I was a Juror at SCI-Arc’s Graduate Thesis Weekend

There seems to be something about the name SCI-Arc that invites wordplays. Maybe it implies reaching out into the blue like a ‘sky-arc’, or a vessel for minds that is floating into the unknown like a ‘psy-ark’. And is it just coincidence that ‘sci’ is usually followed by ‘-fi’, and all its voyages of imagination? The name actually stands for Southern California Institute of Architecture, but there’s some truth in all of those flights of fancy — when it was founded as a non-profit school in 1972 with a faculty that including Thom Mayne (who’d win the 2005 Pritzker Prize), it was with a radical pedagogy, a ‘college without walls’ to nurture free thinking and challenge the system. Since then, alumni include another Pritzker-winner, Shigeru Ban, and its undergraduate and graduate programmes are still ranking top five in DesignIntelligence’s 2017 surveys. But does it still have that radical edge of its past? Every September, SCI-Arc stage a Graduate Thesis Weekend, and this year, I was a juror. That gave me achance to see for myself.

SCI-ArcSince 2001, SCI-Arc has occupied an extraordinary building just a block from the Los Angeles River in an industrial area now regenerated as the Art District. Its converted 1907 rail warehouse premises was one of California’s pioneering reinforced structures, designed by Harrison Albright. It stretches almost 400m along Santa Fe Avenue, a linear box on a vast scale enclosing industrial volume well-lit by a long stretch of clerestory windows, and it proclaims its name boldly in steel letters mounted on the roof, just like a lot of pre-war American downtown buildings did. The Graduate Thesis Weekend jurors consisted of faculty and invited distinguished academics, architects, and wild cards. I was one of the wild cards, a journalist who had not studied architecture but writes about it, and initially, that made me almost as nervous as some of the youngsters presenting their projects. Anyone offering live ‘crit’ side-by-side with some the best in American architecture had better make their words matter.

Still, the welcome from SCI-Arc faculty was informal and warm when we gathered for coffee at SCI-Arc just before the first jury sessions. It’s strange that architects and mourners are the two types that gather wearing black, and there was no shortage of that amongst my fellow jurors — but this was far from a funeral. It was about the future — of architecture and its would-be practitioners. Their models and visualisations seemed to fill half the ground floor. Separated into teams of five or six jurors, we took our front row seats before each project’s display as the graduates, notes in hands and rehearsal time over, each talked them through before being grilled and judged. 

The first two presentations I saw were puzzling. They centred on harvesting urban data, but there was no clear idea about what the data would be. The second student, Ivy Chan, presented Happily Similar, with a cartoon inner-city Baltimore neighbourhood. The animation of neighbourhood characters was strong, and animation could be where her future lie, I suggested — that’s not necessarily a put-down, especially considering that SCI-Arc has distinguished alumni who made their name beyond architecture, such as designer Tom Farrage, or artist Abinada Meza. A third presentation, The Transparency Paradox by Anna Gringer, was also about data, or at least playing with facade transparency in a proposed New York data centre — at last, I was seeing architecture. Next, Vincent Ho showed his design for a Music Centre at the Museum of London site by the Barbican. It visibly expressed its 3D-printed construction  — it looked like a case of form following fabrication rather than function, but it was imaginative.

After the first day, jurors were driven out into the setting Sun along the Santa Monica Freeway, a luminous experience with conjured up the exhilaration that British critic Rayner Banham found driving in Los Angeles in the 1970s, when he coined the name Autopia to apply to what Lewis Mumford had called the ‘anti-city’. 

170908 1913 drinks in Santa Monica

Some faculty and guest jurors in Santa Monica

We were headed to the house of SCI-Arc’s vice director John Enright, a modernist concrete volume glazed big and clear with a higher, connected pavilion, all on a slope from which the vista of trees and houses stretched to the Pacific. It was a beautiful evening. With darkness fallen, a philosophical mood had descended on Thom Mayne when I talked with him. He mused on what had become of the political energy of students since SCI-Arc’s early days.

A jury mulls over Omar Baqazi's Facade Gestures

A jury mulls over Omar Baqazi’s Facade Gestures

The next day, my first juries were led by Peter Trummer, Amsterdam-based architect, head of the Urban Design Institute at University of Innsbruck, Austria and visiting faculty at SCI-Arc. Omar Baqazi presented a seductive, lyrical project in which Facade Gestures intervene in Georgian buildings in London, which in reality of course would be ‘listed’, meaning protected by law from the slightest alteration.

Rebecca Wiscombe's Typological Organs

Rebecca Wiscombe’s Typological Organs

Rebecca Wiscombe  presented furniture juxtapositions as big dark sculptures, all with übercool Swedish names- certainly original, and the meticulousness of her drawings and modes was exceptional. Javier Cardiel shows us his intervention in a Downtown LA site. It looked good- but his building was a car park, and that carries baggage. City centres around the world are on the rebound, but it’s people, not cars, that are bringing back life – and Downtown LA is a brilliant example. In London, we build massive buildings (examples- the Shard, the new Bloomberg London HQ) with five or less parking spaces! Jan Gehl should be priority recommended urbanist reading at SCI-Arci. Despite the spell Banham had cast on me, I’m the only juror who spells out the new reality: ‘cars are the enemy of the city’, I tell Javier.

