That schoolgirl gripping a miniature violin case on South Grand Avenue in Downtown Los Angeles seems sweetly out of place on the crowded sidewalk as she bobs along in a flowered dress amid the glacial 50-story office towers. Striving to keep pace with her parents, she’s probably on her way to a recital at the Colburn School.
Located on Grand Avenue, the spine of L.A.’s 50-year-long redevelopment project to revive Bunker Hill, the Colburn attracts about 2,000 amateur and aspiring musicians and dancers into the business district each year, augmenting the soft power of the city’s “culture corridor” with the young and very young, including seven-month-olds in movement-and-rhythm classes. Sited next to the Museum of Contemporary Art’s MOCA Grand Avenue and opposite the Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Broad museum, the school streams pigtails, sweatshirts, hoodies, and strollers into the flow of suits and wing tips, diversifying Downtown’s sociology, adding the promise and spring of youth to the wall-to-wall adulthood.
The Colburn School’s low-rise Grand Building punches way beyond its height. The two-story brick structure, with a ziggurat-shaped roof that envelops the 430-seat Zipper Hall, houses one of the nation’s preeminent music conservatories and academies, acting nationally and internationally as a magnet for students pursuing a career and education in classical music. The Colburn’s many programs include its Community School of Performing Arts, which draws toddlers, grade-school kids, teenagers, and adults from the city and suburbs, and the Trudl Zipper Dance Institute, a comprehensive dance program whose participants range from beginner to preprofessional.
This article appears in the Spring 2022 issue of Alta Journal.
Institutionally young compared with the century-old Juilliard School in New York and the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, the 42-year-old Colburn is on the cusp of a growth spurt. Housed in two structures on a campus built in two phases by the New York and Los Angeles firm Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates in 1998 and 2007, the school has raised $267 million toward the construction of a 1,000-seat concert hall on 1.2 acres of an adjacent block (total construction costs are yet to be determined). Designed by Los Angeles architect Frank Gehry, still very active at 93, the multiuse building will include studios and a 100-seat studio-theater for the can-do Dance Academy now making do in tight quarters. The auditorium will provide room for a school that now has no place on campus to perform titanic symphonies (think Mahler) requiring a full orchestra.
Gehry’s building, yet to be named, marks a long-awaited milestone in Downtown Los Angeles, filling in the last remaining privately held parcel still undeveloped on Bunker Hill. The city will lose a parking lot but gain a midsize auditorium that can be used by the school and other companies.
VIOLA, NOT GOLF
Like the history of Los Angeles, the biography of the Colburn School is short but dense, and it comes with an architectural subtext. The school has a track record of specimen buildings designed to enhance teaching, shape spaces that build community, and convey what the Roman engineer and architect Vitruvius called “delight.”
Founded in 1950 as an outreach preparatory music program of the University of Southern California, what would become the blandly named Community School of Performing Arts was directed, beginning in 1972, by émigré conductor, composer, pianist, and educator Herbert Zipper, who previously—after evading Nazis in Germany and then Japanese soldiers in the Philippines (long story)—taught children and adults at the Music Center of the North Shore, outside Chicago in Winnetka, Illinois. There, Richard D. Colburn, a business-person who specialized in buying and restructuring distressed companies, became a co-owner of the music center; his daughter Carol studied piano with Zipper and dance with Zipper’s wife, Trudl Dubsky Zipper.
When Colburn’s businesses led him to Los Angeles, he helped meet the operating deficit at the USC school, which was housed in a warehouse off campus where Zipper, his friend from Chicago, was coincidentally a program director. But the school continued to struggle financially, and when the university wanted to close it, Colburn stepped in with donations that kept it open and made it independent. In his personal life, the colorful Colburn socialized with musicians, including Jascha Heifetz and Gregor Piatigorsky, and not with fellow businessmen, who had a tendency to schmooze while chasing a little white ball down the fairway: “ ‘I don’t play golf; I play viola,’ he liked to say,” remembers his daughter Carol Colburn Grigor. “He wasn’t very outgoing. Rather than partying or sailing, he played in a string quartet.”
His financial commitment to the Community School deepened as he became more and more personally involved, and by 1988, the school had been renamed the Colburn. In 1998, it moved into its new Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer home, called the Grand Building.
At the time, Los Angeles sent its young musicians back East to schools that fed graduates into far-flung orchestras. Exasperated at the talent drain, Colburn was determined to help establish a world-class conservatory in Los Angeles. The Community School continued as a parallel program when the Conservatory of Music was established. “Mr. Colburn supported a West Coast musical cultural tradition, on a European model,” says Darleen Callaghan, associate dean of the Colburn’s Trudl Zipper Dance Institute. “He believed in the power of music and art to transform lives and wanted to attract and nurture the best talent in L.A.”
