Where Did The Videos Come From?


In 1974 SCI-Arc occupied the first floor of 1800 Berkeley Street in Santa Monica. On the second floor mezzanine was another alternative cultural organization, the Los Angeles Public Access Project. Started in 1973 by John Hunt, Bob Jacobsen, and Maurice Jacobsen, Public Access provided noncommercial, community-produced public access programing for Theta Cable, the pioneering Westside cable TV provider, whose offices were across the street. According to a 1973 L.A. Times article, the goal of Public Access was “to train anyone interested in the use of video and provide equipment for them to produce their own shows for broadcasting to the public.”[1] It can be seen as one of several contemporary projects—Top Value Television (TVTV), Ant Farm, Third World Newsreel, California Newsreel, and Video Data Bank—that tried to make the new consumer video technology accessible to artists and activists. The first “Southern California Video Festival,” took place at SCI-Arc, in March of 1973, under the sponsorship of Public Access.[2]


Morton Neikrug began working with Public Access when he transferred to SCI-Arc in 1973:


I had always been interested in electronics. I just started helping them out. They helped me do some video documentation of Venice with their Portapak. My background was photography and I wanted it to look beautiful, like Kenneth Clark’s Civilization. It didn’t; it looked like the surface of the moon.


But working with Public Access, I realized that that wasn’t the most important thing. Video was about empowerment. The power that had been confined to studios and media corporations was suddenly accessible to ordinary people, to tell their own version of events. In those days the phrase everyone kept using was “We finally have access to The Box!”[3]


Neikrug and other students also experimentally videotaped events at SCI-Arc: seminar discussions, studio presentations, deliberative “All-School” meetings, and public lectures. It’s important to note that in the early 1970s it was unusual for schools to videotape lectures, or anything else. Some universities like UCLA had professional quality production facilities, but they were not generally accessible. Besides SCI-Arc, the only other architecture schools to video public lectures systematically in the early 1970s were Princeton and the Architectural Association in London.


The range of school events taped is a reminder that the videos weren’t intended primarily as time capsules for the distant future, but as conveniences for the immediate community—permitting people who couldn’t attend an event to keep current.


By 1974, SCI-Arc invested in their own video equipment: two $1000 Panasonic Portapak cameras. Videotaping of the Wednesday night public lectures started that fall. Working within the freedoms and the limitations of the situation, Neikrug and other students developed a pragmatic production strategy.


In the absence of a permanent auditorium, public lectures took place in the double height atrium in the middle of the scaffolding structure in which students lived and worked. Since the Main Space hosted not only the lectures, but every group event that happened at SCI-Arc, equipment couldn’t be permanently installed. Chairs, projectors, lights, cameras, and microphones were set up before each event and put away afterwards. Moreover, the audio/visual set up had to balance the needs of the taping with the live event needs of the speakers and the audience, to see and hear comfortably.


I took pains to light the lectures appropriately. This was always a problem—the Main Space was not very friendly. I found Fresnel spotlights at Olesen Lighting that ran on house current. There was also a Lekolite that we otherwise used for model photography. But sometimes the space worked to our benefit: daytime events usually had daylight coming through the skylights. … I insisted on shooting in black and white long after color became accessible. I argued that we didn’t have any way to throw enough light, and actually we would get a worse image with color. I was told I was obstructing progress, but I still think I was right.[4]


They used two cameras: one on the speaker, the other providing a wide view of the slides. Later that year, students built an editing console, SCI-Arc’s first media facility. The equipment consisted of two open-reel ½-inch playback decks for “crash” editing. Later they acquired a more sophisticated Sony deck. Still later they acquired a mixer to permit live switching during taping.


Many of the oldest tapes demonstrate scrupulous attention to sound and image quality, and sophisticated use of multiple cameras and careful editing of composite viewing versions, as in the 1978 Peter Eisenman lecture. It also probably was an advantage that the equipment used to make a video in the 1974, compared to the equipment used to make a video in 2012, was highly unfriendly. Everything was either set up correctly or else it didn’t work at all.


SCI-Arc alumna and past media manager Julee Herdt, currently teaching at U Colorado in Denver, remembers the original venue with affection:


The Berkeley Street building lecture space was relatively small, which gave immediacy between audience and lecturer. There was a casual feel to the scene. The lecturer walked from the parking lot, through the big metal doors and to the podium; which was just a step or two up from the floor. If the lecture was at night the windows and doors to the large, un-insulated steel warehouse were usually open and the cool Santa Monica air drifted in. Folding chairs were placed in rows on the concrete floor. Video cameras on tripods taped the lectures. If you got there early you could climb up the modular scaffolding system that surrounded three sides of the lecture space and find a seat. Students jammed onto the scaffolding, which offered a great view.  The lecturer’s slides or films were projected from the administrative/computer room floor above onto a screen next to the podium.  A pretty simple set up but it worked.  The space had great atmosphere and hopefully this will read through in the old recordings[5].


The video crew and Shelly Kappe also experimented with an interview format, in which guests talked with Kappe in a studio. This led to the anthology compilation videos, on the L.A. 12 in 1976 and the series of interviews with architects featured in the 1980 “Modern Architecture Mexico” exhibit. Students also produced a few episodes of a news program. The January 1978 “Noon Day News” announces SCI-Arc’s recent purchase of a Commodore PET mini-computer. The video crew also went on location, interviewing Thornton Abell in his garden, taping Minoru Takeyama at LACMA, and Esther McCoy at USC.


