Southern California Institute of Fashion

Studio project at The Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc), instructor Heather Flood, 2014


SCI-Fa (The Southern California Institute of Fashion) is an exploration in programmatic and formal ambiguity of space. This formal production applies a logic of transformational conics in order to eschew primitive geometries to the ends of producing simultaneities of program and formal ramifications of space which suppose an entirely unconventional architecture both outwardly experiential and esoteric to the medium of Architecture.

Thoughts on the Program for an Institute of Fashion

As briefed, SCI-Fa longs to be a sweatshop of production value, stuffed mostly with compartments accessed indirectly from distant corners of a primarily medium-space-filled building shrouded in privacy. Clearly, sheer adherence to the provided programmatic distributions will be ineffectual in procuring unique intersections of space and constituencies.

Particularly of interest, given the diverse site and nearby orgy of demographics, it seems strange that an educational institution would allot spaces overwhelmingly geared towards production, nearly altogether forgoing more traditional roles of education. It is clear that the prerogative of the institution is not situated within the momentary incidents of academia, but rather centered on the necessitated production of fashion materials and the like. The facility is effectively established on the grounds of its own labor, the individual meaningless and the collective but a mere tool in this aesthetic machinery. What becomes ironic about such institutions, generally speaking, seems to be their often reclusive nature, as if to boast solely within granted circles their accomplishments of material and craft. Why shouldn’t such a factory be in your face? What withholds an institution like SCI-Fa to the state of secondary or tertiary status in a vibrancy to the likes of Downtown Los Angeles?

Animation showing the gradual flow of spaces from the urbanity of the street to the institutional spaces at the building's upper levels; conic geometries and carefully calibrated public spaces negotiate one's progression from the sprawl of Los Angeles to the focused production facilities of a school of fashion

Thus, the institution’s interactions with the public sphere, both theatrical and revealing in nature, are of the utmost importance for demonstrative value in its architecture. Its architecture should read: this is not a place of observation, rather a directly confrontational experiment of empirical phenomenology. Melding perfectly with the clear delineation of “middle spaces” (those medium-sized areas of interstitial importance, the organization of the program outlined in the project’s brief ought to engage and to stimulate the barrier between the public and the institution (the exo and the eso, that is to say) both from outside-in and within-out.

Unrolled pattern drawings are endemic to both architecture and fashion, facsimiles of buildings or garments that not only instruct the production of an item or edifice but engrain in themselves a testimony to the geometric principles at play

Also inherent to this observation is the unique structure of power invested elsewhere in the provided spaces. Of noteworthiness is the second largest allocation of area, divided between the building’s facilities and the institution’s administration. This combined mass is still to be deemed more spatially important in the reading of the brief’s interpreted agendas than straightforward instruction, vested half-heartedly in fleeting seminar rooms and secluded studio plots. Thus, a hierarchical relationship is established wherein a metaphorically panoptic distribution of importance oversees the highly controlled (and thus only secondarily conditioned) spaces of traditional “education”. Again, the powerhouse of production overtakes this positioning, as if to engage a mutated beast, the purpose of which borders between the refinements procured by a disciplined body of pupils below an overseeing administrative caste and the let-wild machinery of production.

How might this architecture, and in particular its programmatic distributions and spatial accordances, enable this loosely defined pedagogy to foster in a method conducive to the interaction between this subculture and a larger context (Los Angeles, herself). In so doing, spaces otherwise perceived as afterthoughts or prerequisites might take prominence in facilitating such interactions. Id est, the institution’s shop or auditorium might be recast as crucial political arenas throughout which a diagrammatic goal of integration and discourse carries itself out, both captive and parasitic to the institutional framework which has spawned.

Thoughts on Institution

The strange thing about polemic intuitions, once realized in architecture as built things, seems to be their resistance towards syndication in their perspective environments. That is to say, it prevails that the integration of the institution is perceived as counterintuitive to its core radicalism, which, quite paradoxically, it seeks to interject into a larger context. Thus, it is as if a cognitive membrane of glass exists to separate an institution from its surroundings. Whatever the purpose of that institution might be, it might appear that this disconnection has severed critically unexploited links which could foster between those exo- and those eso- to these alternative definitions of otherwise complacent notions so intrinsic to an avant-garde practice.

