Sunday, June 2, 2013

University Elementary School Buildings

COMMENTARY : Building Up Neutra After Tearing Him Down
Here's an unusual way to celebrate the centennial of the birth of a creative genius: Get a wrecking ball and demolish one of his creations; then, open a joyful exhibition to praise him.  Odd, yes. But, it's precisely the sequence of events at UCLA in its effort to mark the life of Richard Neutra (1892-1970), the Viennese-born, Los Angeles-based architect who ranks among the greatest International Style designers of the 20th Century.

Today, the university's Wight Art Gallery opens "The Drawings of Richard Neutra: A Centennial Exhibition," featuring one model and 139 renderings. A few weeks back, this notable event was preceded by the demolition of the only Neutra-designed structures on UCLA's Westwood campus.
Three pavilions at the Corinne A. Seeds University Elementary School, commonly known as UES, were ignominiously sent to the architecture graveyard. When I say the school was destroyed, I don't mean the entire UES complex was knocked down. It wasn't. Most of the cluster of buildings remains. UCLA only tore down the architecturally significant part.

UES was initially designed in 1948 by Robert Alexander, a competent local architect who sited the school along Stone Canyon Creek, which parallels Sunset Boulevard. Nine years later, through the addition of a meandering row of free-standing classrooms, the elementary school was enlarged by the firm of Neutra and Alexander. Simple post-and-beam structures of concrete, stucco, wood, brick and glass, the string of new classrooms were linked by a covered walkway. This architectural "spine" followed the organic curve of the creek, while the portico and the glass walls of the classrooms opened onto tree-sheltered garden patios.

Neutra had garnered great acclaim in the 1930s and 1940s for his astonishing designs for private houses. In pursuit of the major public commissions that had eluded him, but which he believed would be the culmination of his career in the prosperous postwar years, he had formed a partnership with Alexander. Given the spatial transparency and organic penetration in the informal design of the UES pavilions, it's easy to see which of the two partners was likely responsible for the addition.

Comparatively speaking, the UES design does not rank among Neutra's greatest achievements; however, two things must be remembered. One is that a "merely good" Neutra building is infinitely superior to most of the built environment. The other is that architectural function, in concert with bricks and mortar, can be integral to a building's larger cultural significance. Such is--or was--the case with UES.

The application of Neutra's design principles to this particular school is among the more significant features of the now-vanished UES scheme. Founded in 1882, affiliated with UCLA in 1919 and moved onto campus in 1947, the experimental school operates as a teaching laboratory where new educational techniques and philosophies are tried out on its 450 students, ages 4 through 12. Operating independently of state education requirements and a local school board, UES is the only lab school left in California.
Once the breed had flourished. Rejecting authoritarian teaching methods, lab schools were developed by followers of John Dewey, the great American philosopher and educator who saw the marriage of vocation and culture as the function of education in a democratic society.

Neutra's design for UES featured clear distinctions between the natural and the man-made, harmonious integration with the physical site and flexible open-planning. These and other aspects of the composition spoke of the same, decidedly modern moral commitment to social ideals that fueled the lab school philosophy. His eloquent design made visible a rich mix of American social, cultural and architectural history.

Why were Neutra's pavilions demolished? It isn't because of a change in UES philosophy. In fact, given the perilous state of American public education today, progressive lab schools are enjoying something of a renaissance across the country.

Instead, the site was cleared to make way for UCLA's new graduate school of management, which will be housed in a $67-million behemoth of a building designed by New York architect Henry Cobb, and paid for by multimillion-dollar gifts from entrepreneur John E. Anderson, builder Eugene Rosenfeld, fast-food franchiser James Collins, the state of California and others. In a June, 1989, lecture outlining his plan, Cobb described the UCLA project as occupying the last undeveloped parcel of land on campus, and subsequently referred to three unidentified pavilions that would be "displaced." The name of Richard Neutra was never spoken.

In 1958, one year after the addition to UES was built, the university's art gallery mounted the first significant museum exhibition of Neutra's work as an architect. Today, Neutra scholar and UCLA professor Thomas S. Hines, who co-organized the great 1982 Neutra retrospective at New York's Museum of Modern Art and whose efforts to save the UES pavilions were thwarted by UCLA administrators, has organized the centennial exhibition of his drawings. (None of the renderings on view describe the UES pavilions.)

Whatever the considerable merits of that show, the architectural ruination of the University Elementary School amounts to little more than institutional vandalism. An inescapable feeling of nausea disrupts the birthday bash.

1999 UCLA Today 


     Amid the current public debate over the breakdown of Los Angeles school facilities and  the urgent need for classroom space, the question of architectural quality has been largely absent.
     Where only recently the plan for 150 new schools funded by Proposition BB was accompanied  by discussion about the appropriate architectural form for education, this now seems unimportant in what is perceived as a crisis.
     On one level, this is understandable. For the public,  architecture has been reduced to signifying little more than outer appearance, if not the code word for unnecessary expense. Architecture seems more an affair of spectacular, expensive monuments — Richard Meier's Getty Center  complex or Frank O. Gehry's Disney Hall — that make headlines.

     But this ignores the contribution of architecture to daily life: its attention to the complex relationships between  institutional programs, such as school curricula, and the spaces that house them. Architecture can provide a fundamental part of the answer to many problems of learning that seem to overwhelm large school districts.

      Architecture is not simply concerned with planning and construction, but with the relations between the envisioned curriculum and the space in which it is put into practice. The architect plays a crucial  role in considering the relations between an institution and its neighborhood, of the careful responses in scale and spatial layout to the needs of teachers and children, of the very materials out of which a good learning  environment is built. Finally, by asking questions that cut across the network of administrative bodies responsible for school construction, the architect can serve as catalyst and collaborator, conscience and coordinator.
     Los Angeles, in fact, was once at the forefront of the movement for better-designed schools, led by influential modern architects like Richard Neutra. For Neutra and other architects of his  time, architecture was conceived as a powerful instrument for social education, and nothing was more important than the first institutional environment encountered by a child: the school.

      Perhaps the most striking examples of this belief were the various schools designed by Neutra in Los Angeles. His project for a Ring Plan School, with its ring of classrooms around a play area  and a running track on the roof,  was adopted in 1934 by the Los Angeles School Board and built in the Bell district. The building was much celebrated for its qualities of light, relationship of classrooms to outdoors and color of materials.

      That modern architecture could produce delightful spaces for learning with the most economical means is still demonstrated by Neutra and Robert Alexander's 1957 UCLA Kindergarten and Elementary School, now  the Corinne A. Seeds University Elementary School. Using brick and concrete-block walls, simple truss roofs and plywood cabinets, the architects created a varied environment by careful planning of space and a perfect sense of  proportion for the different scale of its inhabitants. Set in a landscape of redwoods, streams and playgrounds, this school remains a model for new elementary schools and for the low-density units envisioned as a part of the  Proposition BB plan for new schools in Los Angeles.

Anthony Vidler is chair of art history and professor of architecture.