Orange Coast College expansion threatens designs by Neutra, Alexander, and Eckbo.

Architecture Landscape Architecture Preservation West
Neutra's threatened Science Building at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa (Chris/flickr)

Neutra’s threatened Science Building at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa (Chris/flickr)

The future’s looking grim for a dozen buildings on the Orange Coast College designed by Richard Neutra and Robert Alexander. A November vote by college trustees approved a plan for the demolition of several structures on the 164-acre campus, including Neutra’s planetarium and a cluster of low-slung brick buildings.

Midcentury aerial view of Orange Coast College (Ostashay & Associates)

Midcentury aerial view of Orange Coast College (Ostashay & Associates)

Although the Orange Coast College Vision 2020 Facilities Master Plan suggests that these demolitions are needed in order to expand green space, the scheme would also destroy a historic landscape design by Garrett Eckbo (whose Fulton Mall in Fresno will soon face bulldozers).

The L.A. Times reported that college officials say the mid-century structures on the Costa Mesa campus are “no longer able to accommodate the school’s rising population. The campus was originally intended for 1,500 students and now has about 22,000.”

AN spoke to Dr. Rich Pagel, administrative vice president at Orange Coast College, last year when we first reported on the possible tear-down. Then, he weighed the balance of future growth against historic value, and noted, “There’s a strong desire to preserve the history but at the same time we have to think about the next fifty years.”

In July, The National Trust for Historic Preservation issued a letter to Jerry Marchbank, Coast Community College District’s senior director of Facilities Planning and Construction, in response to the Environmental Impact Report for the Orange Coast College Vision 2020 Facilities Master Plan. The letter reveals the scope for the college’s plan:

The Program EIR discloses the intent of Orange Coast College to construct of over 1.2 million square feet of new buildings, parking, and recreational use on the Orange Coast College campus in Costa Mesa in the next six years. Even though there is ample space to integrate new construction with existing buildings, the project anticipates demolition of 166,784 square feet of the campus footprint, which includes most of the existing core campus and the majority of contributing properties in the OCC Campus Historic District.

AN asked architect and historian Alan Hess to comment on the plan. Hess’ own research and interest covers the complexities of Orange County preservation. He replied over email:

The college’s board back in the early 1950s had the vision to choose Neutra and Alexander, world-class architects at the time, to design their campus—quite a lot of confidence, sophistication and foresight for a small community college in Orange County when it was still largely rural (but on the verge of tremendous and often innovative growth.) That vision is lacking in the current board (and unfortunately much of the faculty), playing into the reputation of Orange Countyites as architectural Philistines. There are definitely feasible alternatives that can re-use the Neutra/Alexander buildings instead of throwing them away—and in today’s world, the Neutra buildings’ commitment to sustainability and green design should serve as a model for expansion, rather than be wasted.

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