Storyboard: Darin Johnstone

The Plum Assignment

Somebody once asked me if being a creative has ever made me feel like an outsider.

The answer is: “Yes. Most days that end in y.”

As an undergrad architecture student at Cal Poly Pomona, I was lucky enough to take an architecture class taught by a wonderful gentleman named Paul Helmley. Paul used to say that architecture was the mother of all disciplines. I thought it sounded haughty at the time. Still, I’d be lying if I told you that the idea of architecture as an overarching discipline didn’t make sense to me.

Architecture is an elusive practice. In the effort to better our world, architects are continually learning about the craft as they go. In fact, the elusive nature of architecture is a big part of the reason I still love what I do. It adds a sense of discovery to even the most routine tasks.

My first post-undergrad job was with Coop Himmelb(l)au (C.H.), a respected, avant-garde design and urban planning firm based in Austria. I got the job on the basis of some photographic model work I had done. Because I was unhappy with the assignment I’d given myself, I set my undergraduate thesis model on fire and took a photo of the results – after all, one of C.H.’s most famous pieces of architecture from that era was called “Architecture Must Blaze.” Something about my reckless disregard for the rules must have resonated with them, because they hired me on the spot.

During my time at C.H., I met Tom Wiscombe, now the chair of the undergrad program at Southern California Institute of Architecture (or SCI-Arc), where I teach. In those days, Tom was a project designer. Me, I was just working on my models. We weren’t practicing design in a vacuum – in my early days, Wolf Prix, the Design Principal at C.H., would routinely bring in the best of the best to try and improve the quality of the work we were putting out into the world.

Which brings me to Frank Gehry. One day, when I was tinkering with my work at C.H. who should walk in and start critiquing the work but Mr. Gehry himself. I remember the project he was evaluating was a sort of glass crystal enclosure; I had constructed parts of its facade. Frank’s first note was to take the crystal parts off the facade. He was looking at it from a purely sculptural perspective.

Through a mix of cunning and strategy and relentless determination, I secured a job working for Mr. Gehry. During my time in his office, I learned more than I could ever put into words. We worked on the expansion of the Concord Pavilion, which was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I got to bear firsthand witness to Frank’s creative language and how it evolved over time. Working for C.H. and Frank Gehry straight out of undergrad was the greatest education I ever got outside of a classroom.

Does it get any better than that?

Maybe it does. Shaping the experience of new learning spaces at ArtCenter – and affecting the culture of the College – has given me the chance to take a lifetime’s worth of creative acumen and put it into practice. It’s been a plum assignment.

My first project with the College involved the restoration of the 870 building: a former post office that we renovated to become a brainstorming hive for Illustration and Fine Art students. The Hoffmitz Milken Center for Typography and the reinvention of the 1111 South Arroyo Parkway building are other undertakings the team at Darin Johnstone Architects had an essential hand in.

We want these areas to function as public/communal spaces as well as spaces where students can learn. The combination of functions helps shape the evolving culture of ArtCenter, as well as a new sense of community that is nothing less than integral for creating an environment of collaborative intelligence.

ArtCenter exists at the pinnacle of greatness, and our only goal is to foster a spirit of innovation that matches the school’s dynamism. If we can do that, then our work will not have been in vain.

Darin Johnstone
Principal, Darin Johnstone Architects
Design Faculty, SCI-Arc

ArtCenter exists at the pinnacle of greatness, and our only goal is to foster a spirit of innovation that matches the school’s dynamism.

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