Culver City, California, had an unexplained anomaly for 54 years. On a banal high school campus sits a 1964 building that looks, from above, like an enormous origami crane with a broad fanned tail, perched amid the surrounding suburban sprawl. This is the Robert Frost Auditorium, named for the California-born poet. From the ground, it resembles a giant scalloped seashell, with a dramatic flying buttress at one end, recalling Eero Saarinen’s sculpturally expressive buildings. Like them, the Frost is a work of engineering bravura, with its overarching roof of pleated thin-shell concrete, only 4 inches thick, and clear span of 240 feet. Hard to imagine what such a daring work was doing on a public school campus in a middle-class, movie-industry town on Los Angeles’s Westside—or how the school district could even have afforded it. Compounding that mystery, no one could explain how the architects credited with its design had produced a scheme so unlike their other, far more conventional, work. Who really designed it?
Finally, last fall, weeks before architects Hodgetts + Fung (H+F) unveiled the Frost’s $16.3 million renovation, its backstory emerged. Andrew Nasser was identified as the original designer. This dapper, 83-year-old, Ethiopian-born Englishman-turned-American—still an engineer in nearby Pasadena—had tackled the auditorium commission as a 26-year-old employee of Johnson & Nielsen, consulting structural engineers to the project’s architect of record, Flewelling & Moody (F&M). Nasser had trained as an architect, interning with Eero Saarinen before earning his engineering degree at Caltech. He later provided the structural expertise for many of John Lautner’s famously acrobatic buildings, but never received any credit for the Frost. Instead, says Nasser, F&M partner Ralph Flewelling claimed, in a 1962 newspaper article, that the scheme had come to him in a dream and he’d sketched it up on a bedside pad; when the young engineer confronted him, Flewelling tried to banish him from the project. (The junior engineer stayed on because—as his boss, Carl Johnson, pointed out—only he could carry out the scheme.)
Nasser had conceptualized the 28,640-square-foot building, even devising ways to make its construction affordable (for around $750,000). At the 1962 World Conference on Shell Structures, he presented the unbuilt scheme, detailing its evolution and methods for casting the vast roof’s segments on-site without formwork. The building later survived earthquakes, unscathed. It also became a location for such futuristic movies as Sleeper and Gattica.
Last fall, Culver City honored Nasser for the design. Of course, with team projects, individual architectural attribution is not always clear. But Nasser had never worked at F&M. As he tells it, Flewelling—who’d used cast-in-place concrete in more conventional ways—was aware of the self-assured engineer’s fascination with thin-shell structures and his affinity for modern design, and challenged him to craft an inspired yet economical solution for a 1,250-seat auditorium on the remnant triangular site. “He handed me the vacant plot plan and said, ‘Let’s see what you can do with this one, young man!’ ” Nasser recalls. “So I got right to work. Once I had the concept and massing, I made sure to dimension everything, because I didn’t want to risk them messing it up.” With Nasser’s oversight, it was built accurately (though he was not involved with interior fittings, mechanicals, acoustic treatments, or internal partitions).
Flewelling is no longer alive, but his firm still exists. Its president/CEO, Scott Gaudineer, whose arrival at F&M postdated the Frost, says, “I could imagine Flewelling posing that kind of challenge, but I’m guessing the final results were more of a collaboration.” (Nasser, who never sought the credit he’s now received, firmly believes otherwise.)
Decades later, the ill-maintained Frost became a white elephant, plagued by inadequate air-handling and abysmal acoustics. Its soaring, fan-shaped auditorium was rundown, while its HVAC mechanicals and backstage functions crowded its adjoining brick-clad drum.
But by the time Nasser was ushered back onto the scene, the renovation was virtually done. He was excited to see the Frost celebrated, but, he says, “I wished I’d been on the project, working with Hodgetts + Fung from the beginning. I would have loved collaborating on a building I know so intimately. These days, most of my work is about finding subtle, often unexpected, ways to thread modern enhancements into distinctive structures and navigate the codes, as I’ve done for some Lautners.”
Beyond air-handling and acoustics, H+F had transformed the auditorium into a professional-caliber theater. Now a 40-foot-high steel proscenium arch spans the stage, supporting catwalks and lighting rigs. The original seats were refurbished, the ticketing lobby upgraded, and the brick drum’s interior reconfigured with a double-height black-box theater.
Remedying the HVAC maladies, however, posed challenges with significant trade-offs. The supply vents flanked the stage, with long, narrow ducts that barely delivered air to the audience. The new solution had to be forceful yet quiet. “On top of that,” says Hodgetts, “we had to tiptoe around the structure and never, ever, even slightly, breach or modify it,” a tall order for a design where form and structure are essentially one. “By today’s standards, you couldn’t build it as it is now,” Hodgetts explains. “If you touch the structure, suddenly it has to comply with current codes—and the whole thing might have to be demolished.”
After analyzing several options, H+F devised a quiet and efficient system, with air-handlers projecting overhead along the auditorium’s curving back wall. Surrounding the ducts, stretched fabric over metal frames provides acoustic attenuation. Though technically effective, the HVAC and acoustic treatments compromise the hall’s formal purity, eclipsing the ends of the long ribs that radiate from the stage, arcing over the audience. In rendering this monumentally anomalous structure high-performing, the architects (and the school) made function a top priority. Yet H+F also chose to renovate so that everything could potentially be returned, without a trace, to its historic condition.
With the school and community already embracing the reborn Frost, says Heather Moses, its general manager, “the change has been phenomenal. Before, no one wanted to be here. Now, everyone does.”
“I’m delighted the building’s finally recognized for what it is and functioning better than ever,” says Nasser, adding, “At its first inauguration, I had to sneak in at the back. But this time, I got a standing ovation.”