During the 1980s, video production at SCI-Arc continuously evolved. Anna Krajewska-Wieczorek, now professor of theater history and aesthetics at Loyola, served as media manager 1978-88. The student video crew 1986-90 included Anthony Caldwell, currently Director of Technology at the UCLA Department of Architecture.


Open reel ½ inch videotape was replaced by U-matic ¾-inch, and black and white was replaced by color. The development of VHS equipment extended the democratization trajectory of video technology. Students made off the cuff documentaries (Tom Scarin Sherman Oaks Galleria).The video crew could document events without the elaborate set up required for lectures (Hans Hollein Student Discussion).


The Schindler House Remodel and Clyde Chace videos from 1986 are examples faculty, students and outside participants using video for vital historic documentation. In the first tape, SCI-Arc student cameraman Pierluigi Serraino surveys the first stage of remodeling work at the Schindler House on Kings Road. Robert Sweeney, coordinator of the renovation, takes Mark Schindler, the son of Rudolf and Pauline, and architecture historian Kathryn Smith on a tour of the house, explaining the demolition work under way. The video captures the discovery of a previously unknown commemorative inscription, and returning the roof patio to its original 1922 form. In the second video, Serraino tapes Robert Sweeney and Kathryn Smith as they interview Clyde Chace and his daughter Ann Harriett at the Schindler House, where they lived in the Twenties.


The task of lecture coordination was given to students: graduate students organized the fall series, undergraduates the spring—many of whom appear in archive videos introducing speakers. Between 1980 and 1990 Rose Marie Rabin assisted the students in coordinating the lectures. Margi Reeve served as lecture coordinator from 1990 to 2003.


In 1992 SCI-Arc moved to the Marina. Christopher Carradine’s November 1991 lecture was the last at Berkeley Street; Michele Saee’s in March 1992 was the first at Beethoven Street.


At Beethoven Street, the early Nineties saw the cultivation of new lecture series at SCI-Arc, supplementing the Wednesday night events. Archive visitors will notice a number of lectures on technology took place inside seminar rooms. Michael Dobry organized these informal noon talks 1993-7. They include many prescient discussions of the internet (Stephen Bingham in 1993), virtual reality (Celia Pearce in 1996), and rapid prototyping (Mark McCollough in 1998).


Artist Eugenia Butler presented an evening seminar in the Kappe Library from 1995-8, which took the form of discussions with an eclectic mix of guests. “Fire in the Library” conversations included artist Robert Irwin, director John Hughes, performance art icon Rachel Rosenthal, and poets David Antin and Jerome Rothenberg.


In 1997 a regular series of Friday noon lectures began, featuring current faculty talking about their work (Roger Sherman).


Keith Downey, currently teaching at Otis, was SCI-Arc media manager from 1994-9. In 1996, Downey supervised a project that proved crucial for the preservation of the video collection. With support from SCI-Arc alumni and a grant from the Graham Foundation, all available videos from 1974 to the present were copied onto archival SVHS videotape. This undertaking involved most of the video formats popular before VHS— ½ inch reel-to-reel videotape on 5- and 7-inch reels (from Karex, Scotch, Sony), and U-matic ¾ inch videotape (Fuji, Kodak, Scotch, Sony)—the moment when playback equipment was becoming scare. The bulk of the work was outsourced to the Bay Area Video Coalition (BVAC), which also provided audio and visual enhancement for damaged and low-quality tapes.


By 1999, the video crew was experimenting with digital video, taping onto mini-DV cassettes.


SCI-Arc moved from Beethoven Street to temporary buildings adjacent to the Freight Depot in August 2000. There are no lecture tapes for summer or fall 2000. The lectures from spring 2001 (Anthony Vidler though Josep Lluís Mateo) took place at venues loaned to SCI-Arc throughout downtown L.A.


Stanislaus Fung’s lecture on Chinese gardens was the first public lecture in the Freight Depot, September 26, 2001. Fung’s lecture is also interesting for illustrating a decisive shift in presentation method. Forty-six minutes into his lecture, Fung switches from 35mm slides to digital images. His is the first laptop seen on the SCI-Arc podium.


In 2002 the Media Center was dissolved as an independent facility. The Kappe Library took over responsibility for event production and documentation. While consolidating information resources, the elimination of expertise led to a Dark Ages in video quality from spring 2003 until the re-establishment of a media manager position in fall 2005.


From that point, the quality in audio and image has dramatically improved. The switch to digital production in 2005 led studio instructor Rob Ley to begin the first live webcasts of lectures in 2006. Reza Monahan, media manager since fall 2009, employs a Canon XH-A1S digital camera to document an ever-expanding number of lectures, symposia, and challenging in situ Gallery Talks (Coy Howard Exhibition Discussion). There has been a redoubled effort to improve the lecture experience for the live audience (and presenters) and improve the clarity and usefulness of the video documentation.

[1] Ferderber, Skip and Doug Smith. April 22, 1973. Public-Access TV: Revolution may come in a tube. Los Angeles Times. p. WS1.

[2] Anon. March 2, 1973. L.A. Access Project to Hold Festival. Los Angeles Times. p. 121.

[3] Morton Neikrug. Phone interview, April 1, 2012.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Personal email, February 20, 2012.