March 1, 2011
A scrappy little organization in downtown Los Angeles provides an alternative path into top architecture schools.
The students at the little-known Los Angeles Institute of Architecture and Design tend to have interesting backgrounds. They’ve included a professional boxer, an ordained rabbi, and, occasionally, recent immigrants. “There was a Korean girl who hardly spoke any English,” recalls William Taylor, who founded the LAIAD with the late architect Bernard Zimmerman in 2001. “In the fifth week of class, she came in with a beat-up brown-paper bag, put it on the table, and pulled out the most astonishing model. The whole room just stopped and stared. But she would never have lasted a week at SCI-Arc.”
For a decade now, Taylor, a practicing architect, has been quietly running an affirmative-action program for architecture. The profession has struggled with its white-male legacy. Among licensed architects who are American Institute of Architects members, only 1 percent are African-American, 5 percent are Asian, and 3 percent are Hispanic. (The AIA has set a goal to match its membership with U.S. demographics by 2020, when the country is expected to be 14 percent African-American, 6 percent Asian, and 16 percent Hispanic.) By contrast, about half of LAIAD’s student body is women, and half is an ethnic minority.
But Taylor didn’t set out to improve ethnicity or gender representation in the profession. His interest was simply broadening access to a design education. Back in 2000, Taylor was teaching at Cal Poly Pomona, which offers a highly ranked undergraduate architecture program. Seeing how far demand outstripped the supply—1,200 applicants for 100 slots—he began mulling over a new architecture school, one that would educate those who didn’t quite have the grades to get into a public school or the money to go to a private school. His original concept was of a street-savvy two-year program, leading to a mentorship at a firm (in California, architects do not need a degree in architecture to become licensed). Taylor found, however, that students were more interested in transferring into an accredited undergraduate program or getting into a graduate program.
In its inaugural year, LAIAD had one student who would meet with Taylor at a coffee shop to go over course work. These days, 40 students attend twice-weekly studios at night, in a small suite within a generic office building on Wilshire Boulevard. Most hold day jobs, as do all six faculty. From the start, the school has admitted just about everyone who applied. The tuition is comparable to a state university like Cal Poly (one semester currently costs $3,200), but tiny class sizes mean lots of individual attention. The program trains students to develop an underlying logic for their designs as well as the drawing and modeling skills to flesh them out. “What we do best is help people build a portfolio, which is the great equalizer,” says Carl Smith, the school’s codirector and a former student of Taylor’s.
The school now sees its students regularly entering some of the top design programs in the country, including Harvard, Yale, SCI-Arc, and UCLA. About 200 people have gone through LAIAD; half took the two-year undergraduate program, and the rest the one-year graduate-prep program. Ninety percent of the undergraduates were able to transfer elsewhere (often entering as second- or third-year students), while all of its grad-school aspirants have been successful in finding a spot.
“We need to increase diversity in the profession, and since it’s really difficult to get into architecture school in the first place, we’re tackling that problem,” Taylor says. “The students who are attracted to our approach are extremely self-motivated, and we’re helping them get into the better schools. It’s a miracle what you can do with a small group, lots of face time, and no bureaucracy.”