December 1, 2011
The Right Touch
Known for its playful, L.A.-infused exuberance, Koning Eizenberg Architecture displays an uncanny knack for choosing the perfect approach.
Every fall, the Santa Ana winds begin to blow again across Los Angeles from east to west, through canyon passes and toward the ocean, drying the air and locals’ throats as they go, ratcheting up the fire danger, and, blissfully, clearing out the smog that backs up in the L.A. basin during the summer. It was on one of this year’s very first Santa Ana mornings, warm, crisp, and forbidding all at once—Joan Didion didn’t call fall L.A.’s “season of suicide and divorce and prickly dread” for nothing—that I drove to Echo Park, just northwest of downtown, to meet the architect Julie Eizenberg at the site of her firm’s latest project. Together with her husband, Hank Koning, she founded Koning Eizenberg Architecture in 1981. While the Santa Monica–based firm—which made Brian Lane managing principal in 2003, and now employs a staff of 14—doesn’t have nearly the national profile that it deserves, it has settled into an unassumingly prominent position in the Southern California architecture scene over the last 15 years. I say “unassumingly” because both Eizenberg and Koning, who were born in Australia and moved to the United States in 1979 to study architecture at UCLA, are refreshingly unpretentious and able to disarm clients, critics, and fellow architects alike with a combination of humor and frankness that is all too rare in their profession. They are the antidote for prickly dread.
Despite the Australian roots of its founders, there is something quintessentially Southern Californian about the firm’s sensibility. Or maybe it’s because of those roots: Los Angeles architecture has always thrived by making a place for ambitious, eccentric, and forward-looking émigrés from all over, whether it was Rudolph Schindler and Richard Neutra from Vienna or Frank Gehry, born Frank Goldberg, from Toronto. Certainly, Koning and Eizenberg’s taste for combining frugality and verve in the same project, and for juxtaposing serious architectural ideas with informality and references to Pop Art, flows directly out of a singularly L.A. tradition. Their work—which ranges from single-family residential projects to affordable housing to commissions from cultural, civic, and nonprofit clients—wraps joy, smarts, improvisational flair, and resourcefulness together in the same colorful package. Like much of the meaningful architecture in this city, it stakes out a happily anti-perfectionist stance, finding its meaning in the gaps between abstract goals and achievable ones.
As Eizenberg explained to me later, “In many of our projects the actual form plays second fiddle to the journey, or the experience.” The project that Eizenberg had come to show me on that warm morning was a case in point. Completed last March, it is a complex holding the headquarters of the Children’s Institute, Inc. (CII), a nonprofit dedicated to helping victims of child abuse. Although CII had existing facilities in four locations around Southern California, when it wanted to build a new headquarters, it settled on a set of three properties hard by the Hollywood Freeway.
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If Koning Eizenberg is a quintessential L.A. architecture firm, the site of the new CII complex is a quintessential L.A. street. There is a McDonald’s to the east, a very good Cuban bakery around the corner, and at the end of the block, right up against the freeway’s blank sound wall, is a tall, perfectly white, neoclassically styled, wedding cake confection of a Victorian-era mansion, its top floor presumably offering a very good view of bumpers, taillights, and furiously texting drivers. The neighborhood, like much of the city, is an ad hoc, moderately dense mixture of commercial and residential bric-a-brac.
Some of the urban cacophony was visible—and audible—from the parking lot where I met Eizenberg, her fingers wrapped around a paper coffee cup as she stood between the front door and a small strip of garden designed by Nancy Goslee Power & Associates. Once we stepped inside the building, the chaos melted away, replaced by an entryway that seemed both serene and full of energy at the same time. To the right, a mother played in the reception area with her two young boys; to the left, a rectangular sliding door framed in orange led the way to an art room. Eizenberg walked me past the information desk and toward a double-height community room with a polished concrete floor, in the back. The space was overlooked by a mezzanine holding small counseling rooms and offices for the staff. It was immediately clear that the main goal of the architecture was to reduce the extent to which the services CII offers feel clinical or institutional—a playful spirit, and an interest in showing kids a consistently welcoming face, was paired with the very serious work that goes on there.
In a separate building to the north was a new center for early childhood services and a preschool run by the organization. There was also a teen center on the upper floor. The children raced happily back and forth between the classrooms and the outdoor play area, taking advantage of the weather. Above their heads rose a two-story-high elevator shaft, required by ADA rules, which the architects had decorated with a series of oversized sunflowers. It seemed an appropriate marker for this complex, in its city full of billboards—it announced that a place had been staked below for kids to grow.
Much of the design sensibility on view in the CII complex seemed to echo directly the philosophy of practice that Koning Eizenberg laid out in a 2006 book, published by the Monacelli Press, called Architecture Isn’t Just for Special Occasions. Fittingly for the firm, the book serves as a low-key, un-shrill manifesto. Unlike many architectural monographs, it gives pride of place to the actual users of the projects on display.
The book settles on the present tense as a metaphor for the firm’s approach, signaling that the architects want to be neither slavishly contextual, mimicking some nostalgic past, nor lost in abstract debates over architecture’s future. “It is not surprising that the present tense is our preferred realm,” the text reads. “We like people. We like it when people get a kick out of architecture or when they question design motives. We like the ad hoc, the discovered, the legitimization of the unexpected.”