As a startup, the conservatory instituted strategic policies to attract the best and brightest. Its free tuition and room and board and its stellar faculty who offered close-up, personalized attention quickly propelled the school into the top ranks of American conservatories. Within a few years, the school was attracting students who otherwise would be attending Juilliard and Curtis, among others, according to the conservatory’s dean, Lee Cioppa, who oversaw admissions at Juilliard before herself decamping to the Colburn. The first conservatory class entered in 2003, sized at about 15, and grew within a few years to 120, the number of musicians necessary to fill out a full symphony orchestra. The conservatory includes a piano department of 11 students and a conductor’s program for 3.
“WE FUCKING BOUGHT IT”
Architecturally, the school is an anomaly of modesty among the arts institutions on Bunker Hill, some of which are housed in iconic structures by signature architects practicing a modernism flamboyant. The Colburn, meanwhile, occupies a more subdued structure built in traditional brick that, like a Fabergé egg, opens into a world of its own inside: in the entrance atrium, a balcony rail curves like a grand piano in a luminous, two-story space punctuated with a visually cacophonic mobile by Los Angeles artist Peter Shire.
A major architectural surprise is parked in the atrium on the balcony level. In 1992, the school acquired a threatened structure, a one-story studio designed by Frank Lloyd Wright’s son Lloyd Wright for Heifetz in Coldwater Canyon, near Beverly Hills. The school reconstructed it piece by piece on the balcony for the 1998 opening of the Grand Building. Once the violinist’s practice studio and office, it remains a studio, where Jascha Heifetz Distinguished Violin Chair Robert Lipsett gives lessons to students in a redwood-paneled room that feels like the inside of a cello. The long, irregular space is furnished with a grand piano and the original built-in desk and seating. A painted figure of Nipper, the terrier mix that was a mascot for RCA Victor (for which Heifetz recorded), sits at the door, his head cocked, as if listening to a recording.
The Heifetz studio intimates that comparable experimental gems have been built in L.A.’s suburbia, but more directly, it introduces students firsthand to the interdependent relationship between music and architecture: they learn that buildings condition the way sound is heard and the way musicians play. Jay Heifetz, the violinist’s son, said in a 1999 Los Angeles Times article, “My father realized that the design of a space is important to the stimulation of creative energy.”
“The music of architecture, the architecture of music,” says Silas Farley, putting it simply. He’s the charismatic 27-year-old, six-foot-five dancer and choreographer, formerly with the New York City Ballet, who now heads the Trudl Zipper Dance Institute, which includes the Dance Academy, for preprofessional dancers.
On the way to the Heifetz studio, a floor below, a photo of Richard Colburn, dressed in a plain business suit while holding his viola, looks on. Other photos of him, as a young boy in wool knickers holding his first instrument, a violin, and then at various stages in his life, are hung among original artworks lent by artists and art studios. “He played every day of his life,” says the school’s president and CEO, Sel Kardan.
The atrium leads to a generous outdoor plaza with randomly checkered paving at the heart of the campus, animated by a popular two-story café set within a jostled architectural composition of brick-clad volumes split down the middle by a wide area of glassed promenades and public areas. Two volumes house dormitories climbing many stories. The ensemble, known as the Olive Building, is energetic and understated, a modernist composition with a whiff of tradition because of the striated brick coursework. The brick delivers the comfort of a protective school environment. In the lobby, a harp encrusted with glass tiles and a guitar coated with colored toothpicks greet visitors: “The message you want to give is optimism,” says Grigor. “You want parents to like it and children to think the experience is joyous—it’s architecture that lifts the spirit.”
What the ground-floor plaza level of the campus doesn’t reveal beneath the courtyard pavers is an unseen iceberg of spaces built into the eastern flank of Bunker Hill as it flows 40 feet down from Grand to Olive Street. The submerged iceberg contains a compact working city of studios, classrooms, offices, and a small recital hall. It includes the school music library and a piano hospital (the school’s 175 warhorse grand pianos are tuned and repaired on an ongoing basis).
But what is remarkable and even wise about the Colburn’s design is that the spaces inside both the 1998 and 2007 buildings are configured to pool people in face-to-face encounters instead of separating them along institutional corridors: the public rooms mix and socialize students, teachers, parents, and visitors. In the outdoor plaza, at four or five in the afternoon, mothers chat over coffee in the café; older brothers wait, doing their homework; fathers talk to their children. Even the iceberg downstairs is organized around indoor atria and streets, where students sit cross-legged in conversations on carpeted floors, armed with their instrument cases. “We factored in large, empty spaces,” says Grigor, life chair emeritus of the school board. “Empty space as much as solid form can define a building, like silences in a piece of music.”
What distinguishes the two buildings from the parade of towers with showy lobbies on Grand Avenue is the human scale of the school’s spaces, sized for intimacy and calibrated for a lightness of spirit. “It’s not trophy architecture, but it looks like something other than a courthouse or a 19th-century schoolhouse,” Grigor says. “Good architecture includes the imagination.”
