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Ahmanson Auditorium at ArtCenter College of Design

Darin Johnstone Architects

Pasadena, CA, United States

April 2022


Darin Johnstone (Principal), Sandra Hutchings (Lead Designer)


Rob Ettenger (Project Architect, DJA), Matt Liese (Technical Director, DJA), Dan Weinreber (Lighting Designer, KGM), Nick Antonio (Acoustical Engineer, Antonio Acoustics), Howard Glickman (Theater Consultant, APF


Rollin Homer, Vice President Facilities and Campus Planning, ArtCenter College of Design


Joshua White


The location of the project, and the view of the lobby, offered a tremendous design opportunity to signify arrival. After the visual impact of coming to the iconic bridge and passing under it, in the view of the lobby, a giant ArtCenter orange dot logo is deployed to reinforce the space as a gateway. Inside the lobby, simple design elements are used to create a threshold and reinforce the space as a special place. The lobby features a historic steel stair connecting level one and level two, and a stunning original Keith Haring mural can be seen through the stair opening from below.

The auditorium sound and light locks, ordinarily banal and dreary, were designed as chromatic thresholds, washed in ArtCenter’s signature orange, to establish a portal into a contemporary experience. Once inside, the side walls of the auditorium are lined with color gradient sound-absorbing “dots.” These “dot walls” consist of over five thousand 8” diameter Armstrong tectum “dots” transitioning from ArtCenter orange at the back of the house to black at the front. A constellation of house lights, designed to rhyme with the “dot” walls, floats above the house. The full dot field intends to create an ephemeral experience in dialogue with the linear modernist language of the building. The design’s overall aesthetic goal was to establish an iconography to resonate with the clarity of the context and the ArtCenter ethos. In the seats, the architecture fades to black so the user can be immersed in sound and vision.


The reimagined Ahmanson Auditorium is in the ArtCenter College of Design’s iconic, Craig Ellwood-designed “bridge” building completed in 1977. The building, often described as Ellwood’s swan song, is situated within 165 wooded acres in Pasadena, California. Clearly tied the work of Meis Van Der Rhoe, the 220,000 square foot building is a stunning steel and glass bridge structure spanning an arroyo in the San Rafael Hills, above the Rose Bowl Stadium. It is designated as a local historic landmark and is considered one of southern California’s most iconic modernist structures.

Founded in 1930, ArtCenter College of Design (ArtCenter) is a global leader in art and design education. The school’s mission is simple- “Learn to Create. Influence Change.” To facilitate this, they implement a visionary, conservatory-like approach to teaching and learning with a “desire for rich, intercultural and transdisciplinary dialogue; and a mandate to provide students innovative learning and making spaces.”

The Ahmanson Auditorium renovation, located on the lower level of the Ellwood building, with the lobby situated directly under the bridge structure, is in dialogue with history and situated in the rich creative context of a renowned art and design school. Equally, ArtCenter’s commitment to Design Equity and Inclusion, and the timing of the 30-year anniversary of ADA legislation in 2020 were the impetus that drove a complete redesign of the more than 3,000-square-foot auditorium into a fully accessible 214-seat, premier cinematic experience, and high-functioning educational space for the college’s distinguished film department.


“Film students at ArtCenter have been able to produce professional-quality content for some time now, but prior to the Ahmanson renovation they had no place to view it in its full resolution, dynamic range and color gamut except for small color-grading monitors in our editing suites—nor could they hear their films’ audio tracks in anything remotely approaching the spectacular experience of Dolby Atmos sound,” said Ross LaManna, Chair of ArtCenter’s undergraduate and graduate film departments. “Now, in the Ahmanson, they can fully experience their work in a theater whose projection, audio, comfort, and design aesthetics rival any premium movie theater in the country. This has been a game-changing improvement to Film education at ArtCenter.”

In addition to creating a premier cinematic experience and high-functioning educational space to teach and inspire the next generation of filmmakers, artists and designers, the design brief required flexibility of use to adapt to lectures, symposia, and multiple modes of direct instruction. Consequently, the space serves as the programmatic heart of the college, and a venue for world-class speakers, movie marathons and emotional gatherings. Since the renovation, the space has hosted a myriad of events exemplifying the vitality and flexibility of the new auditorium. A small sampling of events that have occurred include, a symposium Celebrating Keith Haring’s Art Center Mural, a Blade Runner Screening Celebrating the work of Syd Mead, and Zach Snyder’s three-day celebration of the Snyderverse Trilogy to support the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

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