The result of these tendencies manifests itself several perplexingly convoluted circumstances:

Truly innovative approaches to the practices respective to these institutions are rendered temporarily null in their eras. Appreciation is acquired ex post facto as a kind of post-rationalization by the larger community. While the immediacy of the avant-garde does in fact leave beneficial scars on the functions of whichever discipline in question, it rarely becomes acknowledged by the greater society until it is either extinct or festering on its deathbed. What might occur if leading thinkers in avant-garde practices were to engage society? Obviously, this cannot be enforced in any authoritarian manner onto personal agendas, but, instead, architecture may offer us a method by which to shift the performances both of such practices and prospective members of societal constituencies to the ends that their brief scraping one another would produce magnificent intersections.
The actualized objectives of these institutions suffer such significantly lengthened realizations within a culture that neither their creators nor their intended audiences are able to partake in the spoils of progression. Thus, Ikea is the effectual gravestone of a once beloved Bauhaus. Beleaguered bachelors and strapped students alike were punished by history to endure a semicentury before innovative spatializations of Modernist design reached their grasps within reason. Of course among other circumstances, part of this is must be attributed to stagnant time and prolonged distancing between innovators and their audiences. Obviously, many factors contribute to this snail-paced progression, and few of these can be addressed by architecture. Still, the spatial division between those pushing forward the intensification of culture and their constituencies as manifest by architecture can be reduced not only to a negligible level but perhaps can even be promoted and appropriated.
Both those within and outside institutions seem to be completely ignorant of each other’s existence or importance. While some have posted this as both an inherent elitism of the avant-garde and an ignorance of the masses, it is the distinct hypothesis that in at least some circumstances a purely architectural inefficiency may be of responsibility to the symptom. How might it be if these two groups were to be compressed within one atmosphere? Their entanglement, rendered as the dissolution of divisitory space could, in effect, render each obsolete by mutual ingestion. An enlightened citizenry could engulf the ostracized radicals just as these societal separatists might return to a world forever changed by their esoteric contemplations.

Unfortunately, architecture to this point has to these ends remained rather unhelpful. Bauhaus became a household name only long after its dissipation, The Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies evades the common New Yorker (a being so thirsty for unsettlement) to this day, and SCI-Arc remains unbeknownst even to those living beside it, to name a few situations inherent to the discipline of architecture. These circumstances must implode, rendering in their wake the complete disruption of previously held ideals about the agency and impotence of the avant-garde. Though largely untested, the results or perspective failure of such an action is far too great a possibility of which to continue a distasteful avoidance.

Fashion, by contrast, has an inherently representational agenda, a trait too often ignored by both those within and outside the field. Such a facet of its dichotomy parallels conditions of architecture.

To expose through serendipity these dichotomies is to critically engage fashion and architecture alike as fascinations of contemporary culture through material manifestations. Alphabetical organizations arbitrate these juxtapositions, establishing at times new comparisons and at others reinforcing existing understandings.

Dior’s New Look vs. Audrey Hepburn
Twiggy vs. Tinker v. Des Moines
Punks vs. Corporate Businessmen
1950’s Housewife vs. Bra-Burning
Julius Schulman’s Case Study #22 Photographs vs. Skid Row’s Necessitations
James Dean vs. Drag Queens at Stonewall
Jacqueline Kennedy Idealic vs. Jacqueline Kennedy Mourning
Bridget Bardot vs. Pamela Anderson
Haute Couture vs. Everday
Marilyn Monroe vs. Herself
Woodstock vs. Army
Tribe (via Leni Riefenstahl) Fashion vs. Western Fashion
Authoritarian Uniformity vs. Rejective Individuality (Nuremburg vs. Punks)

Likewise, a few pertinent quotes:

“I just use fashion… to talk about politics.” – Vivienne Westwood.”
Give me time, and I’ll give you a revolution.” – Alexander McQueen
“I don’t want art for a few…” – William Morris
“Fashion is not just about trends. It’s about political history.” – Daphne Guinness
“Clothes are but a symbol of something hid deep beneath.” – Virginia Woolf

Various degrees of blurring in the text which graphically clads the envelope in the form of fritted glass provide a great diversity of lighting conditions onto the interior and add intentional ambiguity to the reading of the messages scrolled across the building's façades

Fuck, the Spline

This design is arrived to by the effective bending of space. Whereas typically Cartesian geometries preclude the three-dimensional transformation of their domains, the action of being has been employed to the ends of creating a space of pulled and distorted proportions. Still, it remains ever valiant that those within this capsule are cognizant of their surroundings. The ghosts of a Cartesian past are pervasive throughout both interior and exterior moments across the scheme. Such is the overarching use of the grid, a persistent reference which begs those within its grasp to read the transformative logic of its application. This is achieved through a conic/circular dimension which is contraposed to the otherwise orthogonal reliance of the building.

