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Watts Learning Center
Los Angeles
Photographs by Raul Otero

Apart from Simon Rodia’s folly of steel and ceramic tile, the Watts Towers, there are few architectural landmarks in the neighborhood. But the Cuningham Group has aimed to create one in its expansion of the Watts Learning Center, a charter school of about 240 elementary school students, 99 percent of them African American.

Before the revamp, the barely ten-year-old school occupied a collection of ramshackle old church buildings and temporary trailers sitting on an asphalt parking lot, not an ideal learning environment.

The illuminated elevator tower (top) has become a neighborhood beacon, while bright colors are woven through the campus fixtures and classroom doors (above).  

Charged with expressing both vigor and seriousness of purpose, the firm built an airy new two-story classroom building, fixed up several of the older buildings, removed the trailers, and arranged the campus around new landscaping, including desert vegetation from Africa. The new project opened a year ago, and the school is now raising funds for a second phase that will include another new building and more renovations.

According to the architects, the design was inspired in part by an African Kente cloth. From afar, the main building’s most visible elements are its light wood and dark cementitious panels. But a closer look reveals the bright colors woven through the complex, such as bright green steel framing, bright yellow stair railings, purple stair stringers, and each classroom door in its own shade.

Featured in the design is the element that the firm calls the “beacon,” a two-story elevator tower fitted with large LED lights that can be programmed to project any color. For instance, said Cuningham Group principal John Quiter, if the Lakers win, they can turn on the team’s purple and gold, or they can project a rainbow. “It’s up to them and their creativity,” said Quiter. The tower has been planted with ivy for a touch of more traditional academic gravitas.

Under a very tight budget, the firm packed the building with several sustainable elements, many of them fairly low-tech but effective. This includes north-south orientation, a white roof to minimize heat gain, operable windows for cross-ventilation, low-emitting materials, and a solar water-heating system obtained through a government grant.

The community has quickly taken to the project, said Quiter, who notes that the project both reflects and influences the local culture. The school was already one of the best-performing schools in the city academically, and now it has a campus worthy of all the hard work.

Sam Lubell