Koning Eizenberg’s work covers a diverse programmatic range, but nearly all of it grows from that point of view, from an interest in what the book describes as “the workaday context” of twenty-first-century cities like Los Angeles. Sometimes the firm’s capital-A architecture is nearly invisible, as was the case with its reinvention of The Standard in downtown Los Angeles—which was, perhaps, the city’s most successful preservation and adaptive reuse project in the last two decades. In other cases, the firm’s job is to use a more conspicuous, forward design in an effort to revive a banal midcentury structure, as it did to smashing effect at both the Avalon Hotel in Beverly Hills and, more recently, at Best Western Hollywood Hills. In other projects, the architects are asked to bring a planning sensibility to bear, as in their ongoing work at Virginia Park in Santa Monica, which began with a master plan for the park that was completed in 2005, and now includes a public library branch set for construction in 2012.
One of the first projects I reviewed after becoming the Los Angeles Times’s architecture critic in 2004 was Koning Eizenberg’s Children’s Museum in Pittsburgh, which added a new glass-and-steel wing, wrapped on the outside by a shimmering art piece by Ned Kahn, as an architectural bridge between a post office and an abandoned planetarium. It was, in some ways, the perfect commission for the firm, requiring an inventive spin on historical context and enough creative ingenuity to overcome a modest budget. At the time, I praised the design for producing “a sense of accessibility and a relaxed kind of architectural sophistication.”
Mark Robbins, the dean of the architecture school at Syracuse University, has worked with Koning Eizenberg at nearly every stop in his career, first at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Ohio and later when he ran the design program for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). (Koning Eizenberg won the Children’s Museum job through an NEA New Public Works design competition, beating out firms like Reiser + Umemoto and Smith-Miller + Hawkinson Architects.) Robbins recently engaged the architects in designing a new Syracuse headquarters for the public broadcasting station WCNY; the work is part of a larger warehouse conversion project, for which Koning Eizenberg produced the master plan with King + King Architects.
Robbins praises Koning Eizenberg’s sense of humor and resilience, adding, “The through-line in their work is that they are not bringing preconceived notions to bear. It’s really about seeing what’s needed at a certain point in time, the specific constraints and forces arrayed in front of them, and how they can respond.”
The firm’s work, taken together in all its diversity, offers a pretty good reflection of the current architectural zeitgeist in this country, with its renewed focus on doing more with less and providing good design to underserved communities. What’s striking, though, is that Koning Eizenberg has been doing work in that vein for years—it spent the boom years doing that kind of architecture.
If there is one place where Eizenberg’s trademark good humor breaks down, it is in discussing the effects of the Great Recession on architects in Los Angeles. And this year has been particularly tough. Just as a recovery seemed to be taking hold, it evaporated—leaving architects once again with very little new work. “Some clients have cut back, but many have abandoned projects altogether,” Eizenberg told me. “For those of us whose core practices relied on L.A. for work, and who have one foot in the community sector and the other in the developer marketplace, the story is the same. There are a lot of good ideas sitting in drawers in this town.”
A couple of weeks after Eizenberg showed me the Children’s Institute project, she met me in a very different neighborhood, at the site of a very different kind of commission. A few years ago, a family in South Pasadena, roughly eight miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles, asked Koning Eizenberg to design a pool house. Over time, the architects’ charisma being what it is, that project grew to include a completely rebuilt main house as well. In some ways, it turned into one of those rare dream projects for a contemporary architect: a flat lot, owned by clients who were excited to test out architectural ideas about how they could live as a family. In addition, because the property is flag-shaped and mostly hidden from the sidewalk out front, it is not subject to South Pasadena’s rather pinching design-review standards. With the pool house and the residence, the commission expanded to include 3,700 square feet of new construction. Oh, and Koning Eizenberg is doing the landscape design as well.
Still, even in this quiet, leafy neighborhood, the unpretentious, resourceful Koning Eizenberg sensibility was plain to see. The main house, still under construction when I saw it, was arranged as a connected series of single-room structures with eccentrically sloping roofs, so that flowing from one to the next, and from the inside to the outside, would be as easy as possible. Eizenberg told me that the goal was to make the outdoor spaces the central focus and the architecture a backdrop (which makes sense, given Southern California’s climate), and to allow the family a kind of “messy improvisation.”
It was another Santa Ana October day, very warm and breezy. The sun beat down, and the palm trees shook. A couple members of the construction crew were getting ready to put up wood siding, which had been singed to a nearly black color through a process Eizenberg told me she learned about in Japan. But I was more interested in taking another spin through the pool house, which, despite being more cramped and a good deal cheaper to build than the main house, had a frank charm. Eizenberg told me she didn’t mind that the flat-roofed pool house had a different look than the main house’s pitched rooflines and smooth exterior surfaces, which resemble Venetian plaster. “The last thing we want is to have everything look all matchy- matchy,” Eizenberg said.
She smiled, seeming pleased that she had encapsulated the firm’s worldview in a single brief and self-deprecating sentence. I was standing near the new pool, which the family decided to keep using even during construction. It appeared as a patch of smooth blue, surrounded by piles of upturned, reddish-orange dirt. The wind blew, and the surface of the water rippled, so that the reflection of the pool house, which had been in too-perfect focus, shattered into a thousand gleaming bits.