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Controversy Surrounds Yet Another Frank Gehry Project

First there was the Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn, then Grand Avenue, now yet another proposed Frank Gehry building has come under intense public scrutiny -- this time at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. Hundreds of students and alumni gathered in the auditorium of the prestigious design school yesterday to question Art Center president Richard Koshalek about a proposed $50 million Gehry-made design research center and library.

During the course of the contentious two-hour meeting, several students made it clear they thought Koshalek was spending too much time and money plotting a signature building and not enough on their education. Art Center students have seen their tuition jump 5% to 6% annually for the past five years. They now pay roughly $15,000 per trimester in tuition.

"A lot of students are concerned about where their money is being spent," Crystal Tezuka, Vice-President of the Art Center Student Government, told the Weekly after the meeting. "This place needs a serious TLC makeover," she continued, echoing a sentiment held by many students that the main priority of the administration should be refurbishing the current facilities before launching any new projects.

Opposition to the Gehry building, which had been simmering unspoken for quite some time, found public voice last month when Nathan Cooke, a 26-year old Industrial Design major, wrote a post on his blog questioning the Koshalek administration's priorities. Cooke was upset that though Art Center goes out of its way to brand itself a leader in sustainability, the campus has no recycling bins and its cafeteria continues to use Styrofoam plates and cups. After being told for more than a year that the school couldn't afford such amenities, Cooke wondered openly on his blog how a school that paid $385,068 to Gehry Partners to design a new building, a figure he culled from 2005 public tax records, couldn't afford recycling bins and environmentally friendly kitchenware.

The day after Cooke’s post, Art Center’s Chief Academic Officer Nate Young resigned under curious circumstances, with Koshalek later hinting in a videotaped meeting with the student government that the resignation was due to Young’s handling of a $1.1 million educational budget deficit. A short time after the resignation, Young’s assistant, Rachel Tiede, fresh off maternity leave, was fired after speaking up for her former boss at another student government meeting.

Outraged students, faculty and alumni flocked to Cooke’s site to make their voices heard. Within days the post had nearly 800 comments questioning Young’s firing, the Gehry building and Koshalek’s leadership. Signatures then began to appear on an online petition calling for a moratorium on all new Gehry-related building expenses. Thus far the site has garnered more than 800 signatures – including several prominent alumni and the chair of Art Center’s top-ranked Industrial Design program, Andy Ogden. A separate website has called for the Art Center Board of Trustees to deny Koshalek a new contract when his expires at the end of next year.

For his part, Koshalek maintains that the school's plans for the Gehry building have in no way affected its emphasis on education, and that any budget woes are the product of the down economy and a temporary drop in student enrollment. "Not a single cent of tuition money has been or will be used for the construction of the new Gehry building," he says.

Koshalek insists the building is essential to preserving Art Center's lofty position in the design world, and that, despite the criticism, he intends to continue the massive fundraising effort needed to get the work completed. "We have to educate people for jobs that don't yet exist," he says. "We have to train them for a future that is constantly changing and we need the facilities to be able do that."

Also read Is Art Center Gehry-Rigged? Richard Koshalek Says No


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