January 16, 2005

Otis College of Art and Design occupies the former IBM building in Los Angeles. It's an intriguing building and is in keeping with the architectural inclination of the 1960's toward stark cement cubes. The exterior facade is meant to be reminiscent of a punch card; which I suspect is lost on the majority of current Otis students who were undoubtedly born long after punch cards, or IBM for that matter, had much life left.

Image by Marc Meridith, OTIS Director of Admissions
Courtesy of Wikipedia and licensed under a Creative Commons license.

Naturally, the interior has been remodeled to match our stereotypical conception of the artist loft, but I think the greatest success of the building is not in the exterior view or the elaborate remodel. No, the greatest asset of OTIS is the views it frames of the outside world.

Inside this cold concrete block the dingy Southland sky seems to burst through the tiny rectangular windows and, in doing, is granted a liveliness and power that you cannot perceive from any other vantage point that I've discovered in LA. It is a simple matter of contrast— a living proof of that old photographic axiom that the finest silver gelatin prints always place their blackest black next to their lightest light tone. 

While I can't claim any advanced understanding of architectural principles I can claim many years of working with contrast, and furthermore, I have an appreciation for simple solutions that net profound results. For those who haven't called LA home, who haven't been able to see the city skyline from a hill top vantage only five miles away because of air pollution, it is undoubtedly difficult to understand the magnitude of being awakened to beauty in that chemical miasma. But for someone who, quite literally, grew up in a cloud of chemicals and particulate, I tell you that, until the day I visited OTIS, the only potential for the sublime that high noon smog ever held for me was in its unyielding repulsion.*

I'm of the opinion (and it is a rather plebeian opinion, I admit)** that cement cubes are generally not the best architectural solution for most projects or climates. In Southern California, where the heat is oppressive and banal boxy buildings are the majority, I suppose you can make a case for a cement cube on the grounds that it will stay cool and affably blend in with the neighbors. But if I'm to dissect what I appreciate about OTIS's building it is the opportunities it affords for the eye to escape when the body cannot, and perhaps that, more than balances of compositional light and darks, is what creates the impression that the oppressive grey outside holds more promise than one had ever perceived there before.

*More of a formaldehyde-soaked Damien Hirst type of sublime, as opposed to the sweeping Romanticism of Caspar David Friedrich 

**I spent every afternoon following middle school studying in a cement cube, so experience must serve as my credentials here.

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