Of particular interest is the emergence of complex spatial relationships with a series of typical geometries. We have become so complacent with our technological surfaces and morphologies that we often forget the nascent abilities of primitive geometries. While a spline can only engage the fairly recent discourse of form through a reference to complexity and surface, the culmination of primitive geometries which we set our eyes so often upon in buildings throughout the history of architecture prove their capacity to more effectively attain contemporary discourses.

Passing through these spaces, an inhabitant of the environment is placed in constant relation both to themselves and to their piers. Ipso facto, a dialogue of perceptions is established. Vantages provided by the undulations in the stairs’ trajectories or the interior’s bends, among other things, present new perspectives onto inhabitation through an abstraction of the borders of program. The visual and the spatial intertwine to procure a sort of blurred reality in which the user is to heighten an engagement of the architecture through the conscious intensification or nullification of the senses.

Auditory and visual references are eschewed at unexpected points, allotting a experience utterly reliant upon the recognition of the subject to his implications within it. It is his, her or their acknowledgement of their experience which validates this space. Never does the building become obtrusive, as it works at deep levels to relay in each breath agency to the spectator. The aforementioned Cartesian systems, juxtapositions between complex and primitive geometries and decisive choices in placements of irregular spaces allow a fluid existence of space wherein references against what the typical user is accustomed to offer opportunities for defamiliarization.

The Fourth Wall as Societal Device

The Fourth Wall is a term pertaining to the theory of theater, constituting not in material but in perception the final enclosing “wall” of a stage set which metaphysically divides the performances occurring with the audience spectating. In more traditional roles, this division is not to be engaged. The theater-goers sit before their spectacle in complete compliance, idly engrossing themselves in only the representation of an event. This has come under considerable challenge in more contemporary works, whereby the wall itself is rendered variously null, enabling the fluid interaction between audience and actor. Not always with consequence to the reiterated production before them, this at the purest state encapsulates a constituent engagement with results dramatic in their repurcisions for understanding and experience alike.

It seems that much of contemporary life, no less of that in a city, rests behind a fourth wall. Especially in regards to architecture, much is left behind our grasp, a mere representation of intentions and actions. Our persistence (and, thus, reliance) in the Fourth Wall is unequivocal to all else. We cling to its protection from the realities, effectively amounting to a schism between our sensorial contact with the world itself sui generis and its ramifications towards our lives.

Thus, it appears, much of the institutional and societal frameworks we have established seek to sustain this buffer between the rawness of contemporary existence and the comfort prerequisite to a sustainable life. We wretch in fear as these boundaries crumble in rare occasions. Take, for example, a crash of an airliner. We look to this object as a whole, a sort of container for people – passengers. Few engage this as a mechanized system, instead relying wholly on the perception of its geometric essence as one body. In the event of a crash, we are often times presented with a failure of the object to sustain the singular form we expect of it. We see its entrails spew about as if to signify before us that our creation has failed. Once the skin of the beast is lifted from its framing, we find ourselves disgusted by the estrangement pronounced. An assemblage of heterogeneous parts, it repels our notions of truth and verity to see the actuality that is the machine, a loosely composed set of bolts and panels.

Rendering, highly articulated void at the center of the building expressing the various geometries at play, visible by the public from the street level as well as by students from an outdoor terrace, visible at the lower right

We might look at the Lockerbie bombing, in a brief detour, to illustrate this point. After the bombing of Pan American Flight 103 over the small Scottish village, a media extravaganza presented the populace with a face-to-face depiction of tragedy. In regards to airline travel, the fourth wall, in its division of the passenger from the ramifications of both political wills related to the subject and the delicate structural systems of a Boeing 747 during flight, was utterly decimated. Surreal images of a ruined cockpit strewn about a bucolic field in the rural enclave, especially with the cause of the crash taken into consideration, irrevocably altered the relationship between the passenger and the machine. To see an image of the jetliner before the crash is to reengage the territorialized notions we had attained in the immediate foreground to the disaster. These are forever shattered by the presentation of images after the matter, and it may be said that we can never truly gaze onto the condition of the object before the event without irresistibly allowing our minds to venture onto the tragedy of which we have been informed by the reciprocal interchange of information they share.

