New Hollywood campus welcomes spring students

by Laura Gomez / Beacon Staff • January 16, 2014

1389855659 laleadart1 catalani forweb.jpg
The Sunset Boulevard building was designed by architect Thom Mayne.
The Sunset Boulevard building was designed by architect Thom Mayne.

LOS ANGELES — In the late 1980s, when Emerson College still had its campus in Back Bay, a professor took a group of visual and media arts students to the West Coast to explore the entertainment industry in the Los Angeles area. This initiative soon turned into the semester-long, internship-oriented Los Angeles Program. Now, 26 years later, Emerson finally has its own distinctive building at 5960 W. Sunset Blvd. with state-of-the-art technology and an eye-catching design.

On Jan. 12 and 13, 124 students enrolled in the program began to settle into their new home in Hollywood. 

Classrooms, the distance learning room (a video conferencing and classroom space), and the office of Kevin Bright, founding director of the Los Angeles Center, overlook Sunset Boulevard through floor-to-ceiling glass windows. 

“Why build another rectangular campus building?, said Bright. “We need to make a statement here — that’s important. And I think this building definitely makes a statement.”

Designed by acclaimed architect Thom Mayne, the campus building’s futuristic exterior stands out with a pattern of curves and textures. On both move-in days, gold and purple balloons decorated the stairs leading into the main entrance of the 10-story campus structure.

Dormitories are set up in suite-style apartments, with a shared bathroom and shower, from the fifth through the 10th floor. Floors two through four house administration offices, two dressing rooms with makeup counters and mirrors, performance studios, five media-equipped classrooms, a fitness center, a film screening room, an editing, an audio, and a computer lab, and an audio post-production mixing suite. 

The Hollywood sign, the skyline of downtown LA, and — on a clear day — the Pacific Ocean can all be viewed from the fifth floor terrace. Outdoor seating, three barbecue grills, and a fire pit are also popular features among students. 

“I think [the building] is crazy,” said Jacob Gordon, a senior visual and media arts major who moved in on Jan. 12. “I’ve never seen anything like it. This is amazing.”

The college previously rented space for students to live in Oakwood Toluca Hills, an apartment complex in Burbank. A few miles away, another leased location held the program’s administrative offices and classrooms. 

In 2008, Emerson acquired the property in the heart of Hollywood for $12 million, intending to make it the future home of the program. An $85 million project transformed the former parking lot into an educational community in 24 months. Yet construction crews still meander through the building, installing monitors and working on the finishing touches. 

Aaron Ragan works in Thom Mayne’s firm Morphosis and as project architect has been devoted to overseeing, for the past two years, the construction of the project. 

Ragan said a visit to a Warner Brothers sound stage inspired the Morphosis design team.  

“Emerson expressed the idea too, where the whole building would be a film set,” said Ragan. “This outer cube became like a sound stage—it kind of framed out the space with certain functions built into it.”

The Grand Staircase, an amphitheater-like outdoor space intended for film screenings, connects the fourth academic and the fifth residential floors and overlooks the street. 

Patrick Smith, director of development and alumni relations, was enthusiastic about welcoming students and parents into the area where the residential, administrative, and academic components of the building meet into a spacious terrace. 

Smith said the Southern California region has a network of about 4,000 alumni — a posse of the larger group nicknamed The Emerson Mafia. 

“The flag has been planted in Hollywood,” said Smith about the Emerson structure, which rises above palm trees, establishing itself among the West Hollywood landscape. While the building is primarily for those enrolled in the LA Program, Smith said it will also be a hub for alumni.  

Jim Lane, executive director of the Los Angeles Center, said visual and media arts students have traditionally made up most of the LA program. In his 13 years as director, though, Lane said he has seen an increased interest from students of other concentrations.

Out of the 124 seniors who are part of the program this spring, 88 are visual and media arts majors; 18 are marketing communication majors; 10 are majoring in performing arts; five are journalism majors; two are writing, literature, and publishing majors; and one student is majoring in communication studies.

Bright has a vision of a more inclusive program, in which Emerson students can take classes at the Center without the current internship requirement.

The building is expected to gain Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design Gold accreditation, said Jay Phillips, associate vice president for facilities and campus services. As part of that standard’s requirements, smoking is not allowed inside or within 25 feet of the Center. 

Emerson Police Chief Robert Smith said that the smoking policy will be strictly enforced. Because violating the policy can cause disciplinary action, he said he expects many students, many of whom are in their last semester of college, will be dissuaded from lighting up.

Smith said the Center has five panic alarms and 28 closed-circuit television cameras, five of which are located in elevators. He said the decision to install surveillance inside the elevators stemmed from desire to prevent the discriminatory graffiti that has surfaced in the Boston campus elevators. 

While Emerson College Police Department officers are not present at this satellite location, Emerson has hired Universal Protection, a security company similar to Securitas, which provides guards at the college’s Boston campus.

Chris DeAndo, director of security, said three officers are always on duty — one access control person at the front desk, one patrolling the exterior and common areas, and one supervisor. 

From past crime reports and conversations with the Los Angeles Police Department, Smith said he has learned the neighborhood surrounding the Center is very similar, in terms of security, to the East Coast campus. 

“If students feel safe in the Boston campus,” he said, “they will feel safe here.”

Editor-in-Chief Evan Sporer contributed to this report.