At 39, the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc) is ready to settle down. On April 21, the school finalized a deal to purchase its downtown Los Angeles campus—the original Santa Fe Freight Depot—and adjacent lot. The deal, pegged at $23.1 million, puts an end to speculation over whether SCI-Arc, which was founded on the concept of a “college without walls,” will stay in the city’s Arts District.
SCI-Arc, which has operated out of the Harrison Albright–designed facility since 2001, has long pursued the property’s acquisition. Despite attempts to purchase it in 2004, the property was sold to Meruelo Maddux Properties, which later filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Although the school’s lease had renewal options, questions about whether it would remain downtown started to circulate after Legendary Investors Group bought the debt for 10 Meruelo Maddux properties, including the SCI-Arc site. But a recent deal between Meruelo Maddux and Legendary has permitted the school’s purchase of the approximately 90,000-square-foot building that sits on a 4.5-acre lot. Two additional parcels may also become available to the school, according to Eric Owen Moss, FAIA, SCI-Arc director and principal of Eric Owen Moss Architects.
Moss says that the purchase comes at a time when SCI-Arc is emerging as a more stable institution. As recently as seven years ago, he says, the school had issues relating to finances and accreditation. Today, enrollment tops 500, and faculty and staff account for another 105. Earlier this month, the school announced that Thom Mayne, FAIA, principal of Morphosis and one of the school’s co-founders, had been elected as a SCI-Arc trustee.
“It was difficult, initially, in the SCI-Arc mindset, to imagine a more conservative administration pro forma,” Moss says. “Where the surprise might be is in the capacity of SCI-Arc to keep the pedagogy on its edge and keep administration and finances in the middle.”
He adds that the school’s newfound stability is also helping with development initiatives. “SCI-Arc now seems to have the capacity to get grants and contributions,” Moss says. Under construction is a new Robot House that will feature a multi-robot platform and will be at the center of a new one-year post-graduate program, Emerging Systems and Technologies. The project is being realized through a partnership with Stäubli Robotics and with the help of a grant from the Fletcher Jones Foundation.
The purchase also confirms the school’s commitment to downtown Los Angeles. In the time since SCI-Arc took root in the Arts District, a number of the area’s industrial buildings have been converted to lofts, and the Community Redevelopment Agency of Los Angeles has zoned 20 acres near the school for clean-tech manufacturing.
“SCI-Arc puts students and faculty in the midst of a changing and socially diverse and complicated world very focused on rebuilding itself,” Moss says.
Absent from this world—for the time being—is student housing. The school has no specific plans for student housing at this time, according to SCI-Arc chief operating officer Jamie Bennett, but in the wake of the sale it will actively pursue opportunities for offering housing to its students.
Moss insists that, moving forward, the school’s biggest test will be what goes on within the building. He says that though the sale is important and reinforces the school’s solvency, it doesn’t say much about the discourse of the school, which DesignIntelligence recently ranked second in design and computer applications categories in the 2011 America’s Best Architecture Schools survey.
“The content, what goes on at the school, matters more than that there is a building,” Moss says. “But it does take SCI-Arc out of vagabond status.”