That, of course, was an example with rather morbid associations. Rather, the Fourth Wall might function in society in a strata of roles and circumstances. Critically speaking, its existence buffers the life of the individual from the myriad of complications presented by the outside world. The theatergoer, in this function, is in many instances in need of the division between the representational aspects of the performance and the perception occurring in his or her psyche. When this is removed, a new relationship is transfigured by the space between the stage and the seating. Obvious ramifications of grand importance rest in the presence or avoidance of this tactic within theatrical theory.

In most other circumstances, the Fourth Wall’s persistence causes riffs in the understandings between constituencies of society. Specifically to a political end, these allot for much of the estrangement we face in a Postindustrial legacy. Our clothing, furniture, our buildings and any other manufactured good rest firmly behind a differentiation of metaphysical separation. Often, it seems, the dilution of this barrier results in consequences either disturbing or disruptive.

Conceptual diagrams laying out the various hierarchies of circulation present throughout the building which negotiate between the dichotomies inherent to this variety of institutional setting such as concept and production or commerce and academia

The Fourth Wall in Architecture

In the case of architecture, its function inherent as a container of program, constituencies and functions thereof bounds the capacity of most structures to the roles of uniform boxes. Even with formal experimentation, the Fourth Wall is hard broken even by the most radical of strategies. A cliché has thus formed around the solution to this problem, centered around a knee-jerk reaction of complete spatial implosion. It is rather ineffectual in many circumstances to demolish all walls. Instead, a myriad of other spatial strategies and media can be uptaken in the progression towards integrated space.

Particularly in the sense of institutional architecture, it seems pervasive that a Fourth Wall exists between those exo- and esoteric to the organization. This division is perhaps most often manifest in the form of a wall, but otherwise its forms can be seen in various architectural tropes.

Recently, much has been made in the real of connecting those outside the institution to those within, but, under closer examination, it is possible to deduce that these relationships are superficial at best. Furthermore, they often involve the interplay of constituencies in a linear manner. That is to say, either those from within experience those outside or vise versa, but rarely does the situation present itself that a complete orgy of interaction occurs. Such an event might be labeled preemptively as counterproductive to the ends of an institution, but it can also be interpreted that the explicit function of such an organization is to create this kind of interaction. Thus, it effectively avoids the trope of being cut off from the outside world.

Especially in the case of a fashion school, it is integral that those inside experientially partake in the interactions of those outside, and that, conversely, those outside are changed fundamentally in their perspective by those within. Obviously, this cannot be predicted to the point that one consequence is available. In some cases, the events might even end poorly by a traditional sense of success. Events such as the flood of homeless into the Seattle Public Library come to mind, but are these really that bad?

Often, the case is that our realities are highly curated by our statuses within the complex structures of society. This predetermined interaction establishes a narrow framework that functions quite actively to remain fairly static. Within this, a backlogged cycle seems to have occurred by many accounts in which those who have climbed the ranks resist the ascension of contemporaries below. Without the necessity to explicate this in further detail, it is clear that its ranks pertain to those of the fashion industry in particular.

Therefore, with a site as ontologically compromised in such a diverse fashion as that at the corner of Olympic and Main, it is paramount to the success of any institution there that architecture arbitrate the contemporaneously choreographed and unimpaired interaction among the subsets of society. Even within the institution, an obvious hierarchy is bound to form. This has, in other cases, been the demise of a truly radical establishment, a fermented sign of complacency and presumption. In a place like Los Angeles, who can ever say what is above or below anything else? The hierarchies otherwise established the guard the ramparts of our social structures have utterly fallen within this city, at least as far as explicated by the physical world.

