The Art Factory
Acclaimed for artful spaces and spaces for art, Frederick Fisher and Partners designs an addition to Otis College
Edie Cohen -- Interior Design, 3/1/2002 12:00:00 AM
A freestanding addition to the Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles—a building formally known as the Bronya and Andy Galef Center for the Fine Arts—was conceived on a fundamental premise. Frederick Fisher's vision: "The scheme connects the idea of making art to making something in a factory." Having completed such prestigious projects as P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center in New York, the Colby College Museum of Art in Maine, and the LA Louver, Grant Selwyn, and Berlinische galleries, in Venice and Beverly Hills, California, and Berlin, respectively, Frederick Fisher and Partners came to Otis College with a well established ethos. For the architect and his firm, art-related projects are about abundant daylight, flexible spaces posing minimal limitations to artists and curators, and a connection to the outdoors where possible. These constants, coupled with a tight budget and time frame and the constraints of the site, determined the program outline at Otis.
The college comprises a parklike 4-acre campus within urban fabric near Los Angeles International Airport. The original building is a 1963 Eliot Noyes design for IBM. (In an instance of historical kismet, Fisher discovered that the project architect for the IBM offices had been A. Quincy Jones, while Frederick Fisher and Partners occupies the west Los Angeles building that had long been home to the practice of Jones and his partner, Frederick E. Emmons.) Despite a 1997 renovation by Bobrow/Thomas and Associates, the former IBM building, which lacks skylights, wide spans, and long window walls, was never conducive to the fine arts. Fisher's two-story, 40,000-square-foot addition, on the other hand, houses not only studios for painting, sculpture, photography, installations, and video but also crit rooms, offices, and a pair of museum-quality galleries, the first dedicated to student exhibits, the second to professional ones. Predicated on efficiency and economy, the plan was designed and executed in 17 months for $118 per square foot.
"A rotated object in space," Fisher says of the initial siting choice. Pulled back from busy Lincoln Boulevard with no obvious ties to the Eliot Noyes building, his new structure profits from landscape opportunities. It sits at the center of three triangular plazas, and rooms spill outdoors through sliding glass and roll-up garage doors. In a move that begs comparison with his stunning open-to-the-sky gallery at LA Louver, Fisher created a roofless lounge at the heart of the second floor. (Politically incorrect though it may be, this outdoor area has become the students' smoking room.)
"My work is never about geometry, but this is a perfect square," Fisher points out. The form allows studio, gallery, and auxiliary spaces to be configured around just four structural columns, so almost every inch of the eminently flexible interior can be devoted to work or exhibit areas. Wasteful corridors scarcely exist, circumvented by external circulation.
An elevator and stair tower next to the main volume provides vertical passage and, aside from strictly pragmatic considerations, acts as a bold, sculptural gesture to counterbalance the staid square. The tower also situates Fisher's work within larger urban references. "The elevator can be likened to a campanile, the space between the two buildings to a piazza, and the stairs to the grand stairway of the Metropolitan Museum," he remarks.
Form and function establish the factory-loft archetype; Fisher's materials and architectural detailing reinforce the concept. The building is clad with corrugated aluminum painted silver to heighten the metal's reflective qualities. Each elevation has a unique window configuration, another feature enlivening the basic box. "This is meant to be a tough building, but it feels light," the architect says. The contrast vis-à-vis the erstwhile IBM building, whose heavy, gridded concrete face is meant to symbolize a computer punch card, marks a departure from his customarily contextual work.
A series of small skylights (in lieu of a single large aperture) and clerestories illuminates the studios and galleries. "The trick is balancing the need for connection with the outdoors with the most valuable thing in an art situation, wall space," Fisher says. Though most work zones are large and open, the exception lies in 50 small bays that individual seniors appropriate and appoint for a semester—territoriality rules.
The Galef Center departs markedly from the art-school idiom, which tends to be finished and formal, Craig Ellwood's Art Center College of Design in Pasadena being the most obvious example of this mode. But Fisher validates his "low design" approach at Otis College as correct for present as well as future: "Nobody knows where art is going, what it's going to be like in 10 years. When media and the way art is taught change, the building can accommodate those changes." In that sense, his building is a work in progress, too.