Wednesday, September 15, 2021

On The Schedule: September 2021

A Visit to the Academy Museum; Conversations with new Cultural Leaders and "Powerful" Women in Architecture


Wednesday, September 29

The Academy Museum has Landed, on KCRW's Greater LA

The new Academy Museum of Motion Pictures opens Thursday, September 30, after an epic journey worthy of -- well -- a movie. It involves a faded star -- the Art Deco May Company department store on Wilshire Boulevard -- and an alien being -- a vast concrete and glass sphere that seems to have descended from outer space. The unlikely pair have been brought together in what architect Renzo Piano describes as a “flirt between the old lady, the beautiful, nice, lovely old lady, the May company and a soap bubble.” This is how KCRW host Steve Chiotakis and I open our story of a visit we made to the new museum. You can hear the story on Greater LA or read on for more about the building, which is a puzzling project in some ways, but inspirational in terms of showing how you can hold onto an old building while reinventing it for the future.

The May Company was built in 1939 -- by architects AC Martin and Samuel Marx -- in the Streamline Moderne style and is of course instantly recognizable for its cylindrical corner clad in thousands of 24-karat gold leaf mosaic tiles. Needless to say, that is the perfect emblem for Oscar. 

The building faced demolition and the Los Angeles Conservancy fought to save it. In 1992, the building was declared a Historic-Cultural Monument and two years later, in 1994, LACMA bought it for a song — $18.3 million. But they did very little with it -- except have a few half-hearted events -- and it sat barely used for years until the Academy stepped in and leased the building from LACMA in 2012.

The Academy considered it a gem in their collection and charged Piano -- who had been the masterplanner for LACMA until he was replaced by Peter Zumthor -- with retrofitting the former department store, now renamed the Saban building. That involved adding a new structure at the back, to house the concrete orb, containing the David Geffen theater and a deck with a view of Los Angeles. 

Piano has deployed a strategy you find in several of his buildings, starting with the Pompidou Center: circulation as urban experience. Escalators ascend the West side of the building offering riders a view of Hollywood through a newly built wall of windows, albeit those views are somewhat obscured by the vast sphere. External bridges, freight elevators add to the experience of movement through space.

The sphere -- quickly nicknamed, to Piano’s irritation, the Death Star; he refers to the megaton structure somewhat implausibly as a levitating soap bubble -- is marvelous on the inside, with curving walls decked out in sumptuous red velvet (shown in picture, below, by Iwan Baan). Personally, I thought Piano might have taken some cues from the Aries 1B Trans-Lunar Space Shuttle from Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, of which a rare model is on show at the museum (see image, below.)

The public spaces -- a vast, high-ceilinged lobby and the stairwell -- in the former May Company building are unadorned, somewhat spartan in feel, with raw board-formed concrete columns, concrete floor plate and exposed pipework above. This brings to mind a contemporary art space in an old industrial building which is not very Hollywood nor does it reflect the old May Company which was glam outside and in. But this is the way Piano wanted it to be. When I asked his team why they didn’t cover this all up -- with stage make-up if you will -- they said they wanted to show the inner workings of the building just as the museum shows the inner workings of film.

With the exception of the mechanical Jaws shark which hangs over people’s heads in the elevator well, the exhibitions themselves are out of sight, in self-contained rooms. They were designed by Kulapat Yantrasast and his team at wHY Architecture, and they are very colorful and rich and sensual, in contrast to all the bare concrete. There are multiple displays, from vivid displays honoring directors Spike Lee and Pedro Aldomovar and Yayao Miyazaki to rooms filled with the icons of moviemaking: a the melting face mask for The Terminator; a glorious costume from Black Panther.

What stands out though is the retrofit of the May Company building. It involved editing -- removing a portion of the north side that had been added on in the 40s -- and painstaking restoration of the limestone, granite and mosaic tiled south facade.

Take the gold tiles on the cyclinder. There were over 350,000 of them, but over the years many had been replaced with uniform, machine-made tiles rather than the original handcrafted tiles. The restoration architect John Fidler went back to the original makers, the ancient Orsoni glass-making company in Venice, Italy, and wound up replacing 200,000 tiles. 

There were other challenges, like connecting the two unalike structures in a way that they could each withstand an earthquake. The new sphere is sitting on base isolators that allow the building to move horizontally two and a half feet. The May Company, however, is static so they designed the bridges connecting them to be able to slide should an earthquake hit.

This was quite a complex engineering challenge. Luigi Priano from Renzo Piano’s office, explained that they designed the connections so those sliders are visible, reinforcing the “metaphor of a building that flies and the other one that stays still.”

All this specialized work produces a thoroughly modern example of preservation, not simply restoring a building to the way it was, but adapting it highly inventively for a new use. This is a model to follow, for reasons of sustaining cultural memory as well as saving on costs and environmental footprint. 

It is becoming increasingly evident that the construction and operation of buildings is a big contributor to our carbon footprint. Building materials contain what’s called embodied carbon, that is the carbon expended in the manufacture of concrete and steel and so on. And demolition of buildings creates waste, plus it trashes mountains of materials that contain this embodied carbon. So holding onto the existing structure saves waste and carbon. By preserving the building and making sure to use passive cooling and other strategies, this museum building has earned a Gold LEED rating.

It also opens not long after the destruction of the three original LACMA buildings, including the Bing Theater, and the postmodern Art of the Americas building, torn down to make way for a new structure by the architect Peter Zumthor. This is a scorched earth approach while Piano’s design at the Academy Museum shows that you can add, you can modify, and keep some parts of an old building -- and you wind up with something that holds onto the past while beaming forth into the future. 


