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Editorial: Go Solar, Already!

Walking through the Dwell on Design expo at the Los Angeles convention center last month, I came across plenty of good ideas. But one struck me as particularly smart: the SolarLease program from a company called SolarCity. Under the plan, launched in April, homeowners pay a monthly fee (over a standard 15 years) to lease solar panels, therefore avoiding the upfront costs, paperwork, and maintenance of buying their own. The company installs the panels for free and guarantees that monthly charges will be less than what customers save in energy costs.

An idea like this makes particular sense in California, where it’s sunny much of the time. But according to the California Energy Commission, there have only been about 33,000 solar systems installed in the state. That’s out of over 35 million total households (according to the U.S. Census 2005American Community Survey) and countless businesses and government agencies.

That’s pitiful, especially now that going solar has become easier and more affordable. Besides programs like SolarLease, there are plenty of providers. A list of registered California retailers is available at www.gosolarcalifornia.org, a site run by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) and the California Energy Commission (a national list is available at findsolar.com).

According to the energy commission, prices for a typical photovoltaic (PV) solar system, with installation, average around $20,000. And to offset the upfront cost, there are government incentive programs like the California Solar Initiative, run by the CPUC and administered by local private utility companies. That program offers cash rebate incentives for photovoltaic systems starting at $2.50 per watt produced for existing home systems and $3.25 per watt for government and non-profit organizations (updated rates can be found at www.csi-trigger.com), which works out to about a $7,500 rebate for installing the average 2.5 kilowatt home PV system. New Solar Homes Partnership is a similar rebate program offered through the Energy Commission.

Meanwhile, local and federal government initiatives provide further incentives and tax credits for going solar. Homeowners using solar energy can get up to a $2,000 credit on their federal income taxes and business owners can get up to 30 percent of the price of an installation. Also, the CPUC gives incentives for other solar systems besides PV, like solar thermal and solar hot water.

Other states like New Jersey and Colorado have had problems administering their solar rebate programs and keeping up with residents’ demands. But because California has $3.3 billion over 10 years for its program (paid for by a senate bill, not by utility surcharges as in other states), and since California’s local utilities—as opposed to public administration—began overseeing programs in 2008, California’s program has gone fairly smoothly, pointed out Amy Morgan, a spokesperson for the California Energy Commission. Not to say that solar is completely painless. Installation can be pricey, and rebates and incentives only partially offset the cost; it can take years to recoup the rest through savings on your energy bills. Moreover, the federal solar credit expires at the end of this year and has yet to be renewed, so that incentive is still up in the air, raising more questions about solar’s future (since SolarLease’s most significant savings relate to the federal credits, for example, its plan could be greatly hindered if the credits are not extended).

So why emphasize solar when a greater goal of comprehensive green building is even more important, and will save much more energy? Because it’s a great first step. Transforming our building stock from top to bottom will take time. Consider solar a no-brainer for the smart set.

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Comment: Ups and Downs in Dodger Town
The proposed Dodgerland preserves the 1962 stadium amid retail and parkland development.
Courtesy Johnson Fain

The recent announcement that the Los Angeles Dodgers plan not to raze their revered stadium overlooking downtown but instead revitalize it with a parklike themed mall has been greeted with guarded optimism by both fans and a faithless public.

No one but the most imprudent publicist wants to lend the ambitious $500 million proposal his blessing just yet—certainly not in this hype-happy city, annually promised new architectural icons, fanciful ephemeral attractions, and a championship baseball team.

Then there is the down-and-dirty concern of how people are supposed to get to the new, improved, and pricey stadium, if not by private car. There already are hints of an attendance fall-off because of the increasing crush of traffic, though I suspect the team’s mediocre performance so far this season has also been a factor.

Though close to downtown, the stadium was designed and built 50 years ago in a suburban mode, surrounded by sprawling surface lots and served by a web of freeways that was adequate for the first few decades but has since become a nightmare. If “Dodgerland” is to attract the crowds needed to viably take its place in the Southland’s galaxy of themed attractions alongside Universal City and Disneyland, it is going to need a rail connection to the nearby Gold Line in Chinatown or to the Union Station transit hub serving downtown. Buses just won’t do.

Another possible connection would be the construction of a less costly tramway or trolley. This also would pay homage to the origination of the team’s name in Brooklyn, from a popular description of its fans a century ago, who when going to Ebbets Field to see a ballgame would have to dodge the streetcars converging there.

Indeed, I remember fondly in the 1940s in that beloved borough of my birth paying three cents to ride the Coney Island Trolley to the Parade Grounds and the bandbox of a ballpark beyond, to sit in a 25-cent bleacher seat. The ticket was courtesy of The Brooklyn Eagle where I worked as a newsboy.

Both the Dodger management and Mayor Villaraigosa heartily agree that a transit connection is needed, and at the press conference announcing the stadium plans, pledged to actively explore possibilities. However, given the present meltdown of the municipal budget along with federal aid to the city, no one is holding his breath.

Whether a real hope or hype, the plans for “Dodgerland” read well, taking advantage of the stadium’s dramatic hilltop site. Featured is a welcoming entry marked by a tree-lined promenade and grand plaza, conveniently connected to a relaxed landscaped pedestrian street encircling the ballpark. Christened Dodger Way and lined with eateries and an array of stores, the street is designed to entice fans to come early and stay late, to shop and dine, and not incidentally to reduce the crush of traffic around the stadium immediately before and after the games. Also in the offing is something labeled The Dodger Experience, described as a museum “showcasing the history of the Dodgers in an interactive setting.” Welcome to Dodgerland, but don’t forget your Visa card.