A Mechanized Pool for Fashion

In Koolhaas’ “The Story of the Pool”, we find a derelict avant-garde, cast from its disconcerting motherland adrift to a Land whose image exceeds its own reality. Inasmuch as this transformation is through the foreseeable future tangential to other mass emigrations from Europe during its time of diaspora to the New World, its architectural foundations lie in the mechanization of this metamorphosis (or rather, in the Constructivist Pool’s case, stasis) facilitated by the pool and its human literalism. This is to say that both the pool and its swimmers are mutually ineffectual. Likewise, the arrival of an institution for high fashion in Downtown Los Angeles might produce a series of programmatic interactions unexpected and both repulsive yet productive for each party involved.

We see in the migration a radicalism inherent to the world of fashion as removed from the social realities and economic contemporaneity as were the Constructivists in the fledgling Soviet Union. This Constituency, encapsulated within the object of their institution, are to arrive into the greatest dichotomy of metropolitan America, a slice of urbanity in an otherwise suburban wasteland, a riffing drag of Congestion between the weavings of a bucolic superficiality. What it once knew, the welcome of Paris or the citadel of New York, are sure to be demolished. Realistically speaking, DTLA is unlikely to integrate well a conventional (or complacent) ideal of the interaction between the typical institution of haute couture and its constituencies, be they financial, creative or laborious.

It is in this rejection of the conventional that SCI-Fa must sustain itself, and, in this essence, its architecture might manifest itself into a spatial sequence which seeks to dynamically displace all those involved.

Axonometric diagram, production spiral, organized in a linear fashion from studio spaces at top (for conceptual development) down through areas for sewing and fitting, ultimately leading to the school's exhibition spaces located closest to the public streetside at ground level

Los Angeles, or Shock

Los Angeles presents before us a temporal disconnect between the subject and his object to the ends that our perception of reality is inexorably estranged from any frame of reference. A transient landscape crumples beneath our feet the erudition of all certainty and conclusion, a waypoint in the quest towards an impermanent state of urban liquidity.

This blurred urbanity serves to free us from the choking complacency otherwise ridden across our lives. In effect, such a complete ostracization from the typical is achieved through the eradication of the normative perspective. Like the films so famously composed by Hollywood, Los Angeles has effectively become a compiled set of shots. As we pass across the city, this ludicrous reversal of roles flips the stale humanism so pervasive in other places. The continuity of the human eye having been substituted by something more akin to an induced epileptic shock, we discover a place constituted by misfit puzzle pieces or a whole from mutilated parts – specificity by complete unspecification. Primarily, this tactic explicates itself through the juxtaposition of Angeleno constituencies in a manner completely unique from any other form of urban composition. It is by the very fact that boutiques and homeless exist within meters of one another that we begin to lust the irrationality of LA.

Cut-away section perspective, production spiral on the building's North wing (located away from the auditory distractions of Main Street) where students can access the machinery and fabric libraries necessary to create their garments

Whereas other cities have with both the utmost complacency and unwise joviality taken for granted their definitions, we experience a city who refutes the very existence of a trope. That is to say, no one part is allotted the subsistence required to compel a singular reading. A mish-mashed tangle of parts reads before us, Spectators, a string of non sequitur arguments against rationality. By doing this, we ourselves are in effect empowered as the actors in this deranged production. Both at once those on the stage and those before it, we foremost see performed a surreal entanglement of human wills and urban serendipities. The mere existence of the Fourth Wall is inconsequent at a theater where one can say with neither certainty nor authority who is the actor and who the witness.

Model photographs, study model detailing the interior circulatory spaces and main public areas

Where do we stand within this irreconcilable interplay of constituencies? Without much remorse, Los Angeles has fatefully removed the linear narrative to this problem of perception, founding superordinate to its imposition a world of theatrical transitions. Inasmuch as this approach foregoes the prescription of a generic definition for the city, it enables an infinite possibility of existences to propagate. This is the exponentially confusing LA we must learn to foster, a rampant urbanity which preemptively eludes all the numbed complacency of quotidian life.

Escape is Futile: LA Live™

As DTLA gentrifies, the oppressive invasion of new commerce can be felt weighing on nearly every square inch of the otherwise pure ground. Although some reluctance comes at labeling it either good or evil, it can certainly be said that one of the most imminent factors in the experiential forces involved within this change can be felt in the Fashion District, where the constant presence of LA Live seems to clutter the air with a thickened sense of disdain.

