Playing music is both a solitary and communal activity. There are the focused hours spent alone, practicing something repeatedly. Then there’s the pleasure of hearing your sounds blend with someone else’s, or playing with an ensemble and getting swept up in something large, unified, and complex.
These two poles of musicianship are highlighted in the Silverlake Conservatory of Music’s new building. Designed by architect Barbara Bestor, the music school’s new home on Hollywood Boulevard offers a deft balance of solo and group areas, which she refers to as the “village” and the “town square” — one for privacy and practice, the other for performance. The building is also eight times larger than the 15-year-old conservatory’s former storefront, so it will now be able to host its own performances, and can accommodate nearly double the number of music students per week.
The nonprofit conservatory, founded by Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, his childhood friend Keith Barry, and Peter Weiss, offers private lessons, summer intensive music camps, choirs, bands, an orchestra, a songwriting group, and workshops in music theory and sight-reading. They’ve committed to providing 35 percent of their students with full scholarships, including free instruments, based on financial need. With the student body about to double (to 1,200 kids per week), that 35 percent is about to get larger.
“We want to teach music,” says Jennifer Rey, the conservatory’s executive director, who has been involved since its founding. “And we were seeking an architect who would prioritize that. This isn’t a place for kids to become rock stars, it’s a place to teach the basic fundamentals of musicianship.”
Bestor had known of the conservatory for years — its former space at Sunset Junction was a few doors down from Intelligentsia Coffee, which her firm designed in 2009. When the conservatory bought a 1930s brick building less than a mile north, Bestor was eager to take it on. Her firm, along with Shangri-La Construction, donated much of their services for the sizable overhaul.
Originally a cosmetics warehouse, the building had been owned for a time by the Church of Scientology and then chopped up into an interior warren of office spaces. But once Bestor got the building stripped down to its bones, its potential was revealed. A stunning bowstring truss ceiling punctured with skylights is prominent (cleverly placed mirrors double its reach), and the building’s outdated faux-Colonial facade was removed to display attractive brickwork.
“We wanted to mix the character of old Hollywood with contemporary Hollywood,” Bestor says. The juxtaposition between historic architectural elements and surprising shape, color, and pattern, is captivating.
New windows and glass doors were installed in the building’s front to present a welcoming entry to passersby, and show off the conservatory’s store. Bestor’s successes in eye-catching retail design (Jamba Juice Innovation Bar, Lou Wine Shop & Tastings, Trina Turk) are evident here, in a dramatically angled wood wall displaying a handsome grid of instruments hung like objects in shadow boxes.
Inside, the “village” area consists of a ring of pale oak lesson studios clustered around a central bathroom skinned in a shiny zig-zag pattern. The studios are peaked by a range of subtly angled roofs which suggest the conviviality of houses rubbing shoulders, and serves to improve the acoustics inside the small soundproofed rooms. The “town square” is a flexible, high-ceilinged multipurpose room for large ensembles and performances. A carpeted upper mezzanine (christened the "Flea-zzanine") provides elevated audience seating, or a place for relaxing and writing music.
Toward the back of the building, drum and choral practice rooms sport bright magenta carpeting and whiteboard walls. “Our program director SJ Hasman would write vocal exercises directly on the walls in our old space,” Rey says, “Now she can do so and we don’t have to repaint every year!”
“We’re interested in a model like Inner-City Arts,” Rey says, referring to the nonprofit arts education center in downtown Los Angeles which teaches over 450 visiting schoolchildren a day. “Before, we had to rent auditoriums for our performances. Now we have the space to operate as a centralized place that kids from all over can come to.”
As alumni of L.A.’s Fairfax High, conservatory co-founders Flea and musician and educator Barry (who serves as the conservatory’s dean), greatly benefitted from their school’s free music program in the late 1970s, where Flea started learning trumpet before going on to become a world renowned bassist. On a visit to his former high school, he learned that funding for its music program had been wiped out. Soon afterward, he began planning to start a music school.
“I was the type of kid that was gonna end up in a lot of trouble. And music was something I really had to hold on to. It made me want to go to school, it gave me something to believe in,” Flea has said.
While the conservatory has served thousands of local youths in the past 15 years, the need for arts education is still dire. Between budget cuts and a focus on standardized test scores, public school orchestras, bands, and art programs in California have been demolished. As of last year, 80 percent of Los Angeles Unified’s schools’ arts programs measured below state requirements. The nonprofit sector has tried to fill the gaps.
The conservatory’s expansion reflects its ambitious aims and the support of its community, and is sure to become a new neighborhood hub. Reflecting on the school’s success, Flea has noted, “It’s definitely been a lesson that when you have a good idea, that you know is a good idea, like there’s no question — go for it. Put everything you’ve got into it.”