SCI-Arc: for people that already know how to design a bathroom

How one of the world’s main experimental architectural schools is put together.

Photo: SCI-Arc

The students from the Strelka Institute’s “The New Normal” program visited SCI-Arc in Los Angeles this spring. SCI-Arc is a world-renowned center of architectural innovation and an independent experimental school. It was founded in Santa Monica in 1972 by a group of faculty and students from the Department of Architecture at California State Polytechnic University who wanted to approach the subject from an unusual perspective.

Strelka Magazine found out what it’s like to study at one of the most experimental schools in the world and had a conversation with a Russian-speaking student, Luiza Kaprelyants. She told us that students at SCI-Arc are taught to be dreamers, that they have learned why they need to forget the rules for designing bathrooms, and why Malevich’s suprematism has regained its power on the California coast.

ON ADMISSION

I studied at MArchI until 2013. Then, I worked at a construction company for a couple of years. After that, I realized that I wanted to study and work in America. I had been familiar with SCI-Arc since my student years; it’s a very popular school in architectural circles. I also applied to two other institutions in California: Woodbury University and UCLA. I was accepted to all of them, and I was even offered a scholarship, but I decided to go to SCI-Arc, even though I didn’t receive a scholarship from them.

A recycling plant. Capstone project at MArchI
A recycling plant. Capstone project at MArchI
A recycling plant. Capstone project at MArchI

SCI-Arc is a rich, experimental university, where you are taught to think big, beyond any architectural standards. I would call it the antithesis of MArchI. I had to provide basic documents for my admission: a portfolio, the results of a language test (I took the TOEFL), up to three recommendations from professors and employers, and a motivation letter. There was also the additional GRE exam (Graduate Record Examinations. – Editor’s note) for English-speaking applicants. It tests logical thinking and the ability to quickly navigate a situation. The test is similar to our USE (Unified State Exam): there is a grammar section, a section where you need to work on scientific, academic, and philosophical texts, and finally, a composition about a given subject. It’s quite a difficult exam, and there’s no passing score. MArchI is all about applied architecture, the craft, while SCI-Arc is a school for dreamers and philosophers. The average person would hardly call what we create there architecture: our designs are something between art and experiment. The school seems like a lab.

ON THE SCHOOL'S STRUCTURE

SCI-Arc is situated in an industrial area, which is now called the Art District. It's a trendy location that is filled with artists and sculptors. The building itself, a large unloading plant, is a long box: if a student needs to get to the other side of the building, he or she will have to walk down a long straight corridor for a long time, observing what is happening at the school. On the way from one part of the building to the other, one can explore its whole inner life: a view of the thesis and design presentations, and the students’ other creative activities, opens right in front of you.

Photo: SCI-Arc
Photo: SCI-Arc
Photo: SCI-Arc
Photo: SCI-Arc

The students find housing for themselves. There’s something like a dormitory across the street from the school, but it’s quite expensive. Usually, three people just rent a two-bedroom apartment and share it amongst themselves. There are a lot of lofts near SCI-Arc, because it’s located in an industrial area. My friends lived in a big, empty place with high ceilings. They built rooms by themselves: they bought plywood, and made beds and coat racks for their clothes. But I came with my husband. The first year there we lived quite far away: it would take me 20 minutes to get to SCI-Arc by car, because the school is situated downtown, and living there is expensive.

ON THE SCHEDULE

A schedule is a complicated concept at SCI-Arc. Of course, there are fixed classes: about three per day. There’s also a break, and open lectures after class. However, all the students spend most of their time at school. The school is never empty. Even if you come on Sunday at 4 am, there will still be at least a few people working. This is not caused by bad organizational skills, there’s just always room for improvement. We all sit there, think, sculpt, render, visualize. And when the finals come, the school just doesn’t sleep. I once spent three days in the building like that: I never left for that whole time, and slept just a couple of hours a day in my car in the parking lot, while my presentation was rendering. Every single person immerses themselves in that rhythm, which seems strange to other people. But when you’re a part of that world, that’s all you live for. The professors constantly fill us with energy, which is why the students are enthusiastic about discussing ideas and proving their points.

Sci-arc, exhibition of designs / photo: personal archive
Presentation of the design / photo: personal archive
Sci-arc, exhibition of designs / photo: personal archive

This surprised me at first, because I wasn’t used to something like that. During my cultural studies class, the professor presented raised the topic of object-oriented ontology. I couldn’t believe that one could talk about architecture from that point of view; everyone was so eager to discuss it, and they had a very intense debate on the subject. I’ve never read as much literature on architecture as I read during that year, and I had no idea there was so much to read. The school teaches us to think, ponder, and to be something more than just architects.

The TA’s, mostly SCI-Arc alumni, are always invested in us. They may stay at school on certain nights, even if they have their own things to do. The professors themselves are busy people and famous architects like Eric Owen Moss, Thom Mayne, Frank Gehry, and Wolf Prix. Aside from teaching, they have their personal work: many of them are working on building their own buildings. My last professor, David Ruy, used to teach in California and New York at the same time. Every week he would go there and back to hold seminars at opposite ends of the USA.

ON EXPERIMENTALISM

An experiment at SCI-Arc is an effort to give a completely new answer to an old question and also to make the most of the innovations that are now provided by science, including green architecture. The school also teaches you to detach yourself from existing ideas and make up your own.

A project from visual studies program
The design for a courthouse in Los Angeles
A project from visual studies program

This is similar to Malevich’s theory of the black square, where the square is an absolute zero: the point from which everything begins. As Malevich used to say, when a person paints a landscape, he or she tries to copy what’s already there. That’s a lifeless depiction of life. The philosophy of suprematism showed that one should think from the perspective of pure shapes and color. That philosophy is close to SCI-Arc. The professors here teach students to think in terms of pure shapes and emotions. We are given a set of tools, and we experiment without any reference to the situation, environment, or function, because it’s necessary to abstract yourself from all of that. We’ve studied architecture before, so we know how to design bathrooms and fire escapes. That’s why we need to forget all that and construct a shape from nothing, using only our subconscious. You are a creator and no one will ever impose their point of view on you and say what’s right. SCI-Arc and rules can’t be put in the same sentence.

The students of our school are called dreamers, sometimes ironically. People say this all has nothing to do with reality, because the experience at SCI-Arc won’t teach you how to obtain a permit for construction. There are employers whose attitude towards the school and its students is uncertain. What an education from SCI-Arc says about the student is that he or she is a very hard-working person who has many skills. It’s good for an architect to have that line in his or her portfolio.

ON THE LEARNING PROCESS

Almost the entire program was set in the first semester. Starting in the second semester, the students were allowed to choose their own modules, so that they would eventually gain points for them. Three credits are given for every module, depending on what you want to study. In order to get the master’s degree, you need to get about 27 credits.

The design for a media library building in Paris
The design for a media library building in Paris
The design for a media library building in Paris

There are no grades at SCI-Arc; there are only the comments that can be heard during the design presentations. One idea can be true for one and false for another. That’s why the most important thing you can do is rationally defend your concept. After each presentation, the professor gives you a pass or a fail.

We had a class called “Constructions”. I studied this at MArchI, too, but SCI-Arc approached it in an unusual way. We were shown 15 ultramodern buildings, and we had to pick one and write a description of it. Also, the most interesting part of the building would be chosen and fully analyzed, explained in terms of how it was made, and then a scale model would be created. This approach helps you understand the structure and feel how it works much better.

We had a lot of opportunities to implement our ideas: the school is extremely well-equipped for the students to be able to realize their craziest concepts and to show them. For example, there’s a laboratory with 3D-printers and robots at SCI-Arc.

There are more than 500 students from 48 countries at SCI-Arc. I personally know people from India, China, Italy, Spain, Austria, and Russia. They are all very sociable and friendly, all inspired by the same idea. The students have something to discuss. And it’s not just gossip: it’s architectural ideas.

After a few days of collaborative, non-stop work, we become friends. People with dogs bring them to class, and we all walk them. It’s just like we’re a family. Of course, drama happens here, too: due to the nature of team work on designs, people sometimes don’t get the opportunity to realize their own ideas. The students have different levels of interest and competence. If someone doesn’t do something or doesn’t do enough, you have the right to get angry. Just like in a real family, we have conflicts.

ON WORKING ON DESIGNS

The building for a courthouse in Los Angeles was one of the most fascinating projects. If someone had to imagine it, he or she would probably think of symmetry, four walls, and columns. Everything’s different at SCI-Arc. We were looking for a certain shape. We were asked: “How do you imagine justice?”. My partner and I were thinking about the idea of justice and how it should be dispensed. We decided that there’s nothing higher than the court: it’s what unites us, and what neither a pauper nor a king can escape it. We created an abstract shape resembling mountains and upwardly-directed conical pyramids. A box where the trials were supposed to be held was placed on top of this. All sorts of institutions were placed in pyramidal constructions: the main hall, and the judges’ chambers. Every group or individual student created an animation or a presentation with models. I had an animation: I created a mini-film about my design.

A model of a part of the Herzog & de Meuron building
A model of a part of the Herzog & de Meuron building
A model of a part of the Herzog & de Meuron building

If you have no ideas, you read architectural literature and find inspiration. We worked in various programs for creating shapes. At first, this sounded funny to me; at MArchI, we were taught to base our concepts on the situation, not on shape. According to the SCI-Arc philosophy, your object is the situation, a whole world. You can make up an unlimited number of concepts that are completely different from one another, even though we work with one and the same set of tools. We were taught programming: we were given examples of code, and, based on that, we tried to create something in a new program.

The presentations take place almost every week in front of the entire class. That way, the students confront their fear of performing in public. During our presentations, we try to prove our idea not only to the professors, but to the students, as well, because they are also interested. You can work on a design by yourself, with a partner, or with a group.

ON HER FEELINGS ABOUT LOS ANGELES

At first, I was skeptical about Los Angeles, and was even afraid. I thought it was not a city to live in. I didn’t like downtown LA, because it was quite controversial: there were lots of homeless people, because of the warm climate. It did not look like the city of my dreams. Also, I spent most of my time at school, and I didn’t have many opportunities to actually see the city. It takes time to develop a taste for California. The climate and nature in this state are amazing: there’s so much vegetation here, everything is green, and the ocean is very close: you can get to it at any time, which is also relaxing. Los Angeles reminded me of a village at first: there are low, at most two to four-storey houses here. The buildings are very different from those in Moscow, with its high-rises and avenues. The density of construction here is much less than in Moscow. Almost every person has a small house and a personal plot of land; it doesn’t feel like you’re surrounded by a huge amount of people. There is more air and more freedom here. I live close to the ocean now, and I still haven’t had my fill of it.

2015-2016 was my first year at SCI-Arc. It’s a very expensive school: about $20,000 for one semester. That is why I took an academic leave. A student has up to three years to come back to the school without additional application procedures, and their spot will be saved there, waiting for him or her to return. An academic leave can be taken for any reason.

Now, I work at a small, local firm, doing applied work. Also, I explore California’s architecture. I’m interested in small-scale architecture: private houses and villas. So, SCI-Arc and what I’m working on now are not connected: this is an entirely different experience. This is how I try to keep my thinking flexible.

Text: Alexandra Sivtsova
Translation: Olga Baltsatu