Javier Cardiel's elevation for Downtown LA car park. Photo courtesy SCI-Arc

Javier Cardiel’s elevation for Downtown LA car park. Photo courtesy SCI-Arc

For me at least, the star of the morning juries is Po-Hsien, who in Stages had imagined a block cut with a tight, slightly disrupted 4×16 grid of alleys and courtyards, in which events from a manga-like comic-book story animate its surfaces. When I ask if the spaces relate to hutongs, Trummer shakes his head like it shouldn’t be asked. Maybe not, but clearly the model he presented had roots in a traditional urban vernacular, and in interplay with a contemporary graphic culture, it felt reborn in a new millennium, and super-charged.

That afternoon’s juries were with John Enright’s team and we considered memorable projects.

Jacob Waas presents Eh, That_ll Do

Jacob Waas with Eh, That’ll Do

There was a devil-may-care confidence to Jacob Waas and the title of his project, Eh, That’ll Do. He had created a vast structure of modules like building blocks in columns, all knocked askew and splaying out in lines across the water’s edge, suggesting the figure of a slumped man. Somehow this was meant to be architecture. Striking and original, it provoked much analytical discussion. Waas had set himself a starting point of ‘cartoon physics’, but my common sense rebelled. I needed to speak my mind: ‘We live in an age of buildings trying to be sculptures, but this is a sculpture that’s not even trying to be a building’.… Another confident young man Conor Covey presented The Promiscuous Line, in which a thick black circulation passage wandering madly around the envelope of a partially deconstructed modernist volume. This looked fun, and engineerable, but imagine wandering through windowless tubes to reach anywhere – why not clad them in dark, Miesian glass? Meenakshi Dravid’s Borderline Madness visualised a fascinating multilevel quarter that put me in mind of the Metabolists, but with day-glo colours. Zeinap Cinar had let blue organic patches infiltrate inside and out of a Hollywood vernacular block, an attractive idea though hard to relate to her inspiration, Ed Ruscha’s 1966 photographic work Every Building on Sunset Strip. The last of the day’s projects gave a very different respect to local LA vernacular and changed the mood in an extraordinary way. At the heart of Keith Marks’ work were three large photos of suburban houses, banal yet uncanny. I could feel the silence of standing there in the street before them, and a sense of mystery about what was behind those facades. That mood is something architectural representations never creates — it explicates the visual intent of the architect, rather than implicate the lives of the users of architecture.

The Sunday morning saw the last round of juries. Mine was headed by Andrew Zago, LA architect and head of the faculty’s Design Studio. The following week in Chicago I would be dazzled by his own project, exhibited at the Chicago Architecture Biennial —  huge overlapping grid panels with a sort of digital sheen made by physically separating metallic layers of colour. 

Jiali Carrie Li_s New Dagwood

Jiali Carrie Li’s New Dagwood

At SCI-Arc, we considered projects that included a couple of art centres that referenced sandwiches. A floating box volume mounted on random materials including velvet lived up to its ‘Sloppy’ title, but there was lot to say about the next one, a stacked composition of building sections differentiated by colour and function, then distorted to super-Gehry extremes. Jiali Carrie Li called it New Dagwood.

Saba Samiel’s urban plan of an entire quarter of Milan, Democratic Cohesion, was so seriously designed and executed, that it felt un-necessary to include the landmark element of a volume curving up from the horizontal with the energy of a horse rearing up on its back legs. Another meticulous effort was Palak Mandhana’s The Added Dimension, with a model of a mid-rise block that was a lot of podium and not much tower, but its PoMO facades had something of Michael Graves, and that may be timely…

170910 1302 presentation from above

A view from above SCI-Arc’s Graduate Thesis Weekend

I had several take-aways from the Graduate Thesis Weekend. The first was that there was a lot of talent being nurtured here— whether or not projects had grounding in basic issues of structure, function or context, by intent or otherwise. The juries reminded me that academic language or concerns can be obtuse and arcane. If that was also the case when guiding students, some straight talk could have cut to the flaws in some projects before they became dominant. Getting real is not the antithesis of free-thinking.

What I didn’t see was much political agenda. The radical spirit of architecture schools was alive worldwide in the 1970s, from the shake-up of the AA in London under Alvin Boyarsky to the professorial style (as well as the architecture) of Vilanova Artigas at FAU, São Paulo… and to SCI-Arc’s foundation. It followed from the revolutionary spirit of the 1960s, but times have changed. Today’s American agenda includes trashing the EPA and the Paris Agreement and walling off Mexico. My biggest message to SCI-Arc and its students is this: there is plenty of politics for a would-be architect to respond to, right now.

SCI-Arc demands imagination at the undergraduate level, and clearly, the graduates delivered it — diverse and vibrant, sometimes naive but almost always free-spririted. That gives hope, and it chimes with the founding principles of the college.

All photos © Herbert Wright 2018, except ‘Javier Cardiel’s elevation for Downtown LA car park’- photo courtesy SCI-Arc

This blog was subsequently edited and re-published in November 2017 on designcurial.com as ‘California Dreaming: Exploring the Visions of SCI-Arc Graduates‘ 

About herbertwright

I am a London-based writer interested in art, architecture, the future and more. I am the author of three non-fiction books. Published articles online appear on www.herbertwright.co.uk.
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