Art breaks the rules” is an idea Pomona College’s art faculty hoped its new building would convey, recalls department chair Michael O’Malley. In that spirit, Studio Art Hall—completed by wHY in late 2014—departs strikingly from the Spanish Mission architecture around it. Unlike the stuccoed, terracotta-roof-tiled buildings with which architect Myron Hunt shaped this Claremont, California, campus in the early 20th century, the new facility is sculpturally exuberant. Its long, extroverted front stair draws you in under a broad, gestural roof that hovers over a cluster of indoor and outdoor art and gathering spaces.
Rising to that undulant canopy, the 35,000-square-foot structure stands along the fringes of an academic quad, replacing a parking lot. It’s a maverick building that might appear foreign within this traditional setting, except that it engages the context in other ways—with a roofline echoing the San Gabriel Mountains behind, and with a semi-open, pavilion-like form that extends a cross-campus route up its front steps and inside. “There was a strong desire—a vision from both the college president and art faculty,” says Kulapat Yantrasast, wHY’s founding partner and creative director, “for a place not just for art students, but welcoming for everyone.”
While Pomona’s alumni roster includes such stellar artists as James Turrell and Chris Burden (both 1960s graduates), the school’s emphasis on mainstream academics has overshadowed the arts in recent decades. But with this project, the administration aimed to redress that imbalance. “After feeling marginalized,” says O’Malley, whose department collaborated with wHY throughout the project, “we needed a building that would announce the arts as an important field. This called for a symbolic presence, embodying imagination, creativity—and even art’s badass rebellious side.”
For them, it was also critical to overcome the previous art facility’s shortcomings. Compartmentalized and old-fashioned, it created divisions between such disciplines as painting and sculpture. “It didn’t reflect or accommodate contemporary practice,” recalls O’Malley—“not in its scale, not in its technologies, and not in its limited potential for cross-pollination.”
Embracing the mild climate, the architects proposed a “village,” interweaving two stories of open and closed spaces under one roof. A collection of discrete volumes, it brings together studios for sculpture, wood- and metalworking, ceramics, drawing, painting, photography, and digital experimentation, as well as a small gallery, visiting artists’ quarters, and several intentionally unprogrammed areas. Art-making and circulation spill outdoors. “Letting people work inside and out was important,” says Yantrasast. “Also, the building couldn’t be precious—it needed to be more like a laboratory or kitchen, functional and able to take real hacking.”
In relaxing barriers, his team drew on its own trans-disciplinary experience. Yantrasast—a Thai-born former associate of Tadao Ando—started wHY in Culver City, California, in 2004, fusing architectural practice with “idea-based” research and landscape, furniture, and industrial design. And, like creative studios across Los Angeles, the firm occupies semi-industrial space beneath a dramatic timber bowstring truss—an inspiration for Studio Art Hall.
Though the Pomona roof’s exposed underside—incorporating structural-steel framework—is not a bowstring per se, its powerful overarching form and integration of raw lumber evoke that precedent, allowing for soaring ceilings and long spans that accommodate large-scale work and the machinery—such as CNC milling equipment and 3-D printers—that help produce it. Light scoops overhead, clerestories, and walls of predominantly north-facing glass provide even illumination. This extensive glazing—playing against exterior cladding of coarse-aggregate stucco and, in places, cast concrete—also offers inspiration, Yantrasast points out, letting “everyone, even people wandering across campus, see what’s going on.”
Near the roof’s center, a huge leaf-shaped cutout—an allusion to Claremont’s orange-growing history—brings daylight deep inside, where wHY’s courtyard landscaping allows a natural process to creep into the paving. This oculus is most successful from out front, where it lends the stair the sensation of an ascent to the sky. From other angles, though, it gives the roof a more unwieldy appearance. (Recently, an anonymous student intervention modulated the gap using a tiny, colorful canopy to span its center.)
The building, with its expressive forms and muted earth tones, straddles a fine line between bold and quiet. Fulfilling the mission to shape an unmistakable art-department identity, it’s hardly demure. Still, “We wanted to provide a stage for what goes on here, not upstage it,” Yantrasast says. In some areas, that stage, or “blank canvas,” however, can appear bland or stiff, notably where stucco borders common areas. (Here, value engineering undercut a design that called for a collage of different stucco tones and textures, side by side.)
Nevertheless, Studio Art Hall is alive with student energy, punctuated by colorful skateboards casually parked outside every classroom. “This place is already doing way more than we expected,” says O’Malley. “It’s a magnet. Enrollment is now high, with students gravitating to the arts. Almost instantly, they formed collectives here, doing their own shows, installations, and film screenings. That didn’t happen before. This is their place, their world. They get it.”
Size: 35,000 square feet
Completion Date: October 2014
9520 Jefferson Blvd., Suite C
Culver City, CA 90232
Client/Owner: Pomona College
Personnel in architect's firm who should receive special credit:
Architect of record:
LVL Beams: Redbuilt Engineering Wood Products
Metal Panels: Van Nuys Sheet Metal
Metal/glass curtain wall: Arcadia Inc. (aluminum curtain wall)
Wood: Graycon Inc.
Metal: Junior Steel Company
Skylights: Junior Steel Company
Sliding doors: Arcadia Inc. (Aluminum)
Hydraulic Door: Mckendry Door Sales
Overhead Roll Up Doors: Cookson
Awning Door: Van Nuys Sheet Metal
Custom Welding Stations: Junior Steel Co.
Finish Hardware: Construction Hardware Co.
Heavy-duty side mount drawer slide: Arrowwoods
Acoustic Wall Panels: Elijay Acoustic Inc.
Acoustic Sounds Barrier: Homasote 440
Bathroom Partitions: metpar Corp.
Bathroom Accessories: Bobrock / Toto
Solar Shades: Mecho Systems
Paints and stains: Benjamin Moore
Perforated Metals: McNichols
Metal Ravine: Cowel Co.
Paneling: Van Nuys Sheet Metal (metal wall panel)
Special surfacing: Lawrence W. Rosine (lecture hall cork wall and flooring)
Floor and wall tile: J. Colakin & Sons, Inc. Ceramic Tile Contractor (toilet room)
Special interior finishes unique to this project:
Tables: Arrowwoods Works, Inc.
wHY design : Drawing bench
Task lighting: Prudential Light Products (track lighting), Phillip - Lightolier
Exterior: Phillip - Lightolier
Dimming System or other lighting controls: Visual Lighting Technologies
Gantry Crane: Crane Veyor Corp.
Accessibility provision (lifts, ramping, etc.): Garaventa Lifts (portable wheelchair)
Other unique products that contribute to sustainability: