On The Wednesday Night Lecture: 50 Years Later, SCI-Arc Looks Back
By Neyat Yohannes
“When Shelly first asked me to come, I was all ready to say no,” says a young Sheila de Bretteville, “not because I don’t want to know all of you, but because I’ve gotten really tired of talking to people about anything.” The graphic designer and co-founder of the Woman’s Building and its Women’s Graphic Center and Feminist Studio Workshop is standing on a stage in front of SCI-Arc students, faculty, and members of the greater Los Angeles architecture and design community on New Year’s Day, 1974. “There’s something perilous about this,” says de Bretteville as Shelly Kappe adjusts her mic. And yet, de Breteville proceeds to give a memorable presentation on the works of architects and designers like Eileen Grey and Catherine Beecher, her own work with Judy Chicago and Arlene Raven, and even opens up a discussion about the symbolic nature of form, among other things. This sort of rare-seeming stage magic was, and remains, a typical weeknight at SCI-Arc. But these special encounters do take notable effort. Half a century later, SCI-Arc’s Wednesday Night Lecture Series—also known as the Design Forum Lectures—is alive and well thanks to the continued diligence of a dedicated faculty, students, and staff. Every week, anyone who’s interested can attend a world-class lecture as has been the case since the school’s founding in 1972, when Kappe first introduced the program.
True to SCI-Arc’s “college without walls” fashion, Ray Kappe, the school’s Founding Director and partner to co-founding member Shelly, thought that the city of Los Angeles could use some more opportunities for architectural discussion. Without skipping a beat, Shelly organized the Wednesday Night Lecture Series. She even went a step further and brought other architecture schools into the fold. Each school would schedule talks on different nights so that students could attend lectures across campuses without conflict.
The lectures were publicized to the architecture community and general public with a weekly mailer—a poster or card—that announced the speakers and flagged any upcoming themed series. These announcements were first designed by faculty members Jim Stafford, Ahde Lahti, student assistant Mort Neikrug, who also videotaped the lectures, and Kappe herself. “Videotaping the lectures for further viewing was another innovative idea,” says Kappe, “these tapes formed the SCI-Arc archive, and with a grant, were later put online.” Just about every lecture from the program’s inception until now is available on SCI-Arc Channel, via the SCI-Arc Media Archive. They’re considered a valuable international resource that architecture students and connoisseurs can access anytime.
Before the move from analog to digital—when SCI-Arc’s graphic design students and faculty could start showcasing their impressive fliers online—Margi Reeve, the school’s Publications and Lecture Coordinator from 1990-2003, recalls the fun challenge of designing handmade ephemera each week, along with books to remember the lectures by. With so many historic talks taking place so often, something had to be done for posterity’s sake. “We needed to document what was happening and we needed to share it,” says Reeve, “so I began a publications program and, within five years, we published 25 titles.” If that wasn’t enough, Reeve also managed to convince New York publisher Rizzoli to distribute them. “Suddenly,” she says, “bookstores all over the world would have these monographs originating from SCI-Arc.”
The Wednesday Night Lecture Series initially began with presentations featuring SCI-Arc faculty, and then branched out to bring in any local architects who were willing to participate. “Soon,” says Kappe, the lectures included national and, eventually, international architects as well.” Some talks were themed, while others featured panel discussions, all of which Kappe received grants for, never taking a fee. In fact, she coordinated all of the lectures from 1973 until she retired in 1987, pro bono.
German modernist architect Konrad Wachsman, a friend and colleague of the Bauhaus founders, once said to Kappe, “SCI-Arc is like the new Bauhaus.” It was becoming a movement. What was once an intimate affair quickly started to outgrow every room on campus. Before there was W.M. Keck Lecture Hall, the series did some location hopping to accommodate the enthusiastic crowds, which would reach triple digits. “I had to find places where we could hold lectures all over Downtown LA and they were different every week,” says Reeve, “and then I just kind of had to get the word out.” One week it would be in the auditorium of the Department of Public Works on South Broadway. The next, it was at Patriotic Hall on South Figueroa Street. “We were just completely nomadic,” says Reeve. Architects Antoine Predock and former SCI-Arc Director Neil M. Denari even gave lectures in a parking lot, from atop a cherry picker. Becoming the occasional lecture series on wheels only further exemplified the program’s community-oriented mission. “From the beginning, SCI-Arc was an institute for architecture and not just a school. It provided a free, accessible public platform for the discussion of architecture,” says Kappe Library Manager Kevin McMahon.
According to Kappe, when Buckminster Fuller visited as a lecturer, he said, “This is the best learning environment I’ve seen yet.” Perhaps it was due to the democratic nature of the series. Students and faculty collaborated on everything from deciding who to invite as a guest speaker, to how to get the word out, and how to make things more streamlined. “We were always making improvements,” says Wendy Heldmann, who served as the Public Programs Coordinator from 2002-2012. When the sound quality was lacking, a felt ceiling came in. “Or when we had a crappy riser stage setup with a boring podium,” says Heldmann, “we thought, let’s have a competition to design a new podium.” She remembers it being an all-hands-on-deck experience, where everyone pitched in and contributed ideas.
Of course, there’s no Wednesday Night Lecture Series without the beloved post-lecture dinner. “These dinners were incredible,” says Reeve, “each of the lecturers would walk in and their jaws would drop because no other school had done anything like that.” With each visiting lecturer, an always rotating group of faculty and students was chosen to partake in the dinner so that everyone had a chance to speak to the guests in a more intimate setting. Students were in charge of decorating and they never disappointed. “We used to have these candles back in the day,” says Stephanie Atlan, who now serves as the school’s Communications Director after a decade as the Public Programs Coordinator from 2011-2021, “the library would be candlelit and people would hang out, sometimes until midnight, allowing the spirited debate of the lecture to live on at the dinner.”
Today, the series is still thriving and continues to evolve. The program has always been and remains free to all. And when Covid shook things up, affecting in-person events, SCI-Arc leaned further into streaming the lectures online and has made them more immediately accessible to viewers around the world. “We’ve also made much more of an effort to keep the invitee list more balanced and more diverse,” says Atlan, “with diversity across race, gender, ethnicity, nationality, and age.” The idea with the latter is that the series can celebrate burgeoning and seasoned lecturers alike. “And there’s a diversity of practitioners, too,” says Atlan, “not just architects, but also artists, filmmakers, critics, curators, and writers.”
At the end of her 1974 lecture, de Bretteville discusses the missing elements of the Feminist Studio Workshop, which was still coming together at the time. She tells the audience that she was willing to come speak at SCI-Arc not only “in gratitude for their energetic response” to her work, but also because she was in search of “a design community, a designer’s mentality, and a commitment to the public.” The very tenets that have guided the Wednesday Night Lecture Series through fifty years of programming, and many more to come.