Arts + Culture

Big ideas: Inside the Suprastudio

The future of architecture at UCLA is taking shape in Playa Vista

Craig Hodgetts and graduate student Aysu Unal
Elena Zhukova

Craig Hodgetts, a professor of architecture and urban design, and graduate student Aysu Unal sit in a prototype of the Hyperloop, the ultra-fast transport proposed by Tesla founder Elon Musk and the focus of a Hodgetts-led Suprastudio.

Elena Zhukova
Thom Mayne is one of the star architects working with graduate students in UCLA's IDEAS studio in Playa Vista to explore big ideas that can redefine the boundaries of architecture.

Beneath the soaring ceiling of the hangar where the Hughes “Spruce Goose” was built in Playa Vista, an academic experiment is under way. Nearly 10 miles south of Westwood, amid largely uncompleted or unoccupied high-tech office buildings, a trio of off-campus architecture studios is assaying chunks of the future. Will buildings become kinetic? Will people travel in pneumatic tubes? Will Los Angeles become Shenzhen?

If the setting — inside the remnant of Howard Hughes’ aerospace acropolis in the heart of L.A.’s “Silicon Beach” — is unique, so is the program. 

It’s called IDEAS, a name that was meant to be an acronym but never got a formal conjugation. The concept is simple: Airlift students out of their academic cloister and parachute them into a postindustrial precinct, and the institutional trappings fall away. Let the kids play. This has meant not only escaping Westwood, but also stepping outside architecture’s traditional boundaries to explore fields as disparate as bobsleds and off-the-grid, micro-energy technologies. As architect Hitoshi Abe, chair of UCLA’s Architecture and Urban Design Department, puts it, “The world of architecture from the inside is way smaller than the way the outside world is looking at architecture. With IDEAS, maybe we can redefine our profession and open up more interesting opportunities.”

The IDEAS platform began two years ago, with architects Frank Gehry, Thom Mayne and Greg Lynn in the starting lineup. For the graduate students, this was a chance to collaborate with two Pritzker Prize winners and two Venice Biennale Golden Lion recipients. An uninterrupted year, rather than the three 10-week quarters, is devoted to a real-world problem, with a real-world client. The format extends the department’s 10-year-old Suprastudio, which links companies such as Disney and Toyota and cities, including New Orleans and Cap-Haitien, to graduate-level courses.

As you walk the length of the hangar enclosed within 39-foot-high walls, you begin to comprehend just how different this space is from Perloff Hall, the department’s home on campus. By far the largest part of the hangar — an area equal to five football fields — sits empty beneath a single seven-story roof.

Still, this is a classroom, and its 58 students — divided among the three studios — have collapsed the allotted 13,000 square feet to dollhouse dimensions. Frail-looking architectural models — most the size of cake boxes and made of chipboard and plastic and Styrofoam — take up half the length of one side of the room. Two perfectly round, lightweight wooden cylinders — full-scale mock-ups of Hyperloop fuselages — are crammed into one corner. In the middle of the room, twin 15-foot-tall robots — purchased from the failed Fremont, Calif., solar photovoltaic enterprise Solyndra — seem to be menacing each other in a warm-up to a one-armed boxing match.

Over the last academic year, Mayne’s students plotted a sustainable future for Los Angeles, while Lynn’s team used robotics to morph buildings. Craig Hodgetts, on the architecture faculty since 1972, and his students explored the possibilities of Hyperloop, Tesla founder Elon Musk’s proposed alternative to the San Francisco-to-Los Angeles bullet train.

In the coming fall quarter, work will begin anew with a new batch of graduate students in this special place that pulsates with promise.

To read about the work that went on there earlier this year, read the complete story that’s running in the July 2015 issue of UCLA Magazine.

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