Playing to LA’s benign climate, the team’s culture, and the Southland’s consumerism, the plans were fashioned with appropriate flair by the design team of the locally based firms of Johnson Fain and Rios Clementi Hale Studios for architecture and landscape, together with the HKS Sports and Entertainment Group.

To their credit, the plans also respect the local concerns, especially among fans, that the landmark stadium not be compromised. Hailed as the epitome of the modern major league ballpark when it opened in 1962, the stadium now is the second oldest in the National League, and when Yankee Stadium is demolished this year, will be third oldest in the majors, ranking behind Chicago’s Wrigley Field and Boston’s Fenway Park. Given its potentially valuable site for housing on the edge of the central city, the stadium over the years has been subject to various threats. These have included its wholesale relocation downtown, to be gift-wrapped in a nostalgic urban design in the mode of the recent ballpark re-dos in San Francisco and San Diego. These proposals have been belittled by the Dodger faithful and the city’s landmark police. Also roundly razzed and promptly dismissed was a pie-in-the-sky proposal by Pritzker-award-winning architect Thom Mayne to demolish the stadium for a residential and recreational development and rebuild it a few miles away on recently dedicated city parkland. The plan alienated almost everyone, from park advocates to Dodger fans and community groups.

In addition, there’s an inherent distrust of the team’s ownership among fans. Baseball being a sport of traditions, fans have long memories, particularly Dodger fans who have not seen a World Championship in 20 years as the team passed through the hands of the miserly O’Malley family and the otherwise engaged media mogul Rupert Murdoch to the migrant McCourts, freshfaced and full of vim and vigor from chilly Boston where their nouveau ways were not appreciated as they are here in California.

Not forgotten by some is the team’s relocation from Brooklyn a half-century ago. That broke the collective hearts of the hapless faithful in the then-diminishing outer borough, mine included, until of course I moved to Los Angeles (like so many other New Yorkers). It will be interesting how that tidbit of history will be handled in The Dodger Experience museum, that is, if the team can find the financing for its plans while still looking for a center fielder who can hit.

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Frame Sweet Frame
Courtesy Oyler Wu Collaborative

In late June the Los Angeles Forum for Architecture and Design announced that LA firm Oyler Wu Collaborative had won its LINER competition, to outfit the Forum’s newly acquired headquarters at 6520 Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles. The Forum’s roughly 1,000-square-foot storefront space and gallery, which they will occupy by early fall, will be located on the ground floor of Woodbury University’s Hollywood Center for Community Research and Design. Woodbury is loaning the Forum the area indefinitely.

Oyler Wu’s intervention, designed to accommodate the Forum’s public events, exhibitions, and day-to-day operations, was chosen from a list of 29 original entries and a three-firm short list that also included LA-based F-Lab and San Francisco-based Kuth Ranieri Architects. Oyler Wu will receive a $2500 prize.

Their $7,500 project, Pendulum Plane, which the firm describes as an “intricate ceiling system,” will consist of a series of sixteen 40 x 90-inch hinged and counterbalanced aluminum frames that can swivel into varied positions to accommodate different types of exhibitions, lectures, and other activities. Attached to the topmost walls of the new space along a central spine, the angular frames, said Oyler Wu principal Jenny Wu, can be lowered, raised, rotated, and moved from side to side. Hence they can be the center of attention, or they can easily be moved out of the way, added Wu. Design is already underway, and fabrication and installation will take place through the summer.

The Forum, which has been without its own space since its founding in 1987, will host an opening for their new headquarters in late summer or early fall, said its president, designer and writer Mohamed Sharif. Oyler Wu’s project is receiving engineering support from Buro Happold Consulting Engineers and patronage from facade systems manufacturer Swisspearl.

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Protest in Pasadena
Students, faculty, and alumni have objected to Frank Gehry's $50 million research complex, seeking funds for other school needs.
Steven Heller/Courtesy Gehry Partners

After a month of impassioned protest from students, faculty, and alumni—both online and off—Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, confirmed yesterday that its president, Richard Koshalek, will not have his contract renewed when it expires at the end of 2009. His departure has stirred uncertainty over the institution’s $150 million expansion plan, for which Koshalek had raised $80 million over the last decade, and includes what is widely being called his legacy project: a $50 million building designed by Frank Gehry.

A former director of both the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and the Hudson River Museum in Yonkers, Koshalek has been at the school since 1999. During his tenure, Art Center expanded its focus on graphic, industrial, and transportation design education and became a cultural force with multiple campuses and high-profile initiatives such as its biennial design conference.

“Over the last nine years, Richard Koshalek has exhibited dynamic and original leadership of Art Center, and we look forward to and support his continuing leadership,” said board of trustees president John Puerner in a statement. “Importantly, leadership must continue to evolve to meet future challenges. Therefore, the board has decided to start the search for a new president.” Art Center hopes to find a replacement for Koshalek by the end of the year.

“Upon my departure, after ten years as president of the college, I look forward with the greatest optimism to developing a series of international ideas and initiatives,” said Koshalek in a separate statement. “Above all, I will continue to be unwavering in my support of and enthusiasm for the future of Art Center.”