Wednesday, September 29 

Will A New Generation Of Leaders Shake Up L.A.’s Culture?

Cultural institutions large and small in Los Angeles are ringing the changes, following a year shaken up by the pandemic and reckonings around race and inclusion. New directors have been appointed at MOCA (where a sudden shake-up means Johanna Burton takes the reins as Klaus Biesenbach bows out), at the MAK Center for Art and Architecture, at Inner City Arts and at the California African American Museum. Some cultural venues have closed -- Annenberg Space for Photography -- and others have morphed into mobile collectives without a physical home, like the Feminist Center for Creative Work and A+D Museum.

What does this new generation of cultural leadership mean for the arts in Los Angeles? Despite an eagerness to make changes, new directors must still answer to many of the same funders and face the same pressures as their predecessors—to raise money or sell tickets, to scale up, to stay relevant—all while navigating the convulsions brought on by the coronavirus pandemic and the murder of George Floyd. How will these new faces surmount the challenges while putting a new stamp on their institutions? Will all of the city’s culture centers survive? Should they?  

At an event hosted by Zócalo/Helms Bakery District, I'll talk with Cameron Shaw, Executive Director of the California African American Museum; Shelby Williams-González, president and CEO of Inner City Arts; and Jia Yi Gu, director of the MAK Center for Art and Architecture. They will share the change they plan to be and want to see in one of the world’s most vibrant cultural capitals.

The event takes place Wednesday, September 29, 6:30 -- 8:30 pm; it is free and open to the public, with Covid restrictions in place. Click here to reserve a spot. If you can't make it, the talk will stream online on YouTube.


Friday, September 24 and Friday, October 1 

Powerful 8 -- Women’s Work: On Our Own Terms

Take a look at the Zocalo/Helms event described above and you may notice an emerging theme. Women are taking the reins. So this may be a good moment to reflect on gender and power within the profession of architecture. 

Consider that in 1958, 1 percent of registered architects were women (such as the pioneering Beverly Willis, above, in picture taken in 1982; she started her firm in the 1950s). Today they make up almost half of the students in architectural programs in the US, but only 17 percent of registered architects. Why the drop-off following school and how to rectify it have been abiding themes underlying Powerful, an annual conference hosted by AIA/LA's Women in Architecture Committee since 2015. Now comes Powerful 8, taking place on Zoom over two Friday mornings, on September 24 and October 1, at 9:00 am to 12:30 pm.

One of the challenges for women architects is doing it all -- moving up the career ladder in a job that demands very long hours while managing a personal life and responsibilities towards partners, family, pets and friends. Oh, and then there's the self, and carving out a bit of time to de-stress and decompress.

Figuring out how to succeed at these many demands while not losing ones sanity is the theme of a breakout session on Health and Wellness that I'll participate in on the second day of the conference, Friday, October 1. It starts at 11am. I'll join my good friend Emmanuelle Bourlier, founder and owner of Panelite, and others to offer up lessons we've learned along the way. Emmanuelle and I both studied architecture and wound up in related fields, so I guess we are part of the drop-off and can speak to the choices we made.

Also taking the stage at Powerful 8 will be some forceful women architects, among them: Christiana Kyrillou, Los Angeles Studio Executive Director, Woods Bagot; Sara Lopergolo, Partner, Selldorf Architects; Toshiko Mori, Founding Principal, Toshiko Mori Architects; Nina Cooke John, Founder, Studio Cooke John; Athenna Ann Lim, Designer, Co-Owner, Studio BarnHaus; Melissa Shin, Principal, Co-Founder, Shin Shin.

It's going to be powerful conference, so I hope to see you there, at least online. Click here for tickets and more information.


Monday, August 23, 2021

On The Schedule: August 2021

This month I kept things fairly chill so I could focus on two pieces of writing: one, an article about reuse of buildings to be published in the fall; the other the book, Common Ground, about multifamily housing in LA, past and present. On the subject of reuse, however, I'm excited to participate this Thursday, August 26, in an event that celebrates repurposing cardboard! Read on for the details.

Cardboard City After Dark -- Fundraiser

Thursday, August 26, 2021; 6:30 -- 8:30 pm

Every child who ever built themselves a house in the box that delivered the TV or the fridge or the computer knows that cardboard is a wonder. Strong, protective, light -- what other material could so reliably protect eggs! It can be sculpture, it can be structure (think, cathedral by Shigeru Ban), it can be a backdrop to draw and paint on.

When I first visited LA in 1987 and went to Frank Gehry's then-office in Venice, I encountered his clever cardboard chairs. When I moved to LA in 1991 I bought a coffee table designed and made by Joel Stearns, the guy who used to make Gehry's cardboard furniture prototypes. 30 years later, it is a little battered but is still the heart of our living room.

Yet we throw out immense amounts of this marvelous material, even more since the pandemic when we ordered yet more stuff in (as we discussed in my KCRW series Wasted). 

Well, one group is on a mission to wake people up to the merits and creative potential of cardboard. This summer, the reDiscover Center, a non-profit makerspace for kids, created Cardboard City, a two month, pop-up, art gallery and art activity center at a storefront at 1231 3rd St Promenade in Santa Monica. It hosts workshops Thursdays -- Sundays and and is open to the public for free. Sadly, it closes its run on August 29.

Now the organizers are looking to expand the program, into other neighborhoods. With that future in mind, they will hold a fundraiser this Thursday. And it should be fun, even though it's online. I'll get to interview the founders of Cardboard City, Jonathan Bijur, Executive Director, and Aaron Kramer, Board President. 

