SCI-Arc: Memories of an Open Architecture
The news that the original building the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc) inhabited for 15 years will be torn down reminds me of the ephemeral nature of Los Angeles. I remember the architect Craig Hodgetts, one of the early faculty members and a partner for Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates, where I worked, right across the street from SCI-Arc while I was teaching there in the late 1980s, explaining that the essence of Southern California architecture was that you did not enter the building through an air lock. Instead, space just opened up and, in many cases, remained open to the outdoors.
So it was with the ramshackle buildings SCI-Arc occupied: no more than sheds with large doors that opened up to the parking lot where a lot of building and fabricating got done, with skylights and leaks and a general sense that the enclosure was about as solid as the incredibly complex sections the students drew obsessively in lieu of proper plans and elevations. There were many rumors about the building, including the fact that it had been a drug lab and a hippie commune, but that only pointed out the beauty of what passed for this little slice of L.A.'s vernacular: It could be anything. In the endless boxes that covered what Reyner Banham called "The Plains of Id," architecture schools and drug labs, record companies and sweatshops, the Eames Office and Ed Ruscha's studio, all occupied similar structures. The transformation of such spaces into whatever use was then profitable gave many of SCI-Arc's faculty and students—such as Thom Mayne and Michael Rotondi, Coy Howard, Craig Hodgetts, Robert Mangurian, Mary Ann Ray, and Frank Israel (who technically taught at UCLA, but was very much part of the scene)—their first commissions.
I would argue that SCI-Arc as an institution and a place fostered a notion of architecture as provisional set decoration. What was designed there and sometimes built was as often as not sculptural insertion rather than an object, an act of reuse rather than monument-making. SCI-Arc was an open, contentious place, and the architecture that came out of it had that quality as well. It was not all good, nor was it all very sensible, but the excitement of mining this seemingly endless landscape for new forms of coherence, community, and a collage coalescence animated all of us through the 1980s and well into the 1990s.
SCI-Arc still exists, and in many ways is a better school in a better building, near L.A.'s downtown. Good architecture still comes out of it, but somehow that dream of redesigning the near-utopia that was also a gritty palimpsest of American urbanity into a stage set for postmodern living has faded. With it has gone what I think was a very hopeful and not fully explored vector in American architecture, one that led away from the making of always-new objects meant to last for the ages towards the ad hoc gathering together of what existed around one into moments of pure and sensual revelation. The early work of Frank Gehry had that quality, as did that of Morphosis and Eric Owen Moss, now SCI-Arc's director. At the risk of sounding hopelessly nostalgic, I would argue that there is still work to be down in that mode. That does not mean that the old SCI-Arc campus should be preserved, as some have argued. It was never a very good set of buildings—it was leaky, cold in the winter, hot in the summer, without many intrinsic qualities. What should be preserved is the work that was done there then, the memory of what was achieved, and a sense that nothing is or should be fixed, while everything can and should always be fixed up. The whole state needs some work these days. Maybe SCI-Arc can show the way.