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Open Doors

Among the many virtues of the Southern California Institute of Architecture‘s renovated Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad depot on Merrick Street downtown is that it is downtown. With this week’s inauguration of SCI-Arc‘s new campus, known as the Freight Depot, the balance of power in Los Angeles architecture shifts east. True, Frank Gehry remains geographically a Westsider, as do the city’s other architectural stars -- Thom Mayne, Eric Owen Moss, Michael Rotondi. That‘s where the money is. But SCI-Arc’s migration from its old headquarters near Marina del Rey to the ragged lip of the Los Angeles River signals a deepening of an emphasis on the disorderly, the unpredictable, the serendipitous as the inspiration for the art of building. Nearly 50 years after machine-tooled modernism was perverted into corporate cookie-cutter steel-and-glass, and the genius of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was reduced to a universal template for the design of everywhere and therefore nowhere, SCI-Arc‘s choice of the unredeveloped, unreconstructed downtown site is also a sign that the peculiar identity of a city like Los Angeles has to find expression in its new buildings. The city itself, as much as an abstract set of principles, ought to fuel design.

This shift is happening before our very eyes. Disney Concert Hall and the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels -- one undulating and unknowable, the other tranquil and reassuring -- already are beginning to change our perception that downtown is merely a series of elevator shafts surrounded by cement moats. With far less fanfare, places like the Colburn School of Performing Arts, and the forthcoming bars and hotels -- the El Dorado on Spring Street, and the Standard behind the main library -- are helping to build critical mass.

The addition of SCI-Arc, one of only two independent architecture schools in the country, should help move things still further. The school, which offers a broad education in the humanities, pushes students to toy with materials -- from aerospace plastic to industrial waste -- to promote the question “What is the role of architecture in society?” The 1907 Santa Fe depot seems an ideal match to SCI-Arc’s educational mission. “It‘s a found object,” says Gary Paige, the 43-year-old SCI-Arc graduate heading the redesign. The quarter-mile-long building -- a 29-foot-high, 40- to 60-foot-wide reinforced-concrete shed along Santa Fe between Fourth and Third streets -- was designed by Harrison Albright, a pioneer of the use of reinforced concrete. Upended, it would stand as tall as the Empire State Building. One hundred twenty bays, opening on both sides of the depot, allowed inbound freight cars to be off-loaded on one side while trucks were on-loaded at the other. By the time SCI-Arc acquired the place, in May 2000, it had been stripped to the naked concrete, exposing a single room the length of four football fields. Standing at the south end looking north was like peering into the skeleton of a linear accelerator.

“It is a diagram of pure structure and function,” Paige says while standing outside the far south end of the school. “Its footprint is informed by its use and its performance.” Those were the elements Paige wanted to preserve, without returning the building to the past and “making it look the way it did historically. We wanted to draw out a more complex relationship between the insertion of the new into the old, to explore the friction between freight depot and school of architecture.” Paige, who also teaches at SCI-Arc, wanted to avoid “a static landmark. We were interested in making this a building of the present tense.”

He has done so splendidly. Paige inserted a series of partially enclosed lightweight steel structures within the existing concrete-and-rebar frame. The recombinant building is a lesson in engineering and architecture. Thirty thousand square feet of studios and seminar spaces, a workshop, a thesis pit and a bridge to the library have been stacked, cantilevered and suspended to form an open-ended, permissive, flexible space. It seems that anything can happen within these walls. Enter a studio through its doorway (which has no door), and you are standing on what is more like a stage, looking out through a proscenium framed by new steel posts and girders set parallel to and in tandem with the old concrete columns and beams. A narrow alley separates the old structure and the new -- an interior hallway made up entirely of half-inch-thick glass filling in the original 22-foot-high bays and the two-story steel framework of new rooms. In this tension between old and new, space can be compressed, it can be flung open. Like art, and learning, we are being forced to make leaps of faith -- even while we reside squarely within the confines of the academy and tradition.

Going back through the doorless doorway, one enters an entirely different kind of space. A deep cantilevered mezzanine extends overhead, creating a quasi-private sidewalk, a comfortable, protected spot much like the veranda of a Parisian cafe. A pace beyond the edge of the mezzanine, the vista opens up onto an 18-foot-wide, two-story gallery that runs, railroadlike, for 200 feet in the pattern and according to the rhythm laid out in 1907. Here, too, the old and the new are in tension; yet without the one, the other would lose its intensity, its focus.

Unshaven, dressed in blue jeans and a black T-shirt, Paige has a steady, easygoing air which, one suspects, is an amalgam of exhaustion and exhilaration. In a little over a year, with a scant $6.1 million budget, he has had to invent a building for students of architecture and architects. “You couldn’t have a more critical crowd,” he says with a warm smile. Lacking “a palette or budget for formal expression and lush materials,” as Paige says, SCI-Arc retains many of the key elements of the depot as it was “found” a year and a half ago. Inside and out, it is porous and suffused with light. The exterior shell is perforated, in the sense that most of the infill between the bay openings is glass, making it transparent, as it always was. The modern structural elements -- steel, expanded metal grating, corrugated decking forms, concrete sheer walls -- are exposed, unfinished. All of this reinforces the earliest purpose of the building: It is infrastructure.

Infrastructure connotes something that is indispensable and, more importantly, indivisible, and that is one of the high ambitions of SCI-Arc. Putting the school inside the existing depot binds the past to the present and unites the future of the school to the future of the city. It is also an expression of the way the best cities thrive: We pursue our individual aims only by participating in civic ones.

“We like the proximity to the Fourth Street Bridge, to the Alameda Corridor, to the river. We like that we are inscribed into the fabric of the city,” Paige says, adding, “We worked hard not to make a signature building.”

This may sound like false modesty, or an effort to sidestep certain architectural projects, notably Frank Gehry‘s Disney Hall, which celebrate the chaos and impenetrability of Los Angeles. SCI-Arc’s new home will be a much less codified, much less sculpturally reductive reflection of Los Angeles. It will be both a window and a lens through which the city can peer in and the students can peer out. It will involve Los Angeles in an open dialogue.

“We are here at the beginning of a new wave,” says SCI-Arc director Neil M. Denari. “We will force the expansion of the idea of downtown beyond monofunctional, a hollowed core, and a financial machine. I really think from here on out it won‘t just be a symbolic gesture to build downtown. It will be a more diverse, localized landscape among many other points, and it will develop its own specific feeling.”

Although the school opens this week, it will remain a work in progress. Among other things, Gary Paige hasn’t yet gotten the costly assembly-hall pivot doors he wants. When swung open they would “let the city, symbolically, waft through the building. We‘ll have to fund-raise for that,” he says wistfully.

Opening party for the Freight Depot, with a live performance from 9 to 10 p.m. by Architettura, begins at 8 p.m., Saturday, September 15, at 350 Merrick St., downtown. Enter off Traction Street.