When it was founded in 1972, by Ray Kappe and a bunch of renegade young faculty from Cal Poly Pomona’s department of architecture, the Southern California Institute of Architecture, or SCI-Arc, was the wild child of architecture schools. Since then it has served as an adventurous laboratory for ideas and now has global recognition.
The list of luminaries that have studied or taught at SCI-Arc is stellar and wide-ranging: directors Hernan Diaz Alonso, Eric Owen Moss, Neil Denari, Michael Rotondi; architects Barbara Bestor, Elena Manferdini, Tom Wiscombe, Ming Fung, Oyler Wu, Griffin Enright, Pita + Bloom, P-A-T-T-E-R-N-S; Arid Lands Institute founders Hadley and Peter Arnold, writer Mike Davis, historian Margaret Crawford; the list goes on and on.
The school has evolved with changing times, and its movement and growth tracks with that of Los Angeles itself, having started life in a warehouse in Santa Monica and now occupying its own home in a former freight depot in the Arts District.
In recent years some architecture critics have complained that the school has been overly preoccupied with form, specifically the form-making in untethered, ethereal space enabled by the computer, at a time in which architecture has bigger, social and civic challenges to meet.
Of course, SCI-Arc students at their best advance the art of architecture while alleviating society’s ills and mending its urban fabric. Right now, for example, the school has a satellite with sister city Mexico City; projects there include the development of affordable housing prototypes. And their forms are made tangible and real in the installations and public exhibits of models that have been a hallmark of the school.
Furthermore, a stated goal of the school is for students to think beyond buildings. As director Hernan Diaz Alonso told DnA, his ideal student thesis projects “are those that take you more than a minute to try to understand how they really are architecture and not a piece of art or piece of a videogame or a piece of fashion or a piece of literature.”
However, one of the seemingly intractable societal problems right now is the shockingly high cost of higher education and SCI-Arc is not spared from that.
So every year SCI-Arc holds a “Main Event” to raise money for scholarships. This year, I am the guest of honor.
In explaining why I was chosen, SCI-Arc director Hernan Diaz Alonso said my “ongoing support for architecture is crucial in times in which cynicism and over-simplification has taken over architectural journalism. Frances’ ongoing reporting and coverage cultivates leaders and nurtures unorthodox thinking in its application in architecture and design… SCI-Arc is honored to recognize someone whose lifework has been to elevate, expand, and make relevant the discourse surrounding the field of architecture and design on a national level.”
I am extremely grateful for this acknowledgement. Typically absorbed in daily and weekly deadlines, I rarely stop to think about how my work might be perceived in its fullness.
I am also extremely grateful to have had the opportunity create a life around a passion — architecture, design, the environment, people — and to have had support from numerous friends and colleagues while on that journey.
But I was able to start that journey by going to architecture school. Even if you don’t become an architect, an architecture education is wonderful: humanist and creative.
It is not always entirely practical (certainly it is possible to leave architecture school not really knowing how to build); the theoretical discourse can produce a strange form of rhetoric; and it generally doesn’t teach you the business nor politics of building. It also tends to cause a predilection for wearing only black.
But an architecture education develops both hand and eye, left and right brain; it teaches social and aesthetic and technological awareness and provides a grounding for many careers. It inspires appreciation for the built environment and its role in the quality of life for both rich and poor.
It teaches you to flex the imagination and look at a problem from multiple vantage points — and it imparts optimism.
After all, to build is inherently an act of belief in the future, and belief in oneself, the designer. One has to have enormous conviction to persuade a client to build one’s vision — hence architects get disparaged sometimes as egomaniacs or control freaks — but that conviction is also passion. And what is life without passion?
I was lucky to get this education at a time when it was affordable. I paid almost nothing to go to a public architecture school in London, and could cover rent.
Now it costs many thousands of dollars per semester.
Hopefully in the long term, some smart design-thinking — yes, a term that annoys some architects — will figure out how to dismantle the present, unsustainable framework of education and housing costs and rebuild a better functioning system.
In the short-term, it is scholarship funds like SCI-Arc’s that enable present and future students without the means to get this brilliant education.