On June 18, students and organizers of an online petition named Education First presented the trustees with a letter—signed by over 1,400 students, faculty, and alumni, a number roughly the size of the undergrad student body—demanding that work on the Gehry building be halted. The group called for funds to be devoted instead to the improvement of existing facilities, faculty support, rising tuition costs, scholarships, and recruitment. Another petition, Honesty First, in support of the building and Koshalek, had only 400 signatures.

In Puerner’s statement, he acknowledged the students’ demands. “Significant concerns have also been expressed about the balance between investment in current facilities, future projects, and near-term educational needs,” he said, noting that the Gehry plan, among other projects, will be “reevaluated and reprioritized by the facilities and finance committees of the Board.” Edwin Chan, design architect for the project at Gehry Partners, did not respond to requests for comment.

Koshalek is known as a charismatic leader who came to the school in 1999 after 17 years as director of MOCA. He immediately embarked upon a global fundraising mission for a new master plan that included Gehry’s Design Research Complex (DRC) as a centerpiece of the program. (Alvaro Siza was also attached at one point, but was dismissed when the plan was scaled down.) According to Patricia Oliver, senior vice president of architecture and education planning, the Design Research Complex would contain a technology center with meeting places for students, as well as studio and workshop space.

“The students seem to think we can solve these needs in this existing building,” said Oliver of Craig Ellwood’s iconic, 1975 black steel box, which straddles an arroyo high above the Rose Bowl. “We cannot solve their needs within the confines of this current structure.”

AMONG KOSHALEK'S HIGH-PROFILE ART CENTER PROJECTS, DALY GENIK RENOVATED THE WIND TUNNEL BUILDING AS A SLEEK NEW CENTER FOR SCHOOL PROGRAMS. BENNY CHAN/FOTOWORKS

In 2004, a former supersonic testing facility known as the Wind Tunnel was renovated by Daly Genik for $15 million as a center for graduate and public programs. A $35 million privately-funded student housing building near the Wind Tunnel, also by Daly Genik, should break ground this year. Art Center has also secured a large power plant near the Wind Tunnel, which they’re leasing from the city of Pasadena for $1 per year.

One area of misconception, according to Puerner’s statement, was that the DRC had been approved by the school’s board. In fact, only an initial phase including cost analysis and fundraising efforts was approved. The DRC proposal is currently in the environmental impact report stage, with a meeting scheduled for July 23, and could go before the Pasadena City Council as soon as August.

The Gehry building is not universally supported by neighbors, who have bemoaned the school’s excessive traffic and overcrowded parking lots. Oliver hopes to address the concerns of angry homeowners with more details in the future. “They are afraid of the Gehry building because they see it as Disney Hall on the hillside,” said Oliver, who once worked in Gehry’s office. “We are trying to assuage their fears and explain that the building isn’t designed yet.”

A past president of the Linda Vista–Annandale Association, Sharon Yonashiro, agreed that the Ellwood building was difficult for neighbors to accept. “Here comes the next generation of people who want to leave an imprint, and suddenly there’s a 90-foot building in a single-family residential neighborhood,” said Yonashiro of the proposed design. “Had there been a dialogue that had been meaningful with the neighborhood, they wouldn’t have this building,” she added. “We feel it’s out-of-character and an extremely insensitive project.”

That lack of communication has also frustrated those on campus, says Robert Quintero, an industrial design student who graduated this spring. He attended an environmental impact hearing on May 29 that was not advertised to students. Even though he’s been at the school since 2003, he said this was the first time he had heard many details about the proposal, which had been called a library to avoid confusion. “Before I went to this meeting I had no idea what was going into that building,” he said. “I thought it was a real library for books.” (Oliver said a website was provided for feedback about the Gehry building, and argued that most students at the school weren’t there when the last version came around for approval in October 2006.)

And then there is the issue of Koshalek’s own longstanding friendship with Gehry. Koshalek hired Gehry to design MOCA’s temporary building, now the Geffen Contemporary, and he was also co-chair of the committee that picked Gehry for the Walt Disney Concert Hall. This relationship seems to peeve some—mostly anonymous—critics who are demanding to know how much Art Center has already paid Gehry for the project and accusing Koshalek of cronyism and empire-building.

Kevin Daly of Daly Genik, who designed the two structures for the South Campus and worked for Gehry in the 1980s, said he’s surprised by the whole fracas. “It’s enormously frustrating,” said Daly. “Frank Gehry is someone who made his career by doing these simple industrial-inspired buildings made for artists. To imagine he doesn’t have the same credentials to do this for Art Center is ridiculous.”

A faculty member who has been at the school for over five years, but only agreed to speak anonymously, cautioned that it’s not all about buildings. Several key faculty members, including chief academic officer Nate Young and two chief financial officers, have resigned or been fired.

No matter how supporters and detractors feel about Koshalek’s mission now, it was clear in 1999 that he was hired to raise the center’s profile in the design community and beyond.

“If anyone thought when they brought in Richard Koshalek that Art Center would remain quiet and self-contained on a suburban hill, they hired the wrong man,” said Chee Pearlman, who served as director of Art Center’s three conferences. “Richard is about breaking down provincialism in all forms and acting on big ideas.”

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Trumped Again
The Trump Palace (left) and one of several copyrighted designs by plaintiff Paul Oravec (right). 
Courtesy coffey burlington and paul oravec

In a ruling with mixed messages for the architecture world, a federal court has rejected claims that Donald Trump and his partners stole the designs for two towers in Sunny Isles Beach, Florida, an exclusive barrier island near Miami, from Czech-born architect Paul Oravec.

According to his complaint, Oravec was “shocked and dismayed” when in 2003 he discovered the Trump towers in a newspaper ad, looking like a copyrighted design he had circulated among Miami developers in 1997. Seeking $120 million in damages, Oravec sued the team behind the Trump Palace and the Trump Royale, twin 55-story luxury condominiums designed by Miami-based Sieger Suarez Architectural Partnership as part of an 11-acre, $700 million development.

“They stole it from me,” Oravec said in a brief telephone interview about the case. “We’re going to fight it.”

The Trump towers broadly resemble those drawn by Oravec, who trained as an architect in Czechoslovakia but is not licensed in the U.S. Both designs feature curved, vertically stacked segments of concave and convex forms. Both show three prominent elevator cores rising above the roofline. And both are twin-tower schemes with rounded building ends that enclose a circular plaza.

But on May 14, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit held that differences far outweigh any similarity. Stressing that copyright does not extend to ideas—only to expressions of ideas—the judges noted that alternating segments, for example, appear on both sides of Oravec’s towers but only on one side of the Trump buildings. Oravec’s structures show five segments, while Trump’s have three. And Oravec’s towers are “banana-shaped” while Trump’s are more rectilinear.

“The building as a whole simply doesn’t look like the other work,” said Susan Raffanello, partner at Miami-based law firm Coffey Burlington, who represented the Trump team. “It didn’t have the flip-flop, convex-concave nature at all.”

Several copyright experts supported the decision. “This was a bit of a thin case to begin with,” said Mark Hellenkamp, a partner with San Diego–based Morris Polich & Purdy. “If they looked exactly the same, the court might have reached a different conclusion.”

Still, the case could be construed as crimping copyright protection, since it suggests that relatively subtle design differences can sink a plaintiff’s claim. And with few such cases at the appellate level, this one may have a lasting impact on future litigation. (Oravec’s attorneys declined to comment.)

“This case shows the unfortunate trend,” said Raffanello, citing the building boom of recent years, “of anybody being able to claim that they have copyright on the look of a building and sue the architect.”

Further raising the stakes, lawyers say, courts have affirmed an architect’s right to recover the profits a builder would have made—hence Oravec’s quest for $120 million. “We’re talking about huge dollars,” said Andres Quintana, partner with the Quintana Law Group in Los Angeles County. “That’s insane, if you think about it.” Architectural copyright, he added, remains among the least understood forms of intellectual property. “Architects don’t even get it,” he said. “It’s pretty treacherous sometimes.”

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Gifting Schindler
Schindler's Fitzpatrick-Leland House
Courtesy MAK Center for Art and Architecture

LA’s MAK Center for Art and Architecture today announced that it has been given the Fitzpatrick-Leland House, one of Rudolph Schindler’s great residential works. The center plans to use the home as a base for visiting researchers.

Located at the edge of a sharp ridge in Laurel Canyon, the L-shaped, tri-level home includes a staggered envelope, large horizontal openings, overhanging roof planes, and a subtle composition of interlocking volumes that provides abundant spaciousness and light. It was built on spec for developer Clifton Fitzpatrick in 1936.

Unlike the MAK Center’s other Schindler properties, the Schindler House (1921-22) and the Mackey Apartments (1936), the Fitzpatrick-Leland House acquisition was facilitated by a single donor, local real estate developer Russ Leland, who, since purchasing the home in 1990, has worked with architect and contractor Jeff Fink to restore it from a state of disrepair. Previous owners had covered over the house’s large windows with sheetrock, walled in the second-floor balcony, and plastered over a fireplace, while the building’s foundations needed re-shoring. Originally named the Fitzpatrick house, its name has been changed to honor Leland.

The house is now home to the MAK Center’s new Urban Future Initiative (UFI), which provides two-month residencies to cultural researchers from around the world. Funded by a grant from the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, the initiative allows seven researchers or pairs of fellows—chosen by a seven-member jury—to investigate urban phenomena, including sustainability, immigration, and social justice. The program began in April and is scheduled to run through September 2009. The first UFI fellow, Indonesian architect Marco Kusumawijaya, has been studying the relationship between the last 100 years of urban history in Los Angeles and the amount of material and energy used in the production and operation of its built spaces.

For more information go to www.MAKcenter.org.

Eavesdrop: Alissa Walker

GIRLS GIRLS GIRLS
In these trying times for real estate, we’ve heard of all sorts of sneaky tricks developers are using to woo tenants—free Mini Coopers, gift certificates for modern furniture, those guys spinning the big arrows. But the latest ploy is not only getting attention, it’s stopping traffic. Drivers heading northbound on the 110 through downtown LA last month were treated to what looked like strippers gyrating in day-glo windows of the Canvas LA apartment buildings. Curbed LA editor Josh Williams was drawn to the “big 80s poofy-style Whitesnake-video hair” of the mysterious dancing lady of the night: “It was like the iPod ads but without the iPod, or like something out of Amsterdam’s Red Light District.” Leave it to the local FOX affiliate to crack the case. Turns out, these sexy thangs aren’t available for rent; they’re simply projections: The DVD series known as Shadow Dancers also “appear nightly” at the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas and the Crown Plaza, Dubai. The DVDs are available at shadowdancers.tv for all managers of low-occupancy properties looking to step up their marketing, or curious potential renters wanting to, ahem, experience this technology in the comfort of their own homes.