Since the school’s inception, Colburn family members, imbued by Richard Colburn with a sense of philanthropic responsibility, have joined civic leaders and music enthusiasts on the school board. But Grigor, a fine-boned redhead whose polite manners belie a fierce determination, has driven the school’s pursuit of architectural excellence: “I’m passionate about contemporary architecture.” Trained as a concert pianist, Grigor has been instrumental in working with architects on the school, at times encouraging them to dare more (she is married to a Scottish arts documentarian, Murray Grigor, who specializes in architecture films). She urged Olive Building architect David Saviola to make his design for administration offices, dormitory towers, and the school cafeteria compelling in affordable ways. “He split the towers down the middle and angled the parts, and inserted a wide area of glassed promenades and public spaces so it would all breathe,” she says. “He was brilliant.”
More recently, she has spearheaded the project to build the new 1,000-seat concert hall, first of all prompting the board to buy the property. So as not to be gouged as a school with nowhere else to grow, she coined the dummy purchaser acronym WFBI, for “We Fucking Bought It”—“Women over 70 can use rude language,” she explains. Some members of nonprofits believe in funding programs like scholarships more than brick-and-mortar projects, but Grigor believes in both and championed Gehry’s concert hall.
Besides, it’s what her father and Herbert Zipper wanted. Grigor and Toby Mayman, a previous director of the Community School who still advises the board, spoke with Colburn and Zipper, who both agreed that the school needed a hall. “First and foremost came the school,” says Grigor. “But my father said what we really need to build is a hall. He believed that what this town doesn’t have is a really good medium-sized hall with world-class acoustics.”
Traveling from Dublin, where she lives in a restored 18th-century townhouse, Grigor checks in with Gehry on the project every time she’s in Los Angeles. In his studio, he recently built a large physical model of the hall that allows “visitors” to stick their heads up into the middle of the space for a turnaround view of the interior.
Gehry had originally proposed a structure surfaced in faceted glass whose exterior shape expressed the acoustic box inside. Costs caused him to return to the drawing boards. The current design is remarkable for extroverting the concert hall, inherently an introverted building type. A humanist who talks about the body language of buildings, Gehry has relaxed the structure with terraces, usable roofs, and a garden, all overlooking a public plaza. The design’s architectural outreach brings music, dance, and events to Los Angeles’s streets, activating the site’s downslope location on the lee side of the hill. The formal gestures loop the building into the Grand Avenue arts precinct and the Grand project next door, also by Gehry, a full-block complex with a 45-story, 400-unit apartment tower and a 28-story hotel, with a multistory village of shops at the base. Gehry’s troika of projects constitutes a small city.
The auditorium itself is a 360-degree in-the-round theater, with an exposed ceiling of adjustable clouds hovering over the space for acoustic tuning. Steel catwalks weave between the clouds and the roof, and balconies float off the walls. The size of the stage will allow for Mahler. With its high degree of flexibility, its acoustic tunability, and its power of suggestion, the building promises to be a performative space that can be creatively played and interpreted, like an instrument.
Farley’s dance program will be a prime beneficiary of the new building, with five studios, including one designed to double as a performance space. “And it will enable and inspire new student choreography,” he says. Beyond the Trudl Zipper Dance Institute and the more specialized Dance Academy for some 20 preprofessional students of high school age, the hall will be the missing gathering space and performance destination for the dance world in Los Angeles.
A KEYSTONE STRUCTURE
Gehry’s built design, when finished in 2026, will complete the school that Colburn, a master at organizing companies, set in motion, a remarkably rich and inclusive musical world with moving parts that work together as an organic whole. Students from the conservatory teach beginning students in the Jumpstart Young Musicians Program, which brings about 150 promising students from the local underserved community into the school for extracurricular music instruction. Disciplines intermingle and complement. Students in the Dance Academy are exposed to music via recitals, and musicians are exposed to ballet, modern dance, and even tap. Usually on Thursdays, in a program called the Forum, students perform solo or in ensembles in a hall on campus for the conservatory, an event open to the whole school.
Binding it all is a selection of carefully curated teachers. The virtuoso pianist Fabio Bidini, who occupies the Carol Colburn Grigor Piano Chair, sits at his grand next to a student at his grand, playing what the student has just played, but adding nuances between the notes, the “finish” that is not written into the score.
The school itself is embedded in a remarkable cultural ecosystem. Students are given passes to the Broad to see its collection of contemporary work without standing in line, and those who stay in the dorms live next to MOCA Grand Avenue, a free-of-charge museum with an outstanding postwar collection. The Colburn has a fund for buying tickets to the L.A. Philharmonic at the Walt Disney Concert Hall and the L.A. Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, with the Mark Taper Forum just down the street.
The school, then, is a musical ecosystem within a larger cultural ecosystem, a school campus within an urban campus, a keystone structure that completes a redevelopment plan slowly and arduously pieced together over the decades on Bunker Hill.
Gehry’s new concert hall is bigger than a building. It is the last piece in an arts corridor in which all sections—music, dance, theater—have the potential of playing together symphonically, in the Colburn spirit: hear the dance, see the music, breathe the architecture.•