world around them,” Koshalek says. But that doesn’t just mean unleashing the students on the world—it also means welcoming the world into the school.

“The most important thing is this central space,” Koshalek says of the former wind tunnel. “There will be social interaction…we’re creating a city within a city. My frustration with most cultural institutions is that the public is not welcome. They can make the statement [in reference to the Getty Center’s citywide ad campaign], ‘This is your Getty,’ but it’s not. I’ve been guilty of this too. We want to mean it.” In other words, truly public space—space that isn’t simply marked for public consumption but is actually used daily in a meaningful way—is easy to conceive but nearly impossible to construct. “One of the things that gives the project a lot of potential is that they’ve steadfastly refused to characterize the space as an exhibition hall,” says Kevin Daly of Daly, Genik, the Santa Monica­p;based firm that is designing this piece of architecture-as-activism. “It’s not curated. The public access is not mediated or passive. Koshalek sees it as an ‘event space,’ whatever that is. My guess is everything from counterculture to institutionally organized events—maybe something like the Palio in Siena.”

Koshalek recalls visiting an artist’s studio: the experience of seeing the paintings in various stages of completion, stacked on easels and leaning against the wall, was much more visceral than seeing that same art in a gallery, or even his own museum. “At MOCA we would spend hours adjusting a single painting, making sure things were perfectly spaced,” he says. “Here we want the public to understand the complexity, to see the human hand at work. People want to be challenged by complexity, not by perfection.”

Does Daly, Genik’s design offer the right sort of challenge? Besides housing all of Art Center’s public education programs, the $13.8 million building will also be home to the M.F.A. program, Archetype Press (a hand-set letterpress shop), and the Printmaking Lab. Daly, Genik’s plan retains the conglomerate of six structures but clears out and rebuilds much of the interior space. Windows are added at street level so that passersby can watch the press and printmakers at work. Lecture space flows into workshop and studio space to ease the transition to a more “lablike” curriculum that is hands on and experiential. Small courtyards at the north and south ends give students a place to interact and provide a conduit to and from the street. Ever important in Southern California, there is a space where people can easily swing their cars in when they are picking up their children. Above all of this is a rooftop garden where native plants will mix with the unearthly skylight system that is sure to become the compound’s identifying mark. Trussed out at jagged angles across the roof, the skylights are swathed in a polycarbonate material called Foiltec that can be controlled to adjust light and heat within the building. Bruce Mau is designing a pattern that will be printed directly on the Foiltec—the material is layered, and the pieces can be shifted so that the pattern blocks or allows sunlight. Also on the roof is a restaurant that looks down into the main hall.

The backdrop to the new campus is the city of Pasadena. Just minutes east of Los Angeles, Pasadena is known internationally for its New Year’s Day Rose Parade; architecturally for its Arts and Crafts bungalows by Green and Green; and locally for Old Town, a restaurant- and boutique-lined neighborhood that is a triumph of gentrification. Its charm is genteel and slightly rarefied; like a postbellum Southern town it preserves its landmark properties and builds its monuments. Even the comparatively down-at-the-heels south end of town, where the Art Center campus is being built, is in good shape. But, says Mayor Bill Bogaard, “It’s clearly an area in transition.” Though it was targeted for redevelopment as a biotech corridor, that plan never really took off. Art Center’s current neighbors are mostly nondescript warehouses and corporate parking lots, including a post office facility, a PacBell office, and a few shuttered businesses. Further north on Raymond is a large warehouse where volunteers spend the weeks before New Year’s Day gluing seeds and greenery onto Rose Parade floats. Utilitarian chain stores of the Staples, Petco, and Yoshinoya Beef Bowl variety line one parallel street, and a large hospital complex dominates another. Across the street is the photogenic Glenarm Power Plant, a 1920s-era historical building that Pasadena used to entice Art Center away from downtown Los Angeles. Solid and calm with clean geometric lines, the power plant inspires the same sort of awe that you would feel standing before a pristine ocean liner.

“Early on we had actually been lured to a site in downtown L.A., across from the Disney Hall on Grand,” recounts Patricia Belton Oliver, Art Center’s director of architecture, planning, and special projects. “The city courted us to move to L.A. and help Grand Avenue develop. That’s when [Pasadena] came forward and offered us the Glenarm site.” Art Center and Los Angeles city officials were excited at the prospect of a Gehry-designed campus right across the street from the long-awaited Gehry concert hall: the “Bilbao effect” squared. But Bogaard was determined to keep Art Center in Pasadena.

“We worked very hard,” the mayor says. “It was almost a formal competition with a time schedule….We offered to facilitate the creation of a separate campus, to work with them in regard to the expansion of the campus up on the hill, to provide local transportation, to waive some permit fees, and so on. Here’s Pasadena, a city of 140,000 people, competing with the city of L.A. We weren’t in the position to offer free land or anything like that.” What they could offer was a 99-year lease on the Glenarm facility—a site that, luckily, Gehry was interested in developing—for $1 a year, and a small cohesive city that was willing to act as a social cauldron. “I think being in Pasadena makes it a little bit exceptional,” Daly says. “They’re rephrasing the way the institution is within the city, so that they aren’t just an isolated and esoteric school.”

Pasadena’s size offered Art Center a certain degree of control over its own experiment. As director of real estate operations George Falardeau explains, “The board felt that Pasadena was the kind of place they wanted the Art Center to be—not in the maze of a downtown with crimes, where students can’t walk around at night. And the properties downtown weren’t contiguous. It might have been a great thing for downtown, but it wasn’t necessarily a great thing for us.” Indeed, Oliver says, “We wanted to really contribute to the urban fabric of Pasadena, and it was clear to us that if we did this properly we could make a huge impact on how this southern end develops.” Already Art Center is working with developers to erect student housing and to attract some street-level retail. “We see the whole city as our responsibility,” Koshalek says.

At the same time Art Center is building on its new vision, it’s figuring out how to bring people in physically. At the moment there is little reason for visitors to walk or drive by the south campus. But under the direction of Dana Hutt, who is also the college’s architectural historian, Art Center was awarded a grant to redevelop the nearby Arroyo Parkway, the corridor that has linked Pasadena to Los Angeles since 1940. “Arroyo Parkway has been a very haphazardly designed street,” says Hutt. “The median begins and stops, there’s big-box retail, and so forth. It’s very much a motorist’s experience, but it’s going to become a much more beautiful space. And they’re going to craft the off-ramp to feed people onto Raymond.” This way cars entering Pasadena will organically pass by the South Campus, raising Art Center’s visibility. For those without cars, the MTA’s new light-rail Gold Line, which finally goes live this year, will be stationed adjacent to the building. Also in progress is a traffic study that will determine the most effective way to transport people to and from the hilltop campus.

Koshalek and Oliver both point to the traffic study as an example of design with a social bent, the sort of thing that keeps their curriculum dynamic. “It started out as an attempt to find a solution to our parking problem, and it’s grown into a mobility study that now includes other institutions—and corporations that produce cars,” Koshalek says. “We’ll expand that into ‘How do we move in Pasadena?’” Belton adds. “The solutions that we can offer in Pasadena can be observed by the world.”

Everything is in place for Art Center to pull off its transformation. “One of the most remarkable things about all of this is that rarely in any institution’s history do all of these things come across at the same time, so that the buildings can reflect what the college wants to do,” Oliver says. The architect agrees. “In my mind they’re using architecture as they should,” Daly says, “as a way of imagining the future of their own organization.”

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