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The Margo Leavin Graduate Art Studios at UCLA Offer a Lesson in Pragmatism and Creativity

Johnston Marklee adapted existing warehouses in Culver City, Los Angeles into a compound of art studios, as well as production, exhibition, and open spaces.

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The UCLA Margo Leavin Graduate Art Studios have revitalized a 1948 warehouse building in Culver City, Los Angeles. Johnston Marklee, the architecture firm behind the adaptive-reuse project, unified the complex by using tilt-up concrete facade elements. Courtesy Iwan Baan/Johnston Marklee

Envision an institution dedicated to making art. It is not a museum, nor is it a gallery. These are the spaces where art meets a public or, more crassly, where art meets its market and is given value. Instead, think of a studio environment. Can that same environment also foster in pupils the canny balance between creativity and pragmatism required to break into the art world today?

Artist Catherine Opie offers a hopeful yes, pointing to the new art center at UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture, where she has taught since 1992. (She was named Lynda and Stewart Resnick Endowed Chair in Art this past December.) “Students are so incredibly vulnerable, and we live in a vulnerable time,” says Opie, whose work as a photographer often draws out the relationships between identity and place. They should feel that their studio building works for them, she adds.

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The nearly 48,000-square-foot campus, which comprises the existing warehouse and an extension to it, is punctuated with unconditioned open-air spaces including the entry court. Courtesy Iwan Baan/Johnston Marklee

For most of Opie’s tenure, nascent artists were housed off campus in a former wallpaper factory/warehouse in Culver City. Graduate art studios formed cramped warrens under wood bowstring trusses: hot in the summer, cold in the winter. Students complained about pigeons in the rafters.

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That all changed last fall, when a cohort of 40 graduate art students moved into the retrofitted warehouse building—now expanded into the UCLA Margo Leavin Graduate Art Studios by the Los Angeles architecture firm Johnston Marklee. Principals Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee gutted the old warehouse and introduced new studio clusters inside. They then wrapped a thick layer of programmatic volumes—production, exhibition, and social spaces—around the perimeter of the existing structure to form a 48,000-square-foot campus. With an eye toward overall formal unity, they fashioned a pillowy concrete facade from tilt-up panels with a two-foot-wide custom formwork; it gently shields the budding artists from the outside world.

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The so-called center bay is used for teaching, gathering, and critiques, as well as an exhibition space. Courtesy Iwan Baan/Johnston Marklee

Named for renowned L.A. gallerist Margo Leavin, the building embraces the larger urban fabric and cultural infrastructure of the city, in particular its immediate environs of Culver City. While the neighbor – hood’s Hayden Tract is best known to architects as the testing ground for Eric Owen Moss’s tectonic experiments—poetic follies rendered in concrete and steel—the area has a longer history as a sleepy back lot for studio production and light industry, and that legacy makes its way into the design.

There are three “yards” within the building envelope. “Yards” is Johnston’s term; the language seems to refer more to the industrial past of the neighborhood and the kinds of specific labor that would take place behind tall steel and chain-link fences. These spaces include a loading dock, a sculpture studio, and a garden space planted with acacia trees and are, moreover, essentially outside. Leaving these key spaces unconditioned allowed the architects to increase the building’s square footage without adding to the HVAC load, a strategy that set the project on the path towards LEED Gold certification. Studio clusters and yards together are all open-air, screened with small-gauge chain link, and topped by arched Douglas fir glulam beams and polycarbonate roofing.

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Interior “streets” run up and down the building, lined on either side by 42 individual studios (and their overfill). Architect Sharon Johnston describes the scene as a “mini city.”Courtesy Iwan Baan/Johnston Marklee

Designers often romanticize the act of making art, offering expanses of white wall to the muses of their sister discipline. Needless to say, Johnston and Lee disagreed with this approach. “We were especially conscious of what it takes to produce the work,” Johnston says. Although there’s a white box at the heart of the design—the center bay used for teaching, gathering, and less formal exhibition— there’s a surprising lack of arty pretense. (A dedicated gallery is one of the new additions.) Function performs as a kind of aesthetic: concrete floors, snakes of electrical conduit, bundles of network wiring, and a steel seismic diaphragm (needed to reinforce the old bow trusses).

“The best thing about the building is that it celebrates a rigorous relationship to mentoring and it is very individual-based critique,” says Opie. Studios, all 150 to 250 square feet, are arranged in clusters (cul-de-sacs, Johnston calls them) and connected by wide corridors equipped with storage bays for each student. There are no lids on the studios, a move intended to foster community. Students share sounds, breezes, and sunshine from the skylights. In public areas, white finished drywall stops at eight feet, exposing a ribbon of studs and plywood.

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The studios are essentially blank, allowing them to be used by students of any of the school’s six specializations, which range from painting and photography to ceramics and sculpture. All of the spaces are open to the preexisting rafters and the new glulam beams, steel trusses, and lighting, among other elements of the ceiling assemblage. Courtesy Iwan Baan/Johnston Marklee

One semester in, the design choices have begun to add up to something verging on messy, certainly informal, and definitely a departure from the pristine elegance of, say, Johnston Marklee’s Menil Drawing Institute in Houston. “I’ve always thought that good architecture has a generosity to it,” says Johnston as she leads me around the studios on a day over the Christmas break. Artwork and materials are everywhere, and one grad student, apparently annoyed to be given a studio space named for David Hockney, has Sharpie’d pointed commentary over the signage.

Johnston gives a bemused shrug. The artists are working the architecture to suit their own needs

She views the project as a case study in flexibility: a probable future of use—or misuse—of the design as opposed to obsolescence. “We’re interested in how the students will use the space in expected and unexpected ways,” she says. “The building isn’t preserved in amber.”

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