SAY GOODBYE
Santa Monica bid farewell to its iconic Ferris wheel spinning over the Pacific Ocean, as a winning bid on eBay rolled it from its former home on the end of the pier to halfway across the country. The auction, which closed at $132,400, was won by real estate developer Grant Humphreys, who said it will be installed somewhere in his hometown of Oklahoma City. Not one to wallow in nostalgia, Pacific Park installed a shiny new deluxe model on May 22. And in other Goodbye news, although not officially confirmed by anyone at the firm, it’s been widely reported that Frank Gehry laid off more than 20 people in late April, just ahead of announcements of even more funding delays for Brooklyn’s Atlantic Yards and The Project Formerly Known As Grand Avenue. So, about that April groundbreaking…

FIELD OF DREAMS
When sports and real estate magnate Ed Roski, Jr. rolled out his plan for a new Los Angeles football stadium on April 17 it was hard not to compare his wide-eyed optimism to a certain Ray “If you build it, they will come” Kinsella. Sure, the proposed stadium is being designed by Dan Meis (who also stood by Roski’s side for Staples Center), and it has a snazzy promise of sustainability and acres of retail space for shop-happy Inland Empresses.

But it was hard not to notice everything that’s working against Roski’s plan to bring football back to LA: hundreds of millions needed in non-taxpayer funding, a seedy location that’s practically in Nevada, and, uh, how about the fact that LA doesn’t have a football team? But no one ever said Roski was a realist. Last year, Roski paid $200,000 to be among the first to fly Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic into space. He’s also embarked on other theatrical adventures, chartering a submarine to the Titanic site and climbing to Mt. Everest’s base camp. Which makes you wonder what other voices he might be hearing in his head.

Send tips, gossip, and grand prizes to slubell@archpaper.com.

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Green House of Representatives

Edward Norton testifying before Congress' committee on energy independence and global warming.
Courtesy U.S. House of Representatives

When the Democratic Party gained control of Congress two years ago, House Democrats created the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming. The committee’s mission is clear from its URL alone—globalwarming.house.gov—and over the course of its tenure, the committee has heard testimony from scientists, environmentalists, politicians, professors, and business leaders. Yesterday it added green building experts to that list.

At a hearing entitled “Building Green, Saving Green: Constructing Sustainable and Energy-Efficient Buildings,” five stars in the field, including one from Hollywood, spoke about how Congress should push for laws that would require more sustainable building practices nationwide.

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom spoke about, among other things, his proposal to require large-scale private developments to adhere to LEED standards. (As we reported last year, mayor Newsom is in a race with Los Angeles to see which city can push their plan through first.) Michelle Moore, a senior vice president at the U.S. Green Building Council, testified about the considerable impact of buildings on the environment and how they can be mitigated through smart building and, equally if not more importantly, retrofitting practices.

Kent Peterson, president of the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers, spoke about the importance of implementing tough energy standards within local building codes. Tony Stall, vice president for marketing at Dryvit, testified to the importance of cladding systems, like those his company produces, in reducing the energy requirements of a building.

But the darling of the day was no doubt Edward Norton, environmentalist, friend of the High Line, and grandson of a famed developer. Norton was speaking in his capacity as a trustee of Enterprise Community Partners, the community development non-profit his grandfather, James Rouse, founded. He urged Congress to ensure that sustainability reaches all Americans, not just those who can afford it. 


Mayor Gavin Newsom.
Courtesy U.S. House of Representatives

The committee is due to post a video of the proceedings on its website soon, and the testimony of the five speakers is already there. In the meantime, check out The San Francisco Chronicle for a story focusing on Newsom’s testimony and his initiative, which AN’s California bureau says is due out in the near future. 

Don't Supersize Me

The old adage “less is more” has been revived in Los Angeles. On May 6, the LA City Council unanimously approved its “Mansionization Ordinance,” also known as the Neighborhood Character Ordinance, which will restrict the size and bulk of new or remodeled single-family dwellings in many LA neighborhoods. First proposed by council member Tom LaBonge in 2006, it is one of many similar pieces of legislation in the region, all hoping to limit the spread of the much-reviled McMansion.

The LA ordinance will require that houses throughout many of the city’s flatland neighborhoods limit square footage to approximately half the size of their lot and keep garages at a modest 400 square feet. Fulfilling criteria such as having larger setbacks and including “eco-friendly” features would allow homeowners to add another 20 percent to their square footage.

LA residents have long been asking for more restrictions on house size, citing the loss of neighborhood character and, in some cases, privacy, as a glut of multi-level McMansions replaced 20th-century bungalows. According to The Los Angeles Times, LA houses have grown steadily over the years, reaching an average of 2,500 square feet, just over 1,000 square feet larger than the average residence in the western U.S.

LA City Council President Eric Garcetti argued that super-sized houses are the antithesis of sustainable development and a “green” city. “The days of considering land-use decisions separate from their environmental impact are a thing of the past,” Garcetti said.

But realtors and builders have a different take on McMansions. Holly Schroeder, CEO of the Building Industry Association’s Los Angeles/Ventura chapter, said that new homes and substantial remodels are already 30 percent more energy-efficient than in other states and that in the next year, new California standards will push that up another 20 percent. “Bigger homes are not necessarily less efficient,” she said. The Beverly Hills/Greater Los Angeles Association of Realtors said the ordinance will have a negative effect on the already beaten-down housing market and won’t allow families to grow into their current homes.

