[Archive] Occupying a redundant shopping mall, this new school in a poor part of LA is a positive, energizing presence.
First published in the AR in November 2002
Westlake is one of the most impoverished and densely populated parts of Los Angeles (145 persons per acre compared with an average city-wide rate of 14 persons per acre), with all the attendant social and welfare problems such conditions engender. In the face of state indifference and helplessness, initiatives often tend to come from the grass roots - the Pueblo Nuevo Community Group (founded by an Episcopalian priest in 1929) is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving the area’s physical and social circumstances. One of its most conspicuous successes is the Camino Nuevo Charter Academy, a new neighbourhood educational complex consisting of a recently completed elementary school with a proposed middle school and performing arts college both under construction.
Working with Pueblo Nuevo and the community, architects Daly Genik developed a masterplan to transform disparate parcels of land on a city block into a unified educational campus. The first phase, the elementary school, makes use of an existing redundant two-storey shopping mall. Built as a speculative venture, but overwhelmed by the effects of local poverty and crime, the mall was never operational, so the architects have had to be especially inventive in recasting a building with such negative connotations -a task compounded by the project’s relatively low budget ($1 .1 million). Yet although physical security is an unavoidable issue, the new school is far from fortress-like. The basic L-shaped plan was reconfigured to create 12 classrooms wrapped around a courtyard (formerly the mini mall’s parking lot).
At the east end, a new bathroom block is placed along the street edge to frame the school’s main entrance. Fashionably faceted like a piece of Cubist sculpture, its canted planes catch the light and announce the school’s presence. Small trees (there is little vegetation, let alone trees in this part of town) also suggest a different milieu.
The most striking move is a lattice-like screen that kinks and warps around an upper floor walkway (a relic of the original shopping mall) now enlarged to create a series of enclosed outdoor rooms and informal lounging areas. The horizontally slatted screen is over 8ft (2.4m) high, so it acts both as a sunscreen and security fence, preventing balls and other flying objects from damaging windows. Although it looks like timber, the lattice wall is in fact constructed from an ingenious composite of recycled substances including reclaimed plastics, sawdust and rice husks. Daly Genik researched and tested the material themselves, to fully assess its technical and design potential. Spacing between the slats varies, narrowing at low level to prevent climbing, but widening higher up to allow visual permeability. The smooth surface finish also resists paint and graffiti.
The warping of the planes is achieved by simply adjusting the bracket fixings without any other change to the slatted members apart from varying their lengths. The screen is emblematic of the building’s revitalized state, its horizontal slats casting changing shadows across the courtyard and the external walls, now brightly spruced up in cheerful, energizing hues of buttercup yellow and lemon stucco. As space is tight - an inherited condition from the original building - planning is rigorously economical to fit in as many classrooms as possible. Yet the upper walkway, with its outdoor rooms and spaces accessed by a ceremonial stair, suggests a civic dimension. The courtyard is also brought extensively into play as an assembly area, playground, cafeteria and multi-purpose space. A new concrete amphitheatre adds a further dimension.
The sequence of spaces, from public realm to the courtyard, through the outdoor rooms and finally into the classrooms helps to foster a sense of social interaction. Most of the school’s 260 students are children of immigrants who speak little English and move around Frequently, so the school seeks to ground and acclimatize them with an intensive English literacy programme conducted over a longer than average academic year. Despite a high turnover of puplis, Camino Nuevo has come to be seen as a positive, stabilizing presence in the neighbourhood, a presence underscored by the imaginative and transforming power of Daly Genik’s bold, economical architecture.
Camino Nuevo Charter Academy, Los Angeles, USA
Architect: Daly Genik Architects, Los Angeles
Project team: Kevin Daly, Chris Genik, Robert Edmonds, Scott Allen, Jared Ward, Alice Park
Structural engineer: William Koh & Associates
Services engineers: Retrofit Services, Briggs Electrical
Photographs: Tom Bonner (except no 2 by courtesy of the architects)