Students at the Southern California Institute of Architecture (Sci Arc). Photo by Pedro Domínguez

By Pedro Dominguez

Every time the sun rises in Los Angeles, Christopher Becerra has a chance to pursue what he loves: architecture.

“I love waking up every day and thinking of new and exciting ideas of how to reshape our physical world, to reimagine the norm and help become the next generation to lead the design industry into an exciting new era,” he says.

Becerra, 20, is in his second year at the Southern California Institute of Architecture (Sci-Arc), which is within walking distance of Boyle Heights.

Yet he might not be studying the field he loves today if it weren’t for Design Immersion Days, a summer program aimed at exposing high school students to architecture, which helped awaken his interest in the field.

From freight depot to school

Just across the Los Angeles River, hidden within the Arts District, this accredited, not-for-profit undergraduate and graduate school has begun to shape downtown Los Angeles and nearby communities.

Sci-Arc was founded in 1972 in Santa Monica. In 2001, the school moved to the abandoned Santa Fe freight house in what was once a rail yard. It enrolls about 500 students and has 80 faculty members.

The thin, quarter mile-long structure –almost the size of the Empire State Building on its side– appears to be a cultural melting pot, with a diverse American and international student body.

Its summer program, Design Immersion Days (DID), offers an opportunity for high school students to learn the basic skills of architecture and design and aims to inspire them to get involved in the field.

Sci-Arc offers scholarships to the summer program that help low-income as well as undocumented high school students get involved in architecture.

A summer program for high school students

“DID developed out of the idea that high school students would benefit from a more broad-based introduction to design through the lens of architecture,” says DID Coordinator Darin Johnstone, who is also an architect in Los Angeles. “It has been quite successful in this regard.”

While DID recruits students from all over the world, Johnstone says over 50 percent come from Los Angeles area high schools.

Becerra enrolled at Sci-Arc after graduating from University High School in West L.A. in 2014. He was introduced to DID through a mentorship program at his high school.

“DID helped me experience Sci-Arc from the inside out,” explains Becerra. “It introduced me to the vibrant and innovative design culture and community. It also inspired me to reimagine and reinvent the world, which is a common value here at Sci-Arc.”

Johnstone says that one of the goals of DID is helping prospective students understand that architecture and design are everywhere –from the streets to the bridges and from furniture to sinks.

“Architecture is always a product of its own disciplinary culture and the culture of the time it is created in,” Johnstone says. “Architecture is different than building. Building is a result only of commerce, convention, expedience. A link to the discipline of architecture and the culture of our time is what sets architecture apart from building.”

Minorities and women are underrepresented in the field. According to the American Institute of Architects, as of 2009 only three percent of licensed architects in the United States were Latino, 1 percent were African American and 15 percent were women.

Increasing diversity ‘a moral imperative’

“Architecture is very low in the career of choice within the Latino community,” says Sci-Arc Director and CEO Hernan Díaz Alonso, who was born in Argentina. Minorities “still see architecture and design as a luxury, as something that is extra, that is not necessary in the day-by-day life. There are other imperatives, like being a doctor or lawyer, things with which you think you’d be of better service to your community or your city.”

Díaz Alonso says he sees increasing diversity as a “moral imperative” for an institution so close to neighborhoods like downtown and Boyle Heights.

“I think it’s our job to explain to the community, to society, what is the value of architecture, how architecture contributes to make the lives of everybody better,” he says. “How beauty and aesthetics are a human right, not just a luxury. How building better cities, better communities, better neighborhoods is part of giving a better quality of life.”


Design Immersion Days at Sci-Arc

When: June 20-July 16

Who:  Open to high school students

Tuition and Fees: $3,350 tuition includes lunch, field trips and materials; $25 application fee and a $350 nonrefundable deposit required once a student is accepted. Scholarships available for low-income students; forms must be submitted with application. (Those awarded scholarships will have their deposits refunded.)

How: Applications are taken starting April 1 and accepted until program is full. Information:

Contact: Email or call (213) 356-5320.

Boyle Heights Beat is a bilingual community newspaper produced by its youth "por y para la comunidad". The newspaper and its sister website serve an immigrant neighborhood in East Los Angeles of just under...

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