Their concerns are not entirely unfounded. In a March 2008 review by the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation (LACEDC), it was determined that property values would decline in proportion to the floor area no longer allowed by such an ordinance. However, in the same report, LACEDC pointed to the potential for property values to decline in neighborhoods with prevalent McMansions because the demand for such houses was dropping.

Los Angeles is not the first city in Southern California to put the kibosh on super-sized development. The first anti-mansionization ordinance was introduced by LA City Councilwoman Wendy Greuel in 2005, and applied to the Sunland-Tujunga community the same year. Glendale, Burbank, and Beverly Hills have similar ordinances on the books, and Santa Monica has been curbing super-sized development for a number of years. Other Southland cities have started to undergo similar processes. In February, the Manhattan Beach City Council adopted an ordinance that revised residential building standards in an effort to minimize bulky, lot-consuming houses and additions.

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Fear and Loathing in Glendale
The Americana at Brand.
Sam Lubell

Finally it has arrived—the most anticipated new architectural development in Los Angeles in months. What is this project, you ask? A museum? A great civic building, maybe, a new school? No, it’s a mall, sort of.

The $400 million Americana at Brand, which opened in downtown Glendale on May 2, is a mix between shopping center and new town. Developed by Rick Caruso, creator of the ultra-popular “Grove” in Miracle Mile, the Americana was designed by Caruso’s staff, together with respected Boston firm Elkus Manfredi. It is set on 15.5 acres of prime real estate organized around “the Green,” a two-acre common that includes curvaceous lawns, gentle walkways, and a lake with dancing fountains. Built using eclectic styles and varied scales, the Americana includes over 50 stores and restaurants, an 18-screen movie complex, 238 apartments, and 100 luxury condominiums.

For an architecture person, the Americana is the definition of a guilty pleasure. I don’t want to like it. After all, it’s real, but in the same way that Reality TV is real. It’s a watered-down pastiche of historical architectural styles, many of them European; a simulacrum of urbanism planned to maximize consumer spending and minimize civic disruption; it’s a drain on local shops, and a ticket to new traffic jams; and it’s an all-too-clean, inorganic piece of city plopped into a city that already exists.

Despite all this, it’s still quite enjoyable and, in some ways, effective, at least for a limited amount of time. Entering the Green provokes excitement, with its sweeping, carefully composed vistas and its open congregation of humanity sitting and playing on (real!) grass, a rarity in Los Angeles. It makes you wonder how the horrible indoor mall was ever invented in a state where staying inside is generally a mistake. Besides its greenness, the size of this space is its biggest asset; unlike the Grove, streets are minimized here. In most urbanism, real streets bring excitement and activation. In fake urbanism, they spell doom. The least effective areas here are the “streets” that border on real streets, pale in comparison to the real thing, with the empty feeling of ghost towns.

Most of the architecture at the Americana is banal and unapologetically nostalgic, ranging from vaguely Italianate to art deco-light to faux colonial. Yet at least it is varied in style and size, a touch of city-ness from which many malls could benefit. The addition of real living spaces—although far from affordable ones—within the complex helps contribute to this sense of urbanity as well. And within the architectural array, there are a few gems that—while somewhat bizarre—draw the eye and keep the array from collapsing into a wasteland of boredom. A golden cupola adorns a large Guess Store. A 175-foot-tall rusted elevator tower is topped with a thin spire that looks like a cross between an oil tower and the Eiffel Tower. A few of the contemporary-style buildings, each with its own architectural expression, are pretty good: a gray limestone-and-steel-clad Barney’s; a blond wood-clad Martin and Osa; and a Lululemon Athletica whose fiberglass facade appears to be peeled away to reveal glazing.

After about an hour, the piped-in jazz, the strange security guards with their Mountie hats, and the supernatural syrupy sweetness of the place become seriously grating. It could be the set for The Prisoner. You start to doubt whether this concoction actually connects itself to the rest of Glendale, which peeks in at places but is mostly shut out. You start to wonder who would want to live over a place like this for years, not just linger for an hour. And you also start to wonder why there is no Farmer’s Market like at the Grove, just a collection of high-end stores for wealthy visitors.

Still, while the project may be a little creepy and architecturally unspectacular, for a mall it represents a stunningly good piece of urban design. Like the Grove, it’s one of the few malls I’ve been to where I’ve actually wanted to linger. These designers are getting so close to real urbanism that you wonder what they might think of next. Maybe a non-chain store that locals would want to use? Maybe an urban space that doesn’t prohibit pets and photography or have a curfew of 10 p.m.? Wait, I have an idea. Maybe these fake towns could someday even become… real towns! Well, a guy can dream, can’t he?

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Q&A: Jane Ellison Usher
Downtown LA at night
Courtesy LACVB

In the heady first days of his administration in 2005, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa handpicked Jane Ellison Usher, a legal adviser to former Mayor Tom Bradley and counsel to the 1984 Olympics, to be president of the Los Angeles City Planning Commission. He also selected the well-respected Gail Goldberg to be director of the Los Angeles City Planning Department. The two women set out on a course to deliver a great urban city to the mayor by adopting a manifesto entitled “Do Real Planning.” The rich but brief document represented a change in perspective for City Hall: create a beautiful, livable, and walkable city by upholding overall planning strategies rather than allowing city council members to negotiate political favors with developers in individual districts. More than two years later, that vision is taking hits. Not only did the council cast off Goldberg’s policy to protect lots currently zoned for industrial uses citywide, but Councilman Ed Reyes said that each councilperson should be free to determine planning policy in his own district.