Then they will talk with four of the artists who work with the young makers, plus brilliant Santa Monica-based artist Mimi Haddon will put on a performance piece. Mimi is so versatile and unpredictable -- she paints, photographs, works with any and every material that enchants her -- it's hard to know exactly what she will show, but it will delight. 

Frank Gehry is the honorary chair for the event. I covered his latest LA project, a home for Youth Orchestra Los Angeles (YOLA) in Inglewood, on this Greater LA story aired in early August. Here he is when I first met him, lounging on his cardboard Bubbles Chaise Longue. The photo was taken by Tim Street-Porter for The Architectural Review, December 1987. All the other pictures above are my snaps of children's work at Cardboard City on 3rd Street Promenade.

Hope to see you at the Cardboard City After Dark fundraiser Thursday. Click here for details.

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

On The Schedule: July, 2021

Thursday, July 8, 6pm

WhiteSpace: April Greiman Photography

Two years ago the pioneering digital designer April Greiman invited 25 women friends to write something -- “a haiku, a story, info with bullet points” -- related to the words, 'white space.'

Out of that has come a new book “WhiteSpace: April Greiman Photography,” interweaving her images of landscapes with meditations on lightness, emptiness, beauty, fear and “the space inbetween.”

WhiteSpace: April Greiman Photography, brings together 34 digital photographs and short writings by 25 women in design, art, architecture and poetry, on the abstract subject of whitespace. “WhiteSpace is like a trip to the desert with April and her wonderful colleagues. A master class in shadow and light,” writes Laurie Haycock Makela in the foreword.  

The contributors are: Lita Albuquerque, Frances Anderton, Jan Angevine, Marian Bantjes, Lyn Bradford, Judith Cahen Crouwel, Donatella Cusmá, Andrea Dietz, Tibbie Dunbar, Kristin Feireiss, Karin Fong, Carolien Glazenburg, Nikki Gonnissen, Jia Yi Gu, Karin Hibma, Gere Kavanaugh, Suzanne Lacy, Anette Lenz, Laurie Haycock Makela, Ilaria Mazzoleni, Jennifer Morla, Kali Nikitas, Louise Paradis, Paulette Singley, Elisabeth Workman

On Thursday, July 8, I’ll talk with April, her collaborator Laurie Haycock Makela and contributors about April’s choice to self-publish, the support of creative women colleagues and her lifelong preoccupation with color and light; April’s use of bold color and negative space, breaking boundaries in art, design, and architecture throughout her career.

Click here for details.

Thursday, July 15, 6 pm

Design Defines us All: Creating Community

In an age where online and parasocial relationships increasingly upstage human-to-human connection, the design of social spaces perhaps takes on greater urgency and complexity. How do you design a hotel lobby where people feel comfortable talking to strangers? Why are restaurant tables further apart in LA than in New York or London? What materials make for the perfect sound environment? 

Architect Mathew Chaney (Partner at EYRC; Design Architect, The Britely) and interior designer Tom Parker (Partner, Fettle) and I will discuss these and other questions about how design can affect human interaction -- when society’s concept of community is changing. It is hosted by The Britely social club at the Pendry, the newly opened hotel and condos on the Sunset Strip. The salon takes place Thursday at 6pm in the Piazza Garden.

Click here for details.

Wednesday, July 28, 8:00 - 9:30 pm

Connection Before Construction: How Destination Crenshaw Will Change Community Engagement

Destination Crenshaw is a 1.3-mile-long open-air museum and park currently under construction on Crenshaw Boulevard between Vernon and Slauson Avenues in Los Angeles's Crenshaw District. It is dedicated to preserving the history and culture of African Americans. 

The project is the lemons-to-lemonade response to the controversial decision by LA Metropolitan Transportation Authority to run part of the $2 billion-dollar Crenshaw/LAX light rail line at grade on Crenshaw Boulevard, bifurcating the most important commercial corridor in South LA, and removing more than 300 street parking spaces and 400 mature trees.

LA City Council Member Marqueece Harris-Dawson, members of the Crenshaw community, and a team of architects at Perkins & Will (including Zena Howard, above) led an intense community engagement process that has resulted in a culturally-stamped design that incorporates new sidewalks, street furniture (including seating, shade structures, bicycle racks), ten pocket parks, 800+ trees, and 100+ public art works and exhibits (including monuments, statues, murals, and digital stories).

At a Zoom gathering on Wednesday, July 28, two of the projects' leaders -- COO Jason Foster and architect Drake Dillard -- and the City of LA's Chief Design Officer, Christopher Hawthorne will talk about community engagement, how to do it effectively and how the experience with Destination Crenshaw may shape future development projects in the Southland.

Via Zoom. Click here for details.


Through July 30

Low Rise, Mid Rise, High Rise: Housing in LA Today

Low Rise, Mid Rise, High Rise: Housing in LA Today, a display of housing in the pipeline in Los Angeles, was intended to pop up for a short post-pandemic burst of 10 days in a showroom at Helms Design Center.

But the students at Cal Poly LA Metro, who designed the installation, and the architects who used time during the lockdown to make lovely, tangible models, put on such a great show that we kept it up through the end of July. 

The premise of the show is that housing in LA is spread in a patchwork of scales that has been shaped by zoning over the years: one storey structures in the vast areas of R1 or low-rise neighborhoods; midrise on arterial streets and near mass transit; high-rise in business districts. Each of those scales brings their own challenges, but also possibilities for experimention that builds on a century of innovation in residential design. 

