Founded in 1972, SCI-Arc was as a radical alternative to the conventional system of architectural education. Architect and educator Ray Kappe—formerly the chair of Architecture at Cal Poly Pomona, and director of SCI-Arc until 1987—leased an industrial building in Santa Monica, and, with a group of six faculty members and 75 students, started what they initially called the "New School," based on the concept of a "college without walls." Shelly Kappe, Ahde Lahti, Thom Mayne, Bill Simonian, Glen Small and Jim Stafford were among the founding faculty.
In 2000, SCI-Arc moved to the historic Santa Fe Freight Depot building in Downtown Los Angeles, where it plays an important cultural role in the area while engaging at various levels with the local community. The school continues its energetic commitment to experimentation and to examining the social and formal aspects of architecture.