In one of the recent post discussions for No Master, SCI-arc was brought up as a model for what No Master is trying to do. I was glad for the mention since I was already aware of the history and had found some hope in their success starting with a radical model, starting from nothing.
The No Master concept has several interesting parallels with the original intentions of SCI-arc and I think it worthwhile to post a bit of SCI-arc history here for that reason. Maybe a bit immodest on behalf of No Master which isn’t even a full fledged idea yet, let alone functioning, but, as I said, the comparison offers some hope.
SCI-arc (Southern California Institute of Architecture) is celebrating its 40th anniversary this week so it seems even more appropriate to post this history now.
The following is excerpted from KCRW’s Design & Architecture Blog, “SCI-Arc at Forty: The Original “Alternative” Architecture School” Posted August 17, 2012 by Frances Anderton:
It has been a monumental, and monumentalizing, year for SCI-Arc, Los Angeles’ famed experimental architecture school. The Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc) celebrates its fortieth anniversary this year, with special programming, building initiatives and a new digital archive of decades of guest lecture videos. The school was also the focus of an exhibition at the MAK Center for Art and Architecture.
The anniversary coincides with a particularly strong year in academic rankings. GraduateArchitecture.com recently rated SCI-Arc number one in their roster of the top ten international architecture schools, citing its ability to develop students into “well rounded architect[s]” and specifically praising the school as “the leader in sustainable design and one of the best institute’s for computational design.”
All this from the institute founded in 1972 to provide an alternative to the dominant currents in architectural education at the time – both the Los Angeles modernist strongholds of USC and UCLA and the hyperintellectualism of the East Coast ivies. In light of these recent milestones, DnA asked architectural historian Maura Lucking, a recent LA transplant who wrote her MA thesis at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago on SCI-Arc founder Ray Kappe’s design philosophy, to revisit SCI-Arc’s countercultural origins and examine recent changes that may have irrevocably changed the direction of the school.
The school was born out of the post-’68 youth movement in its Californian “hippie” incarnation. The “turn on, tune in and drop out” mentality was channeled by SCI-Arc’s founders through a new, more democratic bureaucratic hierarchy that narrowed the gap between students and teachers and, they hoped, would keep students in school and producing new work through collaborative studios, visiting lecturer seminars, and frequent field trips into the urban environment. The school became a prime example of a pre-existing educational concept that had gained popularity in the late 60s –known as the “college without walls” approach— that seemed just the right strategy for pulling architecture out of the university and unleashing its energy onto the city itself.
In 1972, Los Angeles architect Ray Kappe was dismissed from his position as the founding chair of Cal Poly Pomona’s department of architecture due to a scuffle with the dean over his somewhat unorthodox teaching methods, including student homesteading projects in the desert and the building of huge geometric plywood structures on school property. Kappe, a serious but impassioned idealist and proponent of architecture’s role as a tool for social advancement, fought the dismissal in a school-wide battle, yet ultimately the majority of the department’s faculty and about half the students, too, chose to leave in solidarity. Some of the younger faculty members suggested that the group continue to meet, not as a school yet, exactly, but an independent program for studio space and conversations about work.
Kappe, along with that faculty—Thom Mayne, Bernard Zimmerman, Glen Small, Bill Simonian, James Stafford, Ahde Lahti, and Gary Neville – began looking for a building in Santa Monica, where open space was abundant due to the dwindling aerospace industry. The building they eventually found was a derelict industrial warehouse-cum-LSD factory, according to school lore and a 1976 LA Times profile. A wild party was thrown to christen the building, setting the tone of informality and exuberant energy dominant in the early years, and the fifty original students as well as twenty-five new recruits began classes that fall at what was called “The New School.”
Giving up accreditation, the potential for professional licensure for students and tenured institutional security for faculty, the school sought to explore a new bureaucratic structure. Here, students and lecturers could work collaboratively and faculty would be evaluated for their teaching skills rather than competing with one another for limited positions. The curricular structure was similarly flexible, with greater allowance for students to select their own coursework of interest under faculty supervision and core architectural classes were supplemented with an unusual focus on the humanities and the social sciences. No letter grades were issued, and an early university mission statement read: “the school does not recognize failure, but instead encourages that projects be repeated and improved upon until a successful conclusion is reached, or the student is redirected.”
The complete posting can be read here:
Next post will look at the similarities between the No Master concept and this early history of SCI-arc.
No Master is a concept for a peer driven study program aiming to capture the benefits of an accredited master’s program without the school. Aimed at working architects and design professionals who wish to develop their professional growth. No Master - play on words: 1 Architects (master builders) without a master’s degree. 2 No school or teachers but but a peer review process, no masters just students 3 Ronin - masterless samurai, term for a secondary school graduate not admitted to university.