Much of the housing in LA, especially at the mid-and high scale, is developer-driven, limited by codes and can be formulaic. But this show demonstrates that it does not have to be standard.

LRMRHR demonstrates some of the propositions for living well -- and sometimes affordably -- at every scale. It displays surprising housing concepts and visualizations, from gorgeous 3-D printed bas-reliefs, above, of the Reese Davidson Community by Eric Moss Owen, to custom ADUs from Byben and Design, Bitches. Then there is City Design Office's proposed tower of "stacked case study homes" at Grand Panorama above the Regional Connector, and The Alvidrez, a highrise supportive housing project to be built by Skid Row Housing Trust, designed by Michael Maltzan and named for Mike Alvidrez, the former head of SRHT. He is shown, with the model, below.

Visits are by appointment; I will be at the show Friday afternoons through July 30, and would love to see you then.

Click here for details.

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

On The Schedule: June, 2021

June 19 -- July 31

Low Rise, Mid Rise, High Rise: Housing in LA Today, at Helms Bakery District

How will we live tomorrow in LA?

Find out at Low Rise, Mid Rise, High Rise: Housing in LA Today, an in-person, pop-up, eye-popping exhibition of housing projects in the pipeline that advance the idea of home in Los Angeles. It takes place at Helms Design Center at Helms Bakery District.

30+ teams show renderings and models of multi-unit housing, at multiple scales, that are pending or under construction in the Southland. They represent a range of approaches as eclectic as Los Angeles itself, including: above, the Grand Panorama, a proposed high-rise variant on inside-outside living above the Regional Connector in DTLA by "critical regionalist" Farooq Ameen, Pariya Mohammaditabar and the team at City Design Studio; below, the Reese Davidson Community, affordable housing in Venice designed by the Hayden Tract renegade Eric Owen Moss; the "Lean-To ADU" by Ben Warwas, of Byben, opening up to sky in both directions ; and The Alvidrez supportive housing designed by Michael Maltzan for the Skid Row Housing Trust, and named for longtime SRHT head Mike Alvidrez, shown standing by the model.

The pop-up opens Saturday, June 19, with a public conversation about the work. It will be on view after that through July 31. Read more about it here.

Why this Pop-Up now?

Many of us have been out of circulation for more than a year, and the state opens June 15. This is a chance to reconnect and see what people have been working on, and get a taste of what might be coming to your neighborhood before too long.

What is the thinking behind it?

Currently there is a lot of public debate about the politics of housing and the crisis of homelessness. While this conversation takes place, housing construction continues apace, much of it ever higher and denser. And people will live in these buildings. This pop-up explores how designers are envisioning that lived experience.

After all, LA is famous for its innovation in the design of home. But today designers must navigate a web of constraints (including costs, zoning, parking, competing development and neighborhood pressures) and the buildings that result are sometimes sadly mundane. However, design teams and developers with imagination are creating buildings that are livable, sociable, have character, are sometimes affordable -- and add to the canon of residential design in LA.

How they do that is the through line to the show and the talks. 

Visitors will see transit-oriented, mid rise, multi-unit housing with apartments filled with natural light, flowing space and a taste of the outside. Projects will demonstrate planning for sociability, as well as new material and structural solutions to housing affordability. They will also show how buildings from the ADU to the very high rise can express the distinct and eclectic Los Angeles character. Finally, visitors will see how the pandemic may have altered planning priorities in the homes of tomorrow. 

Does this show have anything to do with the City of LA's Low Rise Housing Challenge?

No, and Yes. This pop-up was originally intended to take place in summer 2020 but was postponed due to the pandemic. It was already named Low Rise, Mid Rise, High Rise, and was based on work around housing design by Stephen Phillips and his CalPoly LA Metro students; and on longtime reporting on housing I had been doing for KCRW. That research is now the basis for a book I'm working on, "Common Ground: Multifamily Housing in Los Angeles," to be published in 2022 by Angel City Press. 

In the intervening months, LA Mayor's Office design chief Christopher Hawthorne launched his very interesting Low Rise Housing Challenge, calling on designers to create contemporary variants on the beloved low-rise typologies of yesteryear in LA (including bungalow courts and du-tri-four and six plexes.) I was honored to be a juror and witnessed the subtle thinking by Hawthorne and his team and the many design teams who submitted. 

However, the Low Rise Housing Challenge was speculative. It was predicated on the notion that LA's vast areas of residential land zoned for single family houses will have to upzone to allow the region to grow sustainably and that a gentle form of relatively low housing is the best way forward, in view of the deep resistance to upzoning by homeowners in many neighborhoods. The Low Rise Housing designs were intended to be alluring examples that could bring people around to the idea of slightly denser and higher housing, some of it based on new ownership or rental models.

Conversely, the Helms pop-up takes the view that while we might yearn for exactly this kind of distributed, non-invasive density, the reality is that developers are shoehorning housing into the relatively small areas it is designated and on those sites they are building has much as they are permitted to. Mid and high rise are the directions LA housing is going and we wanted to explore that.

Saturday, June 19 

Join the Conversation

At the public opening and conversation on Saturday, June 19, participating architects including Barbara Bestor, Ben Warwas, Angela Brooks, Elizabeth Timme, Eric Owen Moss, Farooq Ameen, Lance Simon, Li Wen, Lorcan O'Herlihy and Pariya Mohammaditabar will talk about their approaches to Low, Mid and High Rise housing. Stephen Sharp, editor of Urbanize LA, will offer his thoughts too. Michael Anderson will discuss his newly published book "Urban Magic: Vibrant Black and Brown Communities Are Possible." The talks will take place between 2 and 4pm, and we will ponder practical and aesthetic questions, such as:

What does our patchwork of low, mid and high rise housing tell us about Socal living today? 

