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Amid the current public debate over the breakdown of Los Angeles school facilities and  the urgent need for classroom space, the question of architectural quality has been largely absent.

Where only recently the plan for 150 new schools funded by Proposition BB was accompanied  by discussion about the appropriate architectural form for education, this now seems unimportant in what is perceived as a crisis.

On one level, this is understandable. For the public,  architecture has been reduced to signifying little more than outer appearance, if not the code word for unnecessary expense. Architecture seems more an affair of spectacular, expensive monuments — Richard Meier's Getty Center  complex or Frank O. Gehry's Disney Hall — that make headlines.

But this ignores the contribution of architecture to daily life: its attention to the complex relationships between  institutional programs, such as school curricula, and the spaces that house them. Architecture can provide a fundamental part of the answer to many problems of learning that seem to overwhelm large school districts.

  Architecture is not simply concerned with planning and construction, but with the relations between the envisioned curriculum and the space in which it is put into practice. The architect plays a crucial  role in considering the relations between an institution and its neighborhood, of the careful responses in scale and spatial layout to the needs of teachers and children, of the very materials out of which a good learning  environment is built. Finally, by asking questions that cut across the network of administrative bodies responsible for school construction, the architect can serve as catalyst and collaborator, conscience and coordinator.

Los Angeles, in fact, was once at the forefront of the movement for better-designed schools, led by influential modern architects like Richard Neutra. For Neutra and other architects of his  time, architecture was conceived as a powerful instrument for social education, and nothing was more important than the first institutional environment encountered by a child: the school.

  Perhaps the most striking examples of this belief were the various schools designed by Neutra in Los Angeles. His project for a Ring Plan School, with its ring of classrooms around a play area and a running track on the roof,  was adopted in 1934 by the Los Angeles School Board and built in the Bell district. The building was much celebrated for its qualities of light, relationship of classrooms to outdoors and color of materials.

  That modern architecture could produce delightful spaces for learning with the most economical means is still demonstrated by Neutra and Robert Alexander's 1957 UCLA Kindergarten and Elementary School, now  the Corinne A. Seeds University Elementary School. Using brick and concrete-block walls, simple truss roofs and plywood cabinets, the architects created a varied environment by careful planning of space and a perfect sense of  proportion for the different scale of its inhabitants. Set in a landscape of redwoods, streams and playgrounds, this school remains a model for new elementary schools and for the low-density units envisioned as a part of the  Proposition BB plan for new schools in Los Angeles.

Anthony Vidler is chair of art history and professor of architecture.

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