Architecture review: Administrative Campus Center at Claremont
It was easy to forget during the boom years, but good architecture is fundamentally about resourcefulness. No budget is big enough, no client agreeable enough, to let every one of an architect's ideas run wild. The key is to figure out how to bend a visionary plan to make it work in built form — or, better yet, to think of the constraints and limitations that come with any piece of architecture as sources of ingenuity in and of themselves.
A new administrative center at the Claremont Colleges, designed by New York firm Lewis Tsurumaki Lewis and set to be dedicated on Monday evening, is a likable and especially clear example of that point of view. Given the state of the economy and the general gloom still hovering over the architecture profession, it also feels unusually timely — like a colorful, modest slice of the zeitgeist.
The 42,000-square-foot building, the architects’ first West Coast project, holds offices, meeting rooms and other facilities for the Claremont University Consortium. (The CUC is essentially the administrative back-of-house for the Claremont Colleges, providing everything from payroll services to campus security.) When the colleges decided to bring together the various CUC programs under a single roof, they opted not to build new offices from the ground up but to remake an existing maintenance building on Mills Avenue, along the southern edge of the connected campuses.
The building was hardly a treasured collegiate landmark: Just a decade old, it was an anonymous, warehouse-like, steel-framed structure, one level plus a small mezzanine. The colleges encouraged the architects to re-imagine the building as thoroughly, and as inventively, as possible. But they kept a fairly tight hand on the budget. The construction cost for the project, according to the architects, was roughly $7.5 million, or $180 per square foot, with total costs of about $10 million.
Lewis Tsurumaki Lewis — founded in 1997 by twin brothers Paul and David Lewis and a third partner, Marc Tsurumaki — has made a specialty of such projects in the last couple of years. In downtown Austin, Texas, the architects restored and expanded an 1851 brick building to create an arts center. At the University of Wyoming they took two levels of open space inside an existing college of education building and created a new student lounge.
What they've produced in Claremont is in many ways typical of the output of an ambitious mid-career firm. There is a sense as you walk through the building, which holds desks for more than 100 employees, that Lewis Tsurumaki Lewis is exploring a diverse range of ideas at the same time, and occasionally piling motifs one atop the other.
The most effective single gesture is a ribbon-like cedar fence, or screen, 740 feet long in total, that creates a new entrance canopy for the building. It continues inside to frame an information desk and cafe and then slips back outside to wrap more of the exterior, as well as a patio facing south. Vertical LED lighting is embedded in the screen, giving the building a particularly strong personality at night.
The screen serves as a clever metaphor for the whole design: It follows the pitched-roof profile of the existing building even as it thoroughly remakes it in spirit. It reveals the architecture of the old building and hides it at the same time — fidelity and novelty all wrapped up together.
And it's a flexible, rather than monolithic, skin. The slats are spaced more widely apart wherever the screen runs past a window, to give more light inside. And in other places it moves away from the building to form new pockets of contained outdoor space. The spare, drought-tolerant landscape is by the Culver City firm AHBE Landscape Architects.
The inside of the building trades the crisp, sure forms of the exterior for a busier, more colorful aesthetic. Near the front door, suspended in front of some glass-walled conference rooms, is a green LED light-art piece — think: electronic cactus — by Jason Krugman. A red carpet runs through the whole space, rising to cover a set of bleacher-like stairs in the middle of the building that provide a gathering place for large meetings. A small kitchen is tucked away underneath.
In the same way that the cedar fencing outside both traces and cloaks the shell of the older building, an undulating suspended ceiling both hides and exposes the ductwork overhead. Made up of hundreds of small baffles wrapped in recycled white felt, it gives the interior of the building a spatial complexity that the original warehouse surely never had.
More than 150 cylindrical skylights bring enough sunlight into the space during the day to make artificial lighting unnecessary on clear days. That's one of several sustainable-design strategies at work in the project. The design's most important green element is also its simplest: reusing the original building shell rather than starting from scratch.
There is a long history in Southern California of architects using warehouse conversions as vehicles for experimentation. Frank Gehry, Frank Israel and Eric Owen Moss turned 1980s office projects on the Westside into manifestoes — equal parts economy and wild iconoclasm — for what would become known as architecture's L.A. School.
This project has some of the ad hoc, improvisatory flair that drove those designs; it picks up their ability, as the critic Charles Jencks once put it, “to work with and against the existing context at the same time.”
But its basic design personality is sunnier, less confrontational; it is amiable and soft around the edges in ways the L.A. School office designs never were.
From a bottom-line perspective — from the client's perspective, in other words — this is an exceedingly responsible project, with a budget to match. From an architectural point of view, it's just the opposite: ambitious, eager to take risks and full — sometimes to a fault — of ideas. It's precisely the contradiction between those two extremes that makes the end result so fascinating.
Above: The front entrance to the Administrative Campus Center at the Claremont Colleges at night. Credit: Luke Gibson