Then came the council’s adoption in February of SB 1818, a state bill that provides developers with density bonuses and other incentives in return for constructing affordable housing. When the city council passed an ordinance exempting certain SB 1818 developments from environmental review processes (CEQA), Usher not only opposed the city and its planning department, but she suggested that neighborhood groups sue the city. With insiders wondering whether she would be removed from her position, Tibby Rothman sat down to talk to her about the state of planning in Los Angeles.

The Architect’s Newspaper: Given the events of the last few months, is the era of “Do Real Planning” over before it has begun?

Jane Ellison Usher: There are some foundational activities occurring in the city of Los Angeles that keep “Do Real Planning” alive certainly for me, and hopefully into perpetuity for the rest of the city. But here’s what we’re facing:


COURTESY J.E. USHER
 

One, a planning department that culturally has not been as excited and aggressive as they needed to be to do real planning. There’s a lot of leadership now at the top that’s encouraging them to be more aggressive, to think out of the box, to behave and act differently, but I don’t think there’s a magic bullet.

I would add to that that there’s quite a legacy of absence of planning in Los Angeles. There is some sense of entitlement on the part of the development community to live in a city where planning principals are secondary or perhaps tertiary. It will take us more time than we’ve had to turn that thinking around.

The third piece is the regular practice of the city council to defer to the home district whenever a planning issue is on the table. This practice has caused the city council to forget to think holistically about the city and about a vision that can be achieved if we’re focusing on all the moving pieces at the same time.

You openly invited neighborhood groups to sue the city over its implementation of SB 1818.

I did.

What’s wrong with it?

Part of my dissatisfaction was that my commission wasn’t updated until the day the ordinance took effect. And on that score, I have to say that the planning department did its commission a disservice. But the other part of my dissatisfaction was when I read the final ordinance that day, I saw such departures from all of the “Do Real Planning” conversations that the commission had been having for the last two-and-a-half years. I was taken by surprise by the final product.

An awful lot of work went into [the ordinance] on the council floor and I will confess to you that I don’t think that that’s the optimal place for that volume of change to occur.

Then my eye falls, almost immediately, on language that I had never seen discussed and it does this because I’m a lawyer. I saw a word in the ordinance that means an awful lot to a land-use lawyer and that word is “ministerial.” To a land-use lawyer, anything that is ministerial, by definition, doesn’t require CEQA [environmental impact] review. The ultimate payday for a developer is something that is ministerial, and the ordinance was defining a large set of projects as ministerial. That surprised me.

I went back and looked at the CEQA clearance for the ordinance itself. In January, the planning director had offered the council CEQA: a categorical exemption for the ordinance. And the basis for its being exempt from CEQA was her description of how the ordinance would work, namely, every project using the ordinance’s provision would have its own independent, individualized CEQA clearance. 

So here you find an ordinance that’s categorizing a large class of projects as ministerial and exempt from CEQA and the ordinance saying: Each project will have its own CEQA clearance. The two are inconsistent. 

I took it a step further. In a brochure that the California APA had written for cities as they worked on implementing SB 1818 ordinances, the California APA said that implementing ordinances must have an environmental clearance; they must go through CEQA.

So I stitched all of those pieces together and came to my own conclusion, which was that the city’s implementing ordinance insufficiently attended to CEQA. Whether a court would agree with me remains to be seen, and may never be known. But it absolutely did bother me.

In your opinion, which group hinders Los Angeles from being a great city: those developers who don’t respect the envelope or use mandates, or NIMBYs who fight structures in their neighborhood that could alleviate chronic problems such as affordable housing or mass transit projects?

Well, it’s funny. I don’t think of anybody as being a NIMBY. Somebody coined that less-than-gracious phrase and it stuck. I was thinking about this, and I like to call these people WIMBYs in the city of LA. It’s not “Not In My Backyard.” I’ve met with countless members of residents and homeowners and neighborhood associations and neighborhood councils. Their question is: “What’s In My Backyard?” I find them to be largely very responsible. They simply want to know: What’s going to be in their backyard and have we provided the support and the infrastructure for whatever it is that is going to be located near them?

Those questions are smart questions, the right questions. So if I’m supportive and in league with those kinds of questions, what is it that I have to say to developers? Well, there again, I find the developers to be largely very reasonable. They just want to know what the rules are. So I don’t blame the developers and I don’t blame the homeowners. I find that the most blameworthy place is the department of city planning, which I think has let down both sides of the equation by not defining for them with sufficient specificity what our vision is for land use.

But doesn’t that go to the city council and not the planning department?

I think we should delineate—if you have a department that’s insufficiently staffed and not directed to do real planning, you’re going to have an unhappy outcome. Here we are at a crossroads, where we’re asking the right questions, we’re staffing up the department, we’re focusing on rewriting all of the community plans with an eye to do real planning. If these plans arrive at the city council and as a consensus-building matter become adopted, we should see a different kind of city in the future, one with lots of predictability and much less uncertainty. If these plans arrive at the city council a year, two years, three years from now and are eviscerated—then you’ll have your answer. 

