Norman Pfeiffer Created Harmony with Form and Function for the Colburn School

Architect Norman Pfeiffer sitting at a desk

Photo of Norman H. Pfeiffer pictured in 2006.
Photo courtesy of Pfeiffer Partners, photo by Pamela Mosher.

Twenty-five years ago, Colburn School opened the doors to its newly completed home on Grand Ave., in Downtown Los Angeles. Students walked into a carefully and considerately designed school for the performing arts. Of course, the facility contained modern classrooms and special sound-isolated practice rooms, but also welcoming common areas and the impressive 430-seat Herbert Zipper Hall. The debut of the building marked the culmination of a multi-year endeavor to relocate Colburn to its own permanent site.  

By 1983, enrollment was outgrowing the old, converted warehouse facility on the corner of Figueroa and 32nd Street. A team of School leaders, headed by Executive Director Toby Mayman (1980 to 1999) set out to provide a more appropriate and inspirational environment. Once the property on Grand Ave. was secured in 1994, the focus switched to design. Eighteen architectural firms were invited to present plans. Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer (HHP) won the job with founding partner Norman Pfeiffer spearheading the project 

This summer, at age 82, Pfeiffer passed away, but his legacy endures through Colburn.

  • The Grand Ave. groundbreaking ceremony ushered in the beginning of the downtown Los Angeles Colburn School’s permanent location.
  • Colburn School administration surveys onsite construction for the School’s Grand Ave. build.
  • View of the Colburn School’s site development from early excavation and foundation preparations.
  • View facing the Olive building from the Colburn Plaza which also features the Colburn Café that serves students, faculty, staff, and the general public.
  • Named after Herbert Zipper, a key figure in the history of the School’s development, the Zipper Hall seats 430 and resides in the Grand Ave. building of the Colburn School.
  • Named after former Executive Director Toby Mayman (1980 to 1999), Mayman Hall resides on the second floor of the Grand Ave. building.

Pfeiffer’s Footprint 

By the time HHP began work on the Grand Ave. campus, Pfeiffer had composed an impressive portfolio. He had a hand in designing several LA landmarks, including the Robert O. Anderson Building, which is the street-facing addition to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). He also contributed to the 1993 renovation and expansion of the Los Angeles Central Library. Additionally, Pfeiffer assembled a repertoire of several educational spaces around the globe. But it was his commitment to Colburn’s mission that stands out, according to many.   

“Everything about Norman impressed me. He and his team came to the converted warehouse and observed us in operation. That made our discussions of what we wanted in a new campus more impactful,” recalls Joseph Thayer, Colburn School dean from 1983–98 and executive director from 1998–2008. 

“Norman was the only candidate who made an effort to fully get a sense and understanding of the function of the School. He had a basic understanding of the importance of what goes on inside the building, which was providing the highest quality performing arts education to as many young people as possible,” says Mayman.  

“For Norman’s presentation to the board members, he came with a full mockup of the mid-1980’s Grand Ave. neighborhood,” she continues “to aptly demonstrate the School’s surroundings. At that time, there was no Disney Hall, nor Broad Museum, although MOCA was next door to the site.  Height limitations were at three stories. An added element was the need to include the Jascha Heifetz studio which the School had acquired more than a decade earlier and had preserved in storage. 

Pfeiffer also appreciated the intrinsic value a premier performance venue added to students, faculty, and the LA cultural arts community. Decades later, Zipper Hall remains a prestigious venue for guest artists and audiences. It’s been named Best Small Venue by SF Classical Voice for the past three years, “easily outdoing the competition.” 

“Unlike a majority of especially prominent architects today, Norman fully appreciated the acoustical essence of Louis Sullivan’s mantra of ‘form follows function.’ His performing arts portfolio, and especially Colburn’s Zipper Hall, testifies to this keen attention to acousticians’ thoughts and design guidance,” says David A. Conant, FASA, principal of McKay Conant Hoover (formerly McKay Conant Brook), the acoustic consulting company enlisted for the design of Zipper Hall. 

“I remember a quiet, thoughtful, and consummate gentleman who, during interviews with prospective clients, spoke logically and clearly of the planning and design process and would regularly invoke the phrase that epitomized so much of his work, ‘Each important space should be considered as a unique design exercise,’” Conant adds.  

“It’s a striking design and adds to the wonderful variety of architectural design on Grand Ave. But for me, the No. 1 issue with any building is that it works and the buildings at Colburn work really well,” says Thayer. 

Pfeiffer and his team from Pfeiffer Associates (formed in 2004) applied that same expert attention to performance quality when designing the Olive Street building. Its doors opened in 2007, by which time Colburn had added the Conservatory. He also forged an inviting connection between the two facilities. 

“I think the design of the building around the central courtyard with the Colburn Café sharing the courtyard is a very important element of the School that was missing with the first building,” says Thayer.  

According to Mayman, Pfeiffer enjoyed the fruits of his labor. 

“I saw him at a number of concerts and performances after the completion of the Grand Ave. building,” she says. “It was a wonderful feeling that this was a man who exulted in the sense of accomplishment and watching the kids flourish in these surroundings. I think it was as rewarding to him as it was to me. 

Now, the School is writing a new chapter in its history with the groundbreaking of its latest campus addition. Frank Gehry leads the architectural team that’s developing the intimate Terri and Jerry Kohl Hall, a sophisticated 100-seat dance studio theater, as well as additional dance studios for instruction, and a study center, all of which will be highlighted by picturesque public and green spaces.  

Still, the impact Pfeiffer’s designs have made on countless students, instructors, guest artists, audiences, and community members will always remain a key component of the Colburn campus. 

“Norman had a major influence on what the institution has become, and by extension, the School has a bit of him,” says Thayer.