The changes of scale result from zoning that mandates single family residential only in disproportionate swaths of land. What does this mean for affordability?

Much of the new housing today -- both marketrate and affordable is dense, with sometimes hundreds of units. This can be bland or unpleasant, especially when the solution is a double-loaded corridor giving onto dwellings with windows on only one wall. What can designers do to alleviate that experience?

Is it possible to sustain Southern California's desirable inside-outside living many floors off the ground?

Low Rise, Mid Rise, High Rise: Housing in LA Today is presented by Helms Bakery District in partnership with CalPoly, San Luis Obispo LA Metro Program, helmed by Stephen Phillips. Speculative housing designs by the CalPoly LA Metro students will also be on show.  


Tuesday, June 29

Apple Tower Theatre on Greater LA

It is rare that the ceiling is a bigger attraction than the iPhones in an Apple store. But that's the case at Apple Tower Theatre, a new outlet for the tech giant elegantly installed within the 1927 Tower Theatre, designed by S. Charles Lee, master of the fantasy movie theater in Hollywood's golden years. 

The team -- Norman Foster, Gruen Associates and a task force of preservation groups -- worked to repurpose the highly ornate theater, modeled after Charles Garnier's Paris Opera and slathered in decorative plasterwork, into a place that would function for shoppers (the raked seating had to go) while preserving and in some cases recreating original gems, such as the clock tower and the ceiling mural of puffy clouds. It was a labor of love and detective work, involving forensic analysis to understand the plan and the materials of a building that had been much altered, not to mention dark since its last screening in 1988.

The finished result is a fascinating collision of maximal and minimal, and new and old tech; Tower Theatre was the first movie theater to have air conditioning and the first to show Talkies. 

Apple says this will be more than simply a store, and promises a host of incentives and workshops for young, local creatives. It may be that some of them are drawn as much to the building crafts of yore as to the digital arts of today.

I visited the new store with KCRW's Greater LA host Steve Chiotakis and you can catch our chat about it on Tuesday, June 29.


Thursday, June 24

Treehouse and the Building of Community in Los Angeles

On the evening of June 24, developer Prophet Walker (above, right) and brand consultant Jason E.C. Wright (above, left) will come to Helms for an in-person conversation about Treehouse (Treehouse Hollywood, below) and creating community in new housing. 

Treehouse is the coliving building co-developed by Walker; Wright, founder of the Burntsienna Research Society, is a resident there. It was designed by The California Office with creative direction by Sean Knibb. The next Treehouse, under construction in Koreatown, will be on display at Low Rise, Mid Rise, High Rise: Housing in LA Today.

Seeding The City: Nature in LA in the 21st Century

Coming next month... After the Pop-Up closes, Helms’ programming will turn to the theme of landscape in LA and how to keep alive a connection to nature in a region that increasingly builds over it. Top landscape designers, artists and thinkers will take on “Seeding The City: Nature in LA in the 21st Century,” a day of tours, talks and installations, taking place Saturday, July 24. 

Expect Sean Knibb, creative director at Treehouse and designer of its landscaping, to be there, among other talents.  Watch this space for more details.

Helms X Frances Anderton

The events listed above are the first of many talks and installations involving LA designers, artists and architects that I am co-organizing with Angela Anthony for the Design Center at Helms Bakery District.

During the years I hosted KCRW's DnA: Design and Architecture, Helms and Angela were very supportive of the show. Angela and I share a commitment to the Los Angeles design community and to facilitating public dialogue around art, design, architecture and the urban realm.

Now we are working together on programming in-person events that will unfold over the coming year. The Low Rise, Mid Rise, High Rise pop-up is just the start. It represents a slice of the housing in design and development. We will turn the spotlight on work by many other designers in the coming months.

The collaboration is called Helms X Frances Anderton. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

On The Schedule: May, 2021

This month I'm spending most of my time... writing Common Ground, a book about multifamily housing in Los Angeles; I'm also continuing the Wasted conversation at KCRW’s Talking Trash public event; talking with Michael Anderson about using architecture to help raise economic well-being in South LA; hosting the AIA/LA Residential Awards and looking forward to the results of the Low Rise Housing Challenge, for which I was a juror. 

Thursday, May 6, at 4 pm

Conversation with Michael Anderson: How to Create Accelerated Equity Housing and Transit Oriented Communities

Some architects define their work in terms of form; others through theory; some by social justice or environmental sustainability. For Michael Anderson, architecture is an economic act.

Since leaving SCI-Arc in the mid-1980s, Michael has devoted his career to figuring out how to elevate the economic well-being of Black and Brown neighborhoods in South Los Angeles.

He has made the case -- in built projects and a pending book -- for building low-rise housing that enables people entry into property ownership and lifts up a community.

It is a way of thinking about design's impact that can get short shrift in school, but is vital to people's lives.

I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to speak with Michael Anderson this Thursday, about his work in transit-oriented communities and his book, Urban Magic: Vibrant Black and Brown Communities Are Possible.

The talk is free and open to all. It is presented by Cal Poly LA Metro Program in Architecture and Urban Design and the Helms Bakery District. RSVP, here.

Thursday, May 6, at 7 pm

KCRW’s Wasted Event: Let’s Talk Trash!

You may have listened to our series Wasted, about neat solutions to the dirty problem of waste. This Thursday it’s your turn to tune in and share your stories, concerns and questions about the heaping piles of waste in your life!

