The Rudy Bruner Foundation has chosen the Inner-City Arts project, a downtown Los Angeles education facility which provides art instruction to a large population of at-risk children and youth in LA, as one of five finalists for the 2009 Rudy Bruner Awards. The project, designed by LA-based architect Michael Maltzan together with garden designer Nancy Goslee Power, received the Gold Medal Award for Urban Excellence.
Further finalists of the 2009 awards are Hunts Point Riverside Park (Bronx, NY), Millennium Park (Chicago, IL), St. Joseph Rebuild Center (New Orleans, LA), and The Community Chalkboard and Podium: An Interactive Monument to Free Expression (Charlottesville, VA).
Building a new arts campus, which began with an abandoned 10,000 square foot auto body shop in the heart of Skid Row, captured architect Michael Maltzan’s imagination. It was the fall of 1993, and Inner-City Arts became the first project for the new office that Maltzan was opening at that time, and his first pro bono project. He persuaded his colleague, garden designer Nancy Goslee Power, to volunteer her services as well.
With an eye to using architecture and design as agents for social change, Maltzan and Power created a campus where every space is a “teachable moment,” from the way the buildings are designed, arranged and used, to the way nature is invited in to what used to be a concrete jungle. And what fired up Maltzan and Power’s own creativity was looking at artwork presented by the children when asked to envision what their ideal Inner-City Arts campus would look like.
Built in three phases over 15 years, the one acre campus was conceived as a contemporary open-air village, an indoor/outdoor tradition perfectly suited to the Southern California climate. The buildings and classrooms are arranged around a landscaped central plaza. The “campus as village” fosters a way of living, working and relating that informs the larger city that surrounds the school. Each child has his or her own work: performance, ceramics, dance, painting, sculpture, animation. But the group gathers as a community to interact in the public space of the central courtyard. “The responsibility to both of those things,” says Maltzan, “to yourself as an individual, to expressing yourself, making your work, to living a creative life - but also to have a responsibility to your role within the larger community. This is an important lesson.”
Each building has its own character and function. The original building was a 1930s bow-string truss shell, a huge open space with no interior divisions. Working in collaboration with architects Marmol Radziner and Associates, the design features large glass openings and roll up doors that open onto the central plaza, echoing the original auto shop doors. The light industrial quality of the original structure and the surrounding neighborhood set the tone for architecture overall. Most of the ceilings are left raw, open to the rafters.
This neutral palate allows the buildings to serve as a canvas for the students’ artwork, a background to the work that is being created on the campus. The materials Maltzan uses are taken from the neighborhood: chiefly stucco, and construction grade wood and concrete. According to Maltzan, “If you look around Skid Row, the building and context are made from the most prosaic of materials. Often people have the idea that buildings become architecture because the materials are expensive, fancy. Here, the lesson is that it isn’t the quality of the materials, but the way you use them, the way you bring your creativity and thinking to the design that can make something transformative out of something very humble.”
White is the dominant paint color, with orange as an accent. With security and graffiti being major issues in the neighborhood, the idea of white exteriors was radical. But Maltzan believes the community will respect the architecture and the Inner-City Arts’ mission it embodies.
At first, the new buildings seem to have always been there. But after a moment, one realizes that they are quite different. Many of the structural angles are pushed intentionally below or beyond the normal 90 degrees. The buildings open up like Japanese origami, with light entering through the folds and cuts. The ceramics building rises from the plaza in a three-story tower that is visible from the entire surrounding area. “In this new phase,” says Michael Maltzan, “I was trying to create more transparency through the gates and with the height of the ceramics studio, while still maintaining security.”
The new Rosenthal Theater, funded by Philip and Monica Rosenthal of Everybody Loves Raymond, is the final piece of the puzzle, the campus’ most urban element. The building is mostly square, but is also shaped by the irregular street grid. Functionally, the theater is an extremely flexible “black box.” The lighting grid extends almost throughout the entire ground floor, with the control booth on the second level. The stage, seating and curtains can be positioned anywhere: thrust, in-the-round, traditional proscenium arch, multiple stage, etc. In a roving performance, the entire space can be activated - including the upper parking lot and the proclamation platform on the exterior stairway. The acoustics were carefully engineered, with sound isolation, triple-insulated glass and a large skylight that can be blacked out.
At the beginning of the design process, Inner-City Arts founder Bob Bates asked the children to draw images of their vision for the new campus. They drew palms, oranges, and other fruit trees. The boys also drew volcanoes, which inspired the children’s fountain. These children’s drawings gave garden designer Nancy Power many of her ideas for the plaza. Because of the glaring sun, she imagined a sheltered oasis like the courtyards in Italy or Southern Spain. “Gardening is one of the great arts that can alter the environment,” says Power. “Under the dappled light of trees, we can create a cool room and a calm environment. A quiet space is particularly important for inner-city kids who sometimes suffer from nature deficit disorder.”
The palm trees offer shade and attract birds. A constructed dry creek bed (that the children can fill with water) represents a California arroyo, lined with native oaks and alders. The boulders and sycamores that shade the outdoor staircase create the image of a canyon from one of the nearby mountain ranges. Agaves and other native plants offer multiple exotic shapes for the kids to draw. At the forefront of the wave of planting kitchen gardens in schools, the landscaping now includes grapes, tomato, cilantro, chard and sunflowers. “My interest in the project grew over the years,” says Power, who first got involved in 1993, the same year as Maltzan did. “This is part of teaching the kids how to eat well, and where their food comes from.” The plaza garden includes a labyrinth and, with a total of 30 trees, constitutes an urban forest.
Arrayed surrounding the internal plaza courtyard and within the confines of the urban street grid, the separate campus structures relate to each other in a complex geometry. “As you move through the campus your mind accumulates this subtle series of spatial relationships,” says Maltzan. Movement is the animating force behind the architecture. The structures vary in height and angle. The planes and lines of the new buildings align with, or gesture to, the existing buildings. In addition to serving as an armature for the student’s art, the campus and buildings function as the arts education center’s biggest learning tool. The environmental graphics, bold and deeply integrated with the architectural concept and design, are from Ph.D, the LA-based graphic design firm that has worked with Maltzan on Inner-City Arts since the first phase.
As is also true for the larger city, the way that students relate to each other and their surroundings at Inner-City Arts actually creates the campus. It is not just that many individuals have gathered - it is the way those individuals interact. The entire campus is intended to create that sense of responsibility and interaction. Particularly with the expansion, the campus also has an important role in relation to the rest of the city. It is an urban community center and agent for change, a positive force in that neighborhood. “If there is something that the campus communicates, that people take with them,” says Maltzan, “I hope that people get that architecture is not only great form, but the way we structure our relationship to the way that we live in the city, and to find forms that can evolve as the city changes is important and is essential for the city to continue to emerge.”
The expanded campus can now serve 16,000 students annually and train 1,800 classroom teachers each year to use the arts as a tool in teaching academic subjects, extending its reach beyond the campus and reforming education in Los Angeles. In addition to the original Mark Taper Center / Inner-City Arts Building, the campus includes The Rosenthal Theater, the W.M. Keck Foundation Ceramics Complex, a Parent-Teacher Resource Center, a Grand Courtyard, the Alissa Michelle Tishler Children’s Garden, The Hinchliffe Building, and a Visual Arts Complex (which includes a painting and drawing studio and the DreamWorks Animation Academy at Inner-City Arts). The total cost of the expansion is $10 million, raised through private individuals, foundation and government grants.
Inner-City Arts was officially opened in October 2008 and is located at 720 Kohler Street (at 7th Street) in downtown Los Angeles.