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SCI-Arc: Breaking the disciplinary bounds of architecture

Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc) graduates are far more than just building designers. They are unique thinkers, compelling presenters, effective project managers, and ground-breaking entrepreneurs — often, all at once. Simply put, they are generalists. 

This is precisely what their school, the ultimate institution of architectural thinking, nurtured them to be. While many might think the concept behind broader skillsets stems from the evolving demands of our ever-changing world, SCI-Arc has always understood the beauty of exploratory academics. 

“The idea that architects would pursue a multidisciplinary or a multi-scale production is not a new one: we have always been looking beyond the boundaries of our discipline, appropriating materials, methods, and processes from other arts and industries,” says Graduate Programmes Chair Elena Manferdini. 

“Operating in a time of rapid innovation, education needs to embrace the fact that its disciplinary bounds are significantly past those originally imagined for the profession.”

As a passionate educator and active professional, Manferdini brings her fearless love for design and innovation to classrooms. There’s plenty to share considering she runs an eponymous atelier that has conceptualised work — characterised by interplay, chromatic complexity, and diversity — on over three continents; and boasts 20 years of professional experience in architecture, art, design, and education. 

Manferdini is one of the many educators at SCI-Arc playing a pivotal role in shaping the school’s curricula. Together and separately, they represent a wide range of contemporary approaches to architecture and related disciplines thanks to their respective roles off campus as renowned theorists, critics, and historians or some of Los Angeles’s leading architectural practitioners.


“Anybody I hire in my office comes from SCI-Arc,” says Graduate Programme Chair Elena Manferdini. Source: Southern California Institute of Architecture

Their insights have kept SCI-Arc’s M.Arch 2 graduate programmes at the forefront of technological innovation. Recently, the programme invested in AI advancement and robotics stewardship. Students have even been exploring the Metaverse’s role in architecture while learning to leverage gaming platforms. But that’s not all. 

“In addition to its focus on technology, the graduate programmes at SCI-Arc has implemented its stewardship of the environment,” explains Manferdini. “The core curriculum revolves around a holistic understanding of the dynamic between built and natural environments, enabling future architects to mitigate climate change responsibly. It also furthers and deepens students’ understanding of diverse cultural and social contexts before translating it into built environments that equitably support and include people of different backgrounds, resources, and abilities.”

Students have countless opportunities to better understand themselves as well. Technology plays a massive role in helping them dig a little deeper. For example, Manferdini is teaching a vertical studio called “Role Play,” which revolves around architectural identity in the digital age. 

“After a global transition of our sense of self into the digital realm and the rush towards an emerging metaverse, architects are asked to redefine our existence in real and virtual environments,” says Manferdini. “The studio grapples with this current phenomenon.”

The result? Students leveraged AI to design their own digital identities. Then, they transferred their findings to the scale of a 10,000-square-mile architectural space in Milan, combining the material with the immaterial. 

Downtown Los Angeles, California, an emerging cultural hub, is the perfect place for such experiments. SCI-Arc is located in a quarter-mile-long former freight depot in the Arts District of Los Angeles and as a “school without walls,” its students are constantly encouraged to broaden their horizons beyond campus. 

“LA has always been a city for dreaming, for pitching ideas, and for trying out new architectural modes,” enthuses Manferdini. “Without a bubble around our school, it is that much easier to turn outwards and learn from the many creative disciplines which have forged LA.”

Of course, the campus is also bursting at the seams with inspiration — think of a 6,000 square-foot fabrication shop, a Robot House for speculation on the future of architecture, the largest academic library in Southern California, and a technologically transformative digital fabrication lab. Outside these state-of-the-art spaces, SCI-Arc hosts many public events centred around pedagogy, theory, architecture, urban planning, design, technology, philosophy, entertainment, and art. 


This year’s Spring Show exhibition was hosted in conjunction with SCI-Arc’s 50th anniversary. Source: Southern California Institute of Architecture

It’s little wonder why graduates often feel compelled to remain at the school they know and love — SCI-Arc’s Spring Show 2022, entitled “The Land of Ahh’s,” was a testament to this. The annual student exhibition was curated by faculty Kordae Jatafa Henry, Jeremy Kamal Hartley, and Making+Meaning coordinator William Virgil — all of whom are proud SCI-Arc graduates. 

Together, they presented an investigation into architectural and symbolic parallels while providing their student body with an opportunity to gather and celebrate the juke joints, techno raves, and underground spaces that Black culture has cultivated for centuries. “It was a great moment to showcase both the phenomenal work of our students, as well as a joyful collaboration by fantastic young faculty,” says Manferdini. 

As the saying goes: “The best teachers are those who show you where to look, but don’t tell you what to see.”

To feast your eyes on the curricula sparking new possibilities and reimagining the future of architecture while drawing from 50 years of experience in guaranteeing academic excellence, click here to apply to SCI-Arc today.

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