LA’s SCI-Arc, which has shuffled faculty and locations throughout its history, likes to pride itself on its commitment to “a permanent state of change,” and it is definitely living up to that promise. As second semester classes begin this week the school officially has a new Undergraduate Chair, John Enright, a new Graduate Chair, Hernan Diaz Alonso, and a new post: Academic Affairs Director, which is being filled by Ming Fung, who had formerly served as the school’s Graduate Chair. In the meantime the school is undergoing several other changes: among these, it recently announced a new graduate program, it has a new COO, Jamie Bennett. as of this September, it’s working on a new robotics lab, and has other new facilities and projects in the works.
“If it’s not broken, fix it,” said school Director Eric Owen Moss, of the school’s approach. “We’re not self-satisfied; we know the discussion moves, and that new voices are needed to move it.”
The administrative changes, which were announced in the fall, but officially begin today, were precipitated by the move last summer of former undergraduate program chair Chris Genik, who left to become Dean of the NewSchool for Architecture + Design in San Diego. While finding a replacement, the school’s directors decided it was time to add the Academic Affairs position, a combination of dean and provost that Fung said would help lighten the administrative load for everybody; crucial at a school where administrators also teach.
“It just seemed to make sense to start our programs fresh,” said Fung. In essence the school, which espouses a balanced leadership, will now have four people leading it instead of three, said Fung.
“We’re using this opportunity to brainstorm ideas for the future,” said Diaz-Alonso, who, like his colleagues, seems pleased with the direction that SCI-Arc is headed (for instance the school recently ranked second in the Design and Computer Applications categories in Design Intelligence’s annual ratings), but the changes will shake things up for the future.
For Diaz Alonso, a principal at LA’s Xefirotarch and a professor at SCI-Arc, a major goal is to improve the school’s research and critical discourse.
“We need to try to understand the nature of architecture when the discipline is exposed to a high-speed level of change,” he said. He also wants to push the crossover between practice and the school. “It’s vital that the school not operate in a vacuum,” he said. “We don’t want to be an academic institution in a traditional sense.”
For Enright, a principal at Griffin Enright Architects, and a professor at SCI-Arc since the 1980’s (minus recent work as an Assistant Professor at USC) change means pushing the school’s focus on digital fabrication further, so that it better integrates with structural and environmental systems. He also hopes to better bridge the separation between fields of study.
“That’s the next challenge with education: how do we apply that three dimensional thinking which our students are so good at and apply it across disciplines for a more integrated and robust architecture?” said Enright.
As these changes move ahead the school is also settling into the second semester of its new Emerging Systems and Technology program (EST), a post-graduate program that emphasizes technologies like digital design, new fabrication methods (including robotic fabrication), and new material and building systems.
“We’re trying to figure out what it’s about. If it takes starting new programs then we want to do that,” explained Moss.
As part of that program, and for use by other departments, the school plans to open a new robotics lab (which Moss refers to as the “robot house”) and a robotics simulation room in the coming months. The institution has already received six of the robots, which will help automate fabrication, model-making and other processes. Thanks to a $300,000 in-kind gift from Staübli Robotics, SCI-Arc will become one of the first architecture programs in the country with such capabilities. The EST program is being headed by technology-savvy faculty like Tom Wiscombe, Peter Testa, Diaz Alonso, and others.
The school’s tech prowess is also evident in its entry in the US Solar Decathlon competition, which the US Department of Energy has sponsored to find a solar-powered house of the future. That design, which features a giant cantilever, imbedded solar panels, and several sustainable insulation techniques, will be on display at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. this October. Funding has included $100,000 from the Department of Energy and $100,000 from an anonymous donor.
“It’s a really exciting time to be here,” said Fung. “But the one thing we don’t want is complacency.”