Destination L.A.: ARCH 7020's Urban Exploration

LA Studio Trip
ARCH 7020 students were enthusiastic and reverent when taking in great design, like Frank Gehry's Disney Concert Hall (left) and Culver City's Hayden Tract by Eric Owen Moss (right). Photos: Aislinn Keenan

Boyle Heights, a predominantly Chicano neighborhood in East Los Angeles, is where 50 graduate architecture students at the University of Virginia School of Architecture have been focusing their studio work this semester. Coordinated by Inés Martín Robles and Luis Pancorbo, who co-teach with Manuel Bailo and Peter Stec, the ARCH 7020 foundation studio recently returned from a five-day field trip to what Martín Robles calls, “one of the largest and most distinctive American cities in its morphology and internal organization.” 

The studio, now in its fifth iteration of focused study on East Los Angeles, is currently centered on Boyle Heights’ flourishing arts and cultural scene. Over the course of the semester students will develop a new Chicano Art School named after the Angelino painter Carlos Almaraz. The center will provide a technical training ground in the visual and applied arts, and will ultimately help preserve the traditional crafts and artistic expression of the local Mexican American community. 


LA Studio Trip
(clockwise from top left) In-progress mural by Judy Baca at Los Angeles County Museum of Art, student sketching at Charles and Ray Eames' House, group shot outside of Frank Lloyd Wright's Ennis House. Photos: courtesy ARCH 7020

One goal for the studio trip is to provide students with greater familiarity of Los Angeles’ rich Chicano culture and civil rights movement. While grabbing coffee near her Boyle Heights project site, graduate student Tina Dickey (M. Arch ‘25), inadvertently gained insight into the neighborhood, when meeting a local artist named Mike Saijo. Coincidentally, Saijo’s latest sculpture which highlights Boyle Heights’ diverse cultural history was being unveiled the morning of their meeting, at a new nearby community park. Dickey and other ARCH 7020 students went to the opening—a lively scene attended by local news outlets, community residents, and organizers. “It was an invaluable learning experience that I wouldn’t have had if we had not visited L.A.,” said Dickey, who found her inaugural visit to Southern California “enriching and necessary” for meeting the objectives of the studio. 


LA Architecture
(l-r) A visit to Bonaventure Hotel (1976) by John Portman and the Goldstein Residence (1963) by John Lautner. Photos: Inés Martín Robles

Buzzing around the supercity by Metro, Uber, bus and on foot, the students and faculty packed in a wide range of architectural splendors, firm visits, museums, monuments, markets, and scenic vistas from the Hollywood hills to the Santa Monica pier. The schedule included stops at 20th-century gems like Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollyhock (1921) and Ennis (1924) Houses, the Richard Neutra-designed VDL Studio and Residences (1932), R.M. Schindler’s Leland-Fitzpatrick House (1936), Charles and Ray Eames’ Case Study House No. 8 (1949), and John Lautner’s iconic Goldstein Residence (1963). More recent projects like Selgascano’s biophilic Second Home Hollywood Office (2019) and Morphosis Office’s Emerson College (2014) gave students a taste of L.A.’s contemporary design sensibilities. For Martin Robles, “making students aware of the social and environmental complexity of the city and its rich architectural history” is one of the most rewarding parts of bringing students to Los Angeles.


ARCH 7020 students in L.A.
Selfie of ARCH 7020 classmates in the Angeleno hills. Photo: Birch Ely

Now that the group has returned, students get to apply their new understanding of Boyle Heights and the City of Los Angeles to their studio projects. What began earlier in the semester as a distant view of L.A., seen only through Google Earth, GIS data, and online archives, has yielded to a deeper understanding of this urban center, thanks to the immersive travel experience organized by the faculty team. 

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