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05.08.2014
Crit> Johnson Hall, Occidental College
Belzberg Architects reconfigures a historic building at a Los Angeles college.
Students lounge in front of The Global Forum interactive wall.
Iwan Baan

Selected to breathe new life into Johnson Hall, a historic building on the Occidental College campus in Eagle Rock, Belzberg Architects transformed the shell into a showcase for interactive education.

“As architects, we need to embrace new technologies to see how they work and give students the infrastructure to conduct their own experiments and select what is useful for them,” said principal Hagy Belzberg. It is a lesson he successfully applied in the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, where multilingual school groups use touch screens and digital technologies to become involved in an event that occurred 50 years before they were born. There, the building itself directs the narrative, pulling visitors into the earth and leading them through a dark, compressed chamber that abstracts the horror of the camps.

In contrast, the Occidental campus, master-planned by Myron Hunt a century ago, is the embodiment of serenity, a standing set for movies on college life. In their LA Guide, Gebhard and Winter describe it as “transplanted from New England, so orderly and understated is its style; a kind of regionalized Palladianism.” The exteriors are protected, but Brenda Levin has remodeled interiors in several of the 22 original buildings. Belzberg won a competition with his proposal, which went far beyond the client’s brief to open up a dark labyrinth of narrow corridors and cellular classrooms. He took his cues from the freewheeling agenda of the McKinnon Center for Global Affairs, which teaches its students to consider the world holistically, master different languages, and communicate their ideas effectively.

 
Johnson Hall’s brightly colored seating.
Benny Chan; Iwan Baan
 

“My idea was to create an immersive learning environment, carving out the center of the building to create a double-height hub for the students,” explained Belzberg. The inner face of this atrium, which is called the Global Forum, is a wall of micro-etched slump glass, laminated for projection. Ten embedded video screens are linked by wave-like slits, backlit with LEDs. Texts on a changing menu of topics appear on the screens and the wall responds with surges of colored light as though it were expressing the flow of ideas. There is a feeling that you are in the presence of a hidden intelligence, like the sentient ocean of Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris. This smart wall interacts with screens throughout the building and the texts can be downloaded.

The Global Forum is an electronic town square that puts individual opinions on public view for spontaneous discussion. A student committee curates the postings, taking responsibility for content and the mode of communication. Casual seating encourages their fellows to gather in the forum with laptops, as well as glance at the wall as they pass by. LED light slots are cut in a black drop ceiling that is draped around the structural beams as an overarching canopy. The Varelas Innovation Lab opens up to the forum through folding glass screens. It is equipped with multiple interactive media surfaces and screens that can be viewed from outside of the room.

 
LED light slits invigorate a hallway (right).
Benny Chan
 

Johnson Hall began life as a chapel, and classrooms were later wrapped around it. The central void was clumsily converted into a lecture theater in the 1970s, and the windows were boarded up to exclude natural light. Belzberg stripped these additions, revealing the windows and the painted roof beams of the chapel. He inserted a steeply raked bank of seating and lined the room with sharply angled acoustical baffles. Two glass-fronted study areas look down on the seating. Corridors on all four floors were widened and furnished to serve as informal social/discussion spaces that mediate between teaching and circulation. White wallboards allow students to write up ideas for discussion, much as teachers do in the classrooms, and those enclosed areas—formerly mono-directional—can now be easily reconfigured.

Here, in a traditional liberal arts college, we may glimpse the future of education, in which boundaries are dissolved and students are encouraged to teach themselves and share their ideas freely, as well as presenting them to teachers.

Michael Webb