I’ll join Wasted co-host Caleigh Wells, the team at Homeboy Electronic Recycling Industries and Ferris Kawar, Sustainability Project Manager – Center for Environmental and Urban Studies of Santa Monica College, for a lively, interactive conversation that may offers answers to pesky questions, like:

What the heck am I supposed to do with all these dead batteries? If my to-go box doesn’t have that little triangle on it, can I still recycle it? Can I compost without a composting bin?

We’ll also get a bird’s eye view of what happened to the electronics you disposed of on Saturday at KCRW’s E-Waste Drive.

Click here for information and sign-up.

Wednesday, May 26, 5:45pm

Residential Architecture Awards 2021

The ceremony for the annual design awards bestowed by AIA/LA will be virtual this year, in a film produced by the team at AIA/LA. Carlo Caccavale, Executive Director, has a background in cinema and it shows in a highly professional production featuring yours truly as MC, Mary Ta and Lars Hypko of Minotti and other sponsors and -- most importantly -- winners of the awards.

As usual there's an embarrassment of riches to choose from, and I can't give anything away. Suffice it to say, Los Angeles is still making waves in residential design, from the very modest -- temporary housing for the unhoused -- to extremely large private homes.

The jurors also get to share their thoughts on trends they saw in the work. So watch for some interesting insights from: Monica Mazzolani, Peter Culley and Ruth Wallach.

Get all the details here.

In related news, on Monday, May 17, the Mayor's Office at the City of Los Angeles will unveil the winners of its Low Rise Housing Challenge. Having been a juror on the (Re)Distribution category I can say that the quality of entries was amazing. This challenge has been a fascinating provocation and I look forward to seeing all the results on Monday.

Thursday, April 8, 2021

On The Schedule: April 2021

This month I'm busy with... Modernism Week; scripting the latest episode of Rodeo Drive The Podcast, on luxury menswear clothier Stefano Ricci; continuing the waste conversation with the USGBC; and considering interspecies coexistence with the Nature, Art and Habitat residency.



April 8 -- April 18: Modernism Week 2021 
When spring blooms so do the desert Modern homes of Palm Springs and its surroundings. The annual 11-day Modernism Week smorgasbord of tours, cocktail parties, show room events and lectures has of course been constrained by Covid, but there is still plenty to see and do starting April 8. 
Tickets are still available for in-person (masked) tours of Ray Kappe’s last project, a home built before he passed in 2019, with architect Sean Lockyer. You can see a vintage 70s home designed by Stan Sackley in Indian Canyon, updated to a new level of groovaceousness by interior designers Michael Ostrow and Roger Stoker of Grace Home Furnishings
And you can get tickets for a tour of John Lautner‘s 1947 Living Units, in Desert Hot Springs. This cluster of four structures used to be a motel and I once stayed there; I am still recovering from the ecstatic experience. Each unit has a roof that soars upwards with clerestories at the top of a wall, giving the occupant complete privacy along with openness to the big sky. Celestial. Amazing.
I should add that I have joined the board of Modernism Week so I have witnessed the engine behind it. The passion and organization in a group of mostly volunteers is infectious. Modernism Week has also found new life online and there you can find their highly produced program, a mix of Mod houses for sale and think pieces, like an essay by historian Alan Hess. Hess, a prodigious writer of books on California architecture, and also a board member of Modernism week, brings academic heft to all the fizzy fun.
And psst: while in the Coachella Valley, don't forget to check out Desert X 2021. 

April 13: Rodeo Drive The Podcast/Stefano Ricci
Rodeo Drive The Podcast, Season 2, Episode 4, drops. I’ve been scripting this series, hosted by Bronwyn Cosgrave, about the designers, craftspeople and creative retailers behind the famed three-block strip.
The new episode is about Stefano Ricci, the ultra luxury menswear designer headquartered in Florence, with a showpiece boutique on Rodeo Drive. The brand turns 50 next year and this episode explores the founding of the tight knit family firm and its expansion into a global lifestyle brand, dressing the bodies and furnishing the homes and yachts of men with power and money: strongmen in post-Communist countries and entertainers, also Nelson Mandela and the Pope! Collaborators and mentors along the way included Rodeo Drive's Bijan. The company even acquired an antique silk mill containing a loom invented by Leonardo da Vinci! 
The musician and producer David Foster, a devotee of the brand, says he’s happy to pay up to $25,000 for Stefano Ricci suits because “you get what you pay for.” With Ricci that means impeccable tailoring, personal service and supremely comfortable fabrics that are designed to last. It’s the antithesis of the fast fashion philosophy. Hear from Stephano Ricci himself and his sons Niccolo and Filippo, who now helm the business

April 17: Nature, Art and Habitat conference
One of the unexpected outcomes of the COVID era has been, for many people, a closer relationship with animals: with domestic pets who suddenly got to hang out with their persons 24/7 or the birds and wild creatures spotted on walks that took the place of workouts in thermally controlled interiors. Not to mention the pandemic itself shone a spotlight on our connection with other species:  a good number of scientists believe the coronavirus was transmitted from wildlife to humans encroaching the wilderness. 
This all intensifies thinking already underway by scholars about inter-species coexistence in the Anthropocene. Among them is architect Ilaria Mazzoleni, founder of Nature, Art and Habitat, a residency that takes place in the field at her family owned land in Italy, and online in an ongoing series of conversations. 
The point of NAHR is to “bring together scientists, designers, architects, landscape architects, artists and philosophers to species meet, intersect, coexist, and co-create ecosystems in this anthropocentric era, as the world grapples with COVID-19."
On Saturday, April 17 there will be an all day workshop and I will moderate one of the panels, Coexistence and Ecological Knowledge, with guests Michael Bell, with The Jack and Laura Dangermond Preserve at The Nature Conservancy; Peter Stonier, Film maker, ESRI; and Maria Magdalena Campos Pons, artist. 

