Otis College of Art and Design reimagines its campus with COVID in mind

By Christina Campodonico

Otis has reimagined its educational spaces with new health and safety protocols put into place.
Credit: Fawad Assadullah, Courtesy Otis College of Art and Design

As a result of COVID-19, many educational institutions have had to close and switch to a virtual learning format. Otis College of Art and Design in Westchester went completely remote at the onset of the pandemic, then in the spring assembled a COVID-19 Task Force, including the firms EYRC Architects and Frederick Fisher and Partners, to develop a redesign study plan that would allow the campus to reopen during the 2020-2021 school year. Faculty and staff joined together for a Zoom call to discuss how to redesign classrooms and workspaces with COVID in mind.

“That was a really, really interesting Zoom call,” says architect Whitney Wyatt, a principal at Culver City-based Ehrlich Yanai Rhee Chaney Architects. “It was almost like if they were in a design class. Some people, you know, in the architecture program, those plans were drafted ready for construction. There were dimensions down to the end. There were some that were like collages from the fine arts group.”

While EYRC Architects and FF&P (the joint team behind Otis’ 2016 campus expansion, which included a new four-story academic wing and a five-story residence hall) were brought in to consult and critique these designs, Wyatt says that consulting on the project gave her even more insight into how art and design are taught at the university level.

“I felt like I was auditing courses in art education,” Wyatt says.

While Otis courses remain remote due to the pandemic, designated studio, workshop and “maker spaces” equipped with a variety of hand-held tools and safety barriers are available to Otis students by reservation in three-hour blocks to work on their school projects, which often require time spent immersed in a photo lab, woodshop or other type of creative studio space. A limited number of students are allowed in the spaces between 8 a.m. and 10 p.m. during these reservation periods.

“After we had to go remote in March, there [was a] tremendous sense of loss over access to the campus,” says Joanne Mitchell, interim assistant provost at Otis College of Art and Design. “So, we were super committed to getting [students] back on campus…The priority of these lab, shops and studio spaces was super high.”

So, Otis converted its Ben Maltz Gallery into a dedicated maker space accessible to all students and the top of the college’s parking garage became an al fresco studio area.

“There’s actually an array [of photovoltaics] on the fifth floor that creates kind of a shade canopy,” says Wyatt, explaining how the architecture team really looked for ways to carve out space for socially distanced maker spaces on Otis’ small, dense campus, which she likens to a “layered wedding cake.”

While converting the roof of Otis’ parking garage seemed like a “crazy idea” at first, it’s actually very in keeping with the school’s ethos and traditions, observes fellow consulting architect Marisa Kurtzman, a partner at the West LA-based Frederick Fisher and Partners.

“There was a precedent for that because Otis now holds its annual fashion show up in that space, so the idea of sort of converting that space into another use wasn’t a complete unknown,” says Kurtzman. “I think one of the neat things about Otis is that they have a long history of being very resourceful and scrappy, and you know, that DIY, ‘let’s-make-it-work-with-what-we have’ attitude has pervaded the campus planning, I think forever.”

EYRC Architects and Frederick Fisher and Partners also imagined how classrooms could be safely reconfigured for in-person classes.

“One thing is so much of art education is kind of everybody clustered around a professor, and they’re looking at something, and they’re all huddled and they’re all facing the same way,” Kurtzman says. “With COVID, you really can’t do that. It’s not safe. So, I’m making sure that people could still kind of get that access, the visual access, to the teaching process but also still maintain safety.”

“We ended up turning things like a 45-degree angle to what they had been because that allowed for the display of models or still life kind of objects and whatnot, but still allow for circulation,” Wyatt says. “And we tried to kind of think about circulation and how you could leverage the circulation as also kind of being a buffer zone between people and sort of activities or stations, if you will.”

How could students and faculty safely maneuver between desks and sewing stations? How could students interact with a model without even touching his or her clothes? (Projecting a model’s image from another room with a document camera was one idea.) But each artistic discipline within the college ultimately received a unique design treatment, from how students’ use of spaces could be staggered over time to how supplies and equipment could be sanitized and shared.

“It really was like a case by case, like department and class-by-class basis,” Wyatt says. “We sort of started out with this ambition of we’ll have like three sort of templates that can be applied. And we quickly realized it wasn’t going to work at all. So, [it] became really like bespoke and custom for each one.”

While dormitories have not yet reopened, “residence halls have been fitted with quarantine rooms—in case a residential student is exposed to COVID-19—that are complete with dedicated stairways allowing for entry and exit without contact to other students,” reads an excerpt from Otis’ redesign study.

Another addition to the campus’ redesign—“a lot of plexiglass,” Mitchell says.