Despite its youth, the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc) has educated a surprising number of figures that have come to define the field. One such figure is local architect Barbara Bestor, who graduated from the school with a master’s degree in 1992 and has since designed several prestigious projects in and around Los Angeles, including the Silverlake Conservatory for Music, and the Beats by Dre campus in Culver City, and also oversaw the renovation of the Silvertop Residence, a hillside home first built in 1956 by local legend John Lautner.
As the commencement speaker for SCI-Arc’s 2019 graduation ceremony, Bestor elaborated on the storied history of the city and how it directly influenced her career.
“I think that, like the city of Los Angeles,” began Bestor, “our culture of freedom as architects is a uniquely West Coast culture that’s actually in touch with our past history.” She then went on to recount how the unique qualities of the city that inspired experimentation among luminaries including Frank Lloyd Wright, Ray Kappe, Deborah Sussman, and Rudolph Schindler, who had a “habit of driving around to job sites with a load of two-by-fours in his station wagon so that he could improvise new ideas in real-time.”
Bestor then reminded the audience that the freedom afforded by the relative lack of history Los Angeles can be liberating but also daunting. “It demands that we grapple with big existential questions like ‘what am I doing here,’ ‘what’s my artistic voice,’ and ‘will my voice ever be part of the larger architectural conversation around the world?’” Bestor’s way of first navigating the city’s creative landscape was to work on houses, coffee shops, clothing stores, kitchen renovations, and several other small projects. “Even the most pragmatic and mundane programs,” she explained, “contain some freedom for the architect to create extra value, ideas about gender politics, fun experiments, and so on.” Bestor ended her speech by advising her listeners, “whether you’re staying here in L.A., or going off to Mexico City, or Beijing, or Seoul,” to “take that sense of freedom with you… You are all now West Coast Architects… part of this great, living tradition of experimentation and innovation.”
It seemed fitting that, following her speech, an honorary M.Arch degree was presented to Frank Gehry, an architect who has called Los Angeles his home since 1947 and found a career by tapping into the experimental spirit of the city recounted by Bestor.