April 29: Waste White Paper
Speaking of fast fashion… on Thursday, April 29, I will join Ben Stapleton, CEO of the Los Angeles branch of US Green Building Council (USGBC), to discuss their most recent white paper on waste. The focus is plastics and the worrying uptick in plastic detritus over a year of throwaway PPE and packaging materials. But the team also outlines a potential way forward. A lineup of waste management experts will join the conversation, which is open to everybody, online. 
Having spent several months wading in waste, producing this radio series, I can say that this yucky and depressing topic is also strangely inspiring, as it is forcing some highly inventive thinking about how to mitigate the impacts of a culture that emphasizes instant gratification and throwing stuff out. Now, if only we could all afford Stefano Ricci suits!

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Pritzker Prize winner says LA's Case Study Houses inspired their work repurposing public housing

The architects Jean-Philippe Vassal and Anne Lacaton are deeply committed to providing housing that gives pleasure, to those who can least afford it. They also have an aversion to building anew when you can reuse what's already there. 

They have achieved both by repurposing unloved public housing blocks -- including a tower in Paris and a superblock in Bordeaux -- to add more light and space indoors and out.

Now they have been rewarded for their efforts with the Pritzker Prize, the architecture world's most prestigious honor, and one that is typically awarded to an individual, sometimes a duo, who creates freshly minted buildings, marking the terrain with signature design.

The selection of Lacaton & Vassal brings together two themes that are in the foreground right now: housing and waste. Affordable, decent housing is in huge demand in major cities. Demolition, construction and then the daily running of buildings generates huge amounts of waste (as we explored in this radio series, Wasted). 

Through their surgical conversions of existing buildings like the Latrapie House, shown here before and after, Vassal and Lacaton are elevating and democratizing quality housing; and minimizing the structure's footprint while doing so.

In 2015, I met with Jean-Philippe Vassal at their office in Paris, after visiting Tour Bois-le-Prêtre, a tower block near the Périphérique in northern Paris remodeled by the firm, with Frédéric Druot. 

Vassal told me more about their approach and mentioned that one of the inspirations for their work was in Los Angeles: the Case Study Program. Architects like Pierre Koenig used a "minimum of material" to achieve the "maximum of pleasure," says Vassal.

He adds that the frame of steel and glass they wrapped around the Tour, extending the apartments into "villa"-like spaces with access to exterior rooms, could be seen as "a stack of Case Study houses."

Read on for more from our Q and A:

FA: Housing for the masses was the great Modernist project. Then architects and governments backed away, following the failures of public housing and urban renewal in the postwar years. Now it is back as an important challenge.

JPV: Yes, because to be an architect from this time, from our period, means to think that the luxury, the pleasure of living, should be totally democratic now. It's no more about making fantastic villas for very rich clients. It is to try to make fantastic flats for all people and I think this is the biggest challenge for architects today. (This is) not necessarily housing limited to the walls and windows, but housing in a more general sense; it means living in the city, the idea of what kind of space is around yourself as an inhabitant of a city.

FA: It is also challenging because a lot of housing is being produced by private development where the priority is not necessarily creating a very good quality of space.

JPV: And yet we have a lot of architects now in the world, sometimes looking for work, with the ability to understand (how to improve bad housing) situations. It can't be a tabula rasa anymore. We have to take a situation that is not so good, and push it to the maximum of possibility with respect to economy, with respect to ecology, and with very precise and delicate attention to what is living... it could be trees, it could be plants, it could be people, it could be families, it could be old buildings, it could be all of that.

So let's talk about a specific situation that you worked with, the Tour Bois-le-Prêtre in Paris. Can you describe it?

JPV: For many years in France, mainly around Paris, there was policy by the governments to demolish a lot of social housing blocks when in the same time you have so many people asking for affordable housing and difficulty to build new ones. So we say, instead of demolishing, we should work with what already exists. Sustainability, it is to make things already existing, last longer. So at this point, there was this building, in a very bad way, with people living in it with more and more difficulties. So they even called this building Alcatraz.

So they were thinking of demolishing it. And we tried to show that it was possible to extend this building, to understand precisely the situations of families, whether there were more children, or if they were old people (and) wanted to stay there, even if the owner wanted to demolish. And we offered the possibility of extension, and then the new building consists of a crown of new modular units, like a very large scaffolding, which enables adding more windows, and to extend the life to a winter garden and a balcony.

FA: So the big design change that you achieved was to give people an outside space; you created an external area.

JPV: Not only outside space. Also some additional bedrooms. We have 15 levels of flats, and we have five bedrooms as a result of the extension on two sides of the building; and then extra space that works as a winter garden, allowing for economic and energy savings of 60% of energy costs before. So the taxes and the rent can stay at the same level and the extension of this building is half the price of its demolition and rebuilding a new flat. But at the same time the addition of 50% more area makes the flats much bigger in terms of qualities than the standard today. Most of these buildings were constructed in periods where it was really difficult to give comfort, to give pleasure. But (with this) extension, you can give pleasure.

FA: Now, many will argue that public housing towers like this have contributed to some of the social problems or stresses that cities like Paris or London are dealing with. And they'll say it would be more sensible to tear down the building and get people into lower rise buildings with more connection to the street. Did you have that conversation along the along the way? And what's your answer?

