The room is focused on graduate architecture student Melissa Stinar – or, more accurately, on the sprawling design occupying the wall behind her.
“I’m having an issue with the space under the cantilevers,” Stinar said, pointing to the huge printout dominated by computer-aided design floor plans and 3-D images. “I wanted to create a place that would be activated by people.”
Michael Lehrer, one of nine faculty and guest critics sitting in judgment on her midterm review, leaned forward: “Well, there’s not much to activate it right now. Where’s your coffee shop?”
Stinar hesitated. “My original idea was for the coffee house to relate back to University Village.”
“Well, it’s not,” Lehrer responded.
It’s a familiar ritual within the USC School of Architecture – students, often exhausted by all-nighters and 60- to 80-hour work weeks, present their designs before a group of faculty and visiting critics who are experts in a chosen topic area.
Is the building sustainable? Is it buildable? Will it literally stand up? Does it consider the clients’ needs? What about parking, green spaces, circulation?
This time, however, these Master of Architecture students are designing something with real impact: a theoretical 60,000-square-foot Emeriti Center for Creative Retirement, campus housing for retired faculty and staff who want to remain close to the university where they dedicated much of their life’s work.
Under the direction of professor Victor Regnier, who holds a unique joint professorship in architecture and gerontology, and Lehrer, a nationally recognized architect based in Los Feliz who teaches part-time at USC, the students began exploring two sites – one on the corner of McClintock and Jefferson (part of the current University Village property) and another on the southeast corner of Vermont and Jefferson, a gateway to the campus.
Whether these student designs are part of the finished USC master plan remains to be seen, but the proposed Emeriti Center project has drawn significant support from a distinguished panel of current and former USC faculty and staff, including former deans Guilbert Hentschke of the USC Rossier School of Education, Bob Scales of the School of Theatre and Bob Harris of the School of Architecture; USC Davis School of Gerontology Dean Gerald C. Davison, Emeriti Center executive director Janette Brown, USC Davis School professor Jon Pynoos and Jerry Walker, director of the Emeriti Center College.
These panel members and others, such as Los Angeles architect Wade Killefer and Liz Falletta, a professor in the architecture school and the USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development, have spent hours with Regnier and Lehrer critiquing the students’ drawings, models and oral presentations made every several weeks since last fall.
“A lot of these ideas have a great deal of merit,” said Kristina Raspe, associate senior vice president for real estate and asset management, who also has been a regular visiting critic for the studio class. “One student, I remember, made a very interesting pedestrian connection from Jefferson to our new Main Street, cutting a diagonal swath across the space. Very intriguing ideas.”
One of the world’s leading authorities on housing for the elderly, Regnier has worked on similar projects for the University of Virginia and George Mason University, and has visited many others, including projects recently completed by Stanford University and UCLA.
“Throughout the country, there are ‘lifelong learning’ programs popping up at universities and community centers that cater to the desire of the 55-plus population for intellectually stimulating lectures, workshop and arts content,” Regnier said. He introduced students to concepts from Northern Europe and Scandinavia such as “co-housing,” which center on smaller clusters of housing where informal helping networks encourage self-sufficiency and independence. This housing stimulates friendship patterns and would take advantage of natural shared affiliations of fellow Trojans.
“The project has so many possibilities,” Regnier said. “It could be the center for the USC Good Neighbors program. It could speak directly to the provost’s interest in the whole life span – maintaining an intellectual relationship with the university in later life.”
In 1978, when President John Hubbard dedicated the Emeriti Center, USC was among the first universities in the nation to address the lifelong connection with retired faculty and staff. But, with only a few offices, the center has been limited by its lack of space.
For the past 32 years, the Emeriti Center has resided in a number of different locations. “We’ve essentially been guests of the School of Gerontology,” said executive director Brown. “When Victor [Regnier] starting talking about what it would be like to have real senior housing and development activities on campus, the vision was just so exciting. We literally spent hours talking about it.”
Regnier and Lehrer’s graduate studio became the laboratory for that vision. The plan includes 24 housing units for retired faculty, six units of scholar housing to attract distinguished faculty from other institutions spending a sabbatical taking or teaching courses at USC, a mentoring center, meeting rooms for lectures and workshops and a coffee shop envisioned as a bridge between retired faculty, students and the broader community.
During a recent all-day, marathon review session, there was blunt criticism (the massing is dull) leavened with constructive criticism (try to improve the circulation) and praise (this appeals to my old modernist instincts).
Panel members challenged the student architects to consider details. Scales noticed that one student’s plan had narrow rows of three seats at the sides of the auditorium. People don’t attend events in groups of three, Scales pointed out.
“In the beginning, it was harder knowing that [Victor] would be critiquing you,” said student Victor Fressie. “How do you design for someone who knows everything about this subject? The reviews can be very stressful, but you came to this school to learn from the best. You can’t take [criticism] personally — it’s a creative design-based judgment.”
Students will be refining their projects until the end of the semester when they will make a final presentation on May 12. Those interested in attending the final review can contact professor Regnier (firstname.lastname@example.org). A post-studio publication is also planned to document ideas and concepts the students developed during the semester.
More stories about: Aging