As if constantly within reminder, the flicker of this phallic monument to consumption can be seen at the most unexpected times, glimmering between the buildings at the most advantageous moments in Los Angeles’ gridded wasteland of urbanity. One cannot help but to feel as if he has been observed, judged and subsequently overtaken by the sheer theatricality with which LA Live perches itself in the neighborhood. Allies and street corners which would in any other situation be of the most mundane nature become battlegrounds for a display of purely hierarchical glory on the part of the Ritz Carlton.

This seems to be the unfortunate partition of gentrification reserved for the most putrid corner of the New Downtown, a gleaming symbol of both equal parts commercialism and façadism. As aforementioned, it cannot be purely ironic bathos that the building most resembles perhaps the most contentious piece of male anatomy, long accused itself of having imposed its presence in various places unwelcome.

Model photographs, many study models honed the overall character, formal prerogatives and potential resultant architectural qualities for the building's initial massing

It feels very much as if this development, wallpapered by glitz of Coca-Cola, has become an urban Bastille, forever the ultimate representation of the rampantly overt capitalization of the distraught American urbanism. As is such, it can be proposed that the citizens of Los Angeles gather and ‘brick by brick’ (or sheet of glass by sheet of glass, in any case) disassemble this oppressive symbol of architectural subordination.

After all, the destruction of the Bastille, it being important to note that a mere seven prisoners were freed in its liberation, is inherently an architectural spectacle by the people of a begrudgingly and long-accepted hierarchy. In many ways, architecture can come to represent something, irrespective of the wills of architect, client or community. This brings the only acceptable conclusion: LA Live is a parasitic imposition by larger commercial initiates which effectively renders itself an enemy of the urban subset of Our Los Angeles.

What can be done to cure such an ailment? Perhaps, the best action (having accepted the futile nature of any plan to dismantle the complex democratically) is to counter it with better architecture. If we come to the logical conclusion about the project’s representational consequences, then it stands by inverse logic that other architecture could work to reverse its effects. What, in the place of LA Live could help to impose a better urbanity on DTLA? Could, in fact, there be such a scenario as Architecture and Revolution?

Beginnings and Ends in Architecture

Contemporary architecture seems to have a complete fetishism with a dissolution between interior and exterior. Ambiguous spaces abound, and those currently at the helm seem pervasively to recommend such gradients. This is well within reason, but is there no value left to the dramatic juxtaposition between that which is inside and that which is outside?

Perhaps, a most successful architecture might take on an interplay between these states. Humanistically speaking, the phenomenological experience ascertained from such an endeavor might produce effects which would make those involved even more cognisant of their positions within the power of architecture. For example, when someone enters a building, they are subconsciously subscribing to a world. This goes to conclude that they are actively partaking in an experience which exists both external to and integrated within an extant reality. Their actions taken within such a space would, by logical consequence, have then to both establish and contest their relationship to the prior reality. At beast, this metamorphosis of the individual might produce an entirely novel perception of what once was and what might be. Reality is by the best accounts such a fluid experience, so haphazardly shaped by the mundane complacencies and parameters of our lives.

An architecture must grasp this, presenting us with both versions: that which directly confronts us with reality by way of total estrangement (“there is outside, here is inside”) and something more fluid (“Where am I? Where are We”?).

This can become particularly troubling when faced with such a heterogeneous environment as Los Angeles. What is the agency of a both a juxtaposition and an integration in a landscape where nothing really exists? That is to say, everything in LA is in a state of complete disarray. Though the condition aforementioned is no catastrophic persistence, necessarily, it causes an interesting predicament when it comes to the flow of space.

To break from a city’s fabric, there has to be an established order against which first to work. The Guggenheim defies the gridded logic of orthogonal Manhattan for a more organic presentation of reality. Likewise yet opposite, many works of contemporary Parametricism purport completely to become extensions of realities already extant, deeply tied to both cultural and logical states of coherence to the ends that the building almost vanishes.

[We] are LA

Los Angeles holds a monopoly on the infinitely variable situations of humankind. Woven into its fate-set tapestry is a simple mechanism which denies the possible creation of new scenarios. Blankly put, nothing new can emerge. Every variable has been fulfilled; every possible interaction has already been satisfied. We are therefore bound to an endless encore, a chain of repeat performances to the ends only that the monster prevails. The actors are unimportant, minor expendables under the shade of the theatricality.