JPV: First, it is to be pragmatic. The building was existing and in terms of economy and sustainability, pragmatism is to work with what is there. Also, consider that all the people living there had relations with the place. They knew the neighbors, they knew the place, the school was not far away. Even if the life was difficult, they wanted to keep this proximity. So it's not only the building that matters. What is interesting it is the life that happens in the building -- during 20 years, during 30 years; people create a sort of inside richness that nobody looks at from outside. But this richness exists. So I think the work of the architect is to be very delicate with that, because this is an incredible richness. All the people have decorated their flats, or with their furniture, or they try to have some plants even in difficult spaces. So delicacy for me is the most important question.

And everybody acknowledges that you can have towers for very rich people, but when it is for poor people, they would have problems. So it's only because the towers (for the rich) have been pushed to the maximum. If you have a very, very small balcony, it's clear that you will put storage on your balcony. But if you have more space inside, you keep your storage inside and you can use a balcony as a normal balcony with armchairs and flowers, etc. And then it's beautiful.

FA: Buildings are usually unoccupied while under construction, but you're talking about working with an occupied building. As an architect, did you enjoy that challenge?

JVP: I like all sorts of challenge but here the question was to (build) with the people inside. So you have to consider if it is possible to make a big change, but to try to be as delicate as possible for them. So the question was, is it possible for these people to sleep every night, in their bedroom, even during the works? We tried to do that. So, yes, you have a lot of dust, you have noise but because everyone wanted to sleep in his bedroom in the night, or people wanted to use his bathroom during the day, we try to see you how it was possible to do that during the construction site. And this precision, this delicacy, is not so much more complex or expensive than a normal project but sometimes it's more difficult, and sometimes it's more exciting, it's more challenging. You meet the people, you meet the family, you're invited for to have some little cakes or a little beverage after lunch, you can talk with people. For me, that's really the work of an architect.

FA: And this project’s been a great success. It seems as if the residents are happy. Are you now working on other projects of a similar nature?

JPV: Actually, we are finishing a much bigger building in Bordeaux, in Southwest France (the G, H, I Buildings, shown below) where we have two big, very long slabs, which are 15 levels high and each one is 200 meters long. So we have two like that plus a little one. So it's nearly 600 flats. And here also people are living inside the building and we make the extension the same way.

Bordeaux is a city where (buildings are) quite low, three to four levels. So here you have these big slabs that have a fantastic view on the Southeast on the river, on the landscape. But they had small windows so nobody could really appreciate this situation. So now you have flats (transformed into) villas at every level with four meters of extension in direction of the landscape and the sun and the river.

FA: And now you have richer people coming along saying how can I live there?

JPV: Yes, but it is interesting because people already, they discovered a new space. They were just protected from the dust or from the noise and, suddenly, they see that they have nearly two times more space than before and then they start to go to the shops to buy some plants, or to buy some new furniture and to occupy, to test to experiment the space. And it's really interesting to see that; it's wonderful.

FA: There are two types of housing  challenges at the moment. One is the poorly made, rental housing you are describing. And now we've got a new problem that's occurring in Paris, in London, in LA, in New York and that's the unavailability of housing for purchase for the workforce: nurses, teachers, the backbone of society. Based on your experience what do these big cities do with housing this huge populace in a decent way?

JPV: Everybody's talking about ecology, sustainability, (but we need to) work very precisely on precise situations, like in Berlin the Baugruppen, they work on a specific (building and piece of land), and they can have very nice results in a precise situation. So I think this is really important today in the existing city, because we are still working as urbanists or architects, as if our cities were new, as if it was tabula rasa. We are still continuing architecture or urban planning from the 19th century when what is interesting is to work with the existing city with its problems: and not to do the minimum, but to do the maximum. So, with a minimum of money, with a minimum of budget, you can really push each situation to its best. We have to end the idea of what is the minimum for life? No, what is the minimum of budget for the maximum for life?

It is interesting, because when we talk about how (a unit in a housing tower) should not be a "flat", it should be a "villa", we always reference the Case Study Program in the US and the houses made by Pierre Koenig, Neutra, all of these. It was social housing, it was a social housing program.

FA: It was a social housing program in aspiration but what mostly got built for a variety of reasons were single family homes. Tell me what you love about Case Study architecture.

JPV: A Case Study house is a villa, so it’s on the ground. But we can imagine the same space at any level. So, living in a block, to have the qualities of a villa you need to have some rooms and at the end an extra space like a garden, as if you stacked different Case Study on top of each other. And when we see all these houses, all these villas, that were built (in LA), I see the one of Pierre Koenig, it is eight posts, columns of steel, very small, corrugated aluminum on top, an envelope with glass what it is no weight. It costs nothing, it is really minimum of material for maximum of pleasure. And what we see is rich people like to be there. So the idea is that you can take this reference, adapt it to a different situation and give this to the maximum of people.

FA: I love that. So you're a fan of LA's modernists?

JPV: Yes, because I believe in this modernity about space. And I think today, it's a really important question. If we go back to less is more, I think also cheap is more is part of the challenge today.

This interview was edited for clarity. Image of Bailey House by Pierre Koenig courtesy Architectural Resources Group. Photos of G, H, I Buildings in Bordeaux (with Frédéric Druot and Christophe Hutin) and Latrapie House courtesy of Philippe Ruault.

On The Schedule: September 2021

A Visit to the Academy Museum; Conversations with new Cultural Leaders and "Powerful" Women in Architecture   Wednesday, September...