The word on the street is that the mayor will quietly remove you because of the email you sent out on SB 1818. What’s your response? 

I work in my role as the president of the commission at the pleasure of the mayor and on any day, at any time, it is absolutely his prerogative to remove me and that’s a power unique to him and he should exercise it whenever he thinks the time is right. 

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Tinkering with History
Craig Elwood's 1953 Johnson House in Brentwood was restored by Du Architects, who stripped, polished, and replaced wood finishes and floors as necessary to maintain the original integrity of the house.
Joshua White

When George Mimnaugh set out to restore an original 1953 home designed by Case Study architect Rodney Walker that had been chopped up and turned into a triplex, his intention was to turn it back into the duplex it was originally intended to be and to respect the home’s historic integrity.

“That restoration happened and everyone in the preservation community was thrilled,” he said. “Unfortunately, I couldn’t sell it.” 

He proceeded to take the house off the market and turn it into a single-family dwelling, trying to retain as much of the original spirit, but clearly not keeping to the original duplex blueprint. “It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but in the end I was really pleased with the renovation and the house sold almost immediately,” he said. “Not everyone has the deep pockets that it takes to turn these homes into museum pieces, nor is it always practical,” he added.

For purists, turning the duplex into a single-family home is sacrilege. Others, who don’t take issue with some architectural license and consider it a duty to bring a home into this century, find it refreshing. In a time when midcentury houses are either fetching millions or facing the wrecking ball, the restorations, renovations, and re-builds of architecturally significant modernist houses have become the subject of both pride and controversy.

According to Brian Linder, AIA, of Deasy/Penner & Partners, a “design-centric” real estate firm that has sold many significant midcentury properties in Southern California, there is room for both renovation and restoration. “Some buyers want things in pristine original condition, like a museum piece. Others need the home to be brought up to date, with new kitchens and baths, closets and room sizes, etc., that are more in line with our current lifestyles,” he said.

But many in the architecture world are concerned that insensitive or poorly-executed renovations—whether they be for aesthetic or lifestyle reasons—will forever damage an architectural legacy. Alan Leib, chairman emeritus of the Los Angeles Conservancy Modern Committee, claims that the real issue comes with a lack of monitoring in the landmark process on both the local and state level. “Even if the house gets landmark status, it’s almost impossible to truly save anything in the interior because the system states that it has to be ‘exceptional’ to be landmarked,” he said. “Right out of the gate, that’s setting you up for failure. The system makes it impossible to really monitor what’s going on, and it makes it even more difficult to insure restorations are done thoughtfully.”

 

John Lautner’s curvaceous Garcia House on Mulholland Drive (top) was completed in 1962 and has now been renovated by its current owner John McIlwee. JULIS SHULMAN

The architect’s Chemosphere House (above), completed in 1960, belongs to publisher Benedikt Taschen, and was renovated by Silver Lake firm Escher GuneWardena who updated the windows and floors but otherwise tried to retain the original feel of the house. 
JOSHUA WHITE

One person doing his part to carry out sensitive renovations is Michael LaFetra, who has gained the reputation of being Angelenos’ own modern house collector. He currently lives in a home designed by Ray Kappe, and owns nine other architecturally-significant properties. “I simply wanted to buy significant modern homes, restore them with integrity by bringing them back to blueprint, get landmark status and enrollment in the Mills Act, and then sell them,” he said, referring to the state provision that allows owners to obtain tax reductions in exchange for maintaining or restoring their historic properties. To date, LaFetra has completed 13 meticulous restorations, including homes designed by Richard Neutra, Rudolf Schindler, and A. Quincy Jones, among others, and he continues to look around for more salvageable gems.

LaFetra tries to maintain the original form and update the original materials, and he pointed out that if he finds a house that he would like to change, he doesn’t buy it. (Not everyone is ready to make the sacrifices that living in a home built in the 1950s can require, but that doesn’t stop many from buying them.) For instance, he and his fiancée looked at the Singleton House, designed by Richard Neutra and completed in 1960. Located in Bel Air, the house was in good condition and had a great site, but when they saw that the master bedroom could only hold a full-sized bed, they decided the house wasn’t for them. “We’re big sleepers and we require a king-sized bed,” he said. “I didn’t want my hands bloodied during the restoration if we had to take down a wall. It’s better to move on and find a house that works for you.”

 

From the top:
The exterior of Craig Ellwood’s Johnson House, renovated by Du Architects JOSHUA WHITE;  SH_ARC added to the master bedroom of Neutra’s Troxell House PASEO MIRAMAR PHOTOS; The exterior of Neutra’s Kaufmann House renovated by Marmol Radziner JULIUS SHULMAN AND JÜRGEN NOGAI; The interior of the 1953 Rodney Walker home, a duplex that George Mimnaugh converted into a single family residence in order to sell TIM STREET PORTER; A decked interior space at the 1946 Kaufmann House to be auctioned by Christie’s in New York on May 13. The estimate is from $15 to 25 million. JULIUS SHULMAN AND JÜRGEN NOGAI

LaFetra also uses only one contractor, LA-based Jeff Fink and Associates, who is known for his work on Rudolf Schindler houses, to insure all details will be attended to properly. He maintains that even though each house is dramatically different, good resources are often used over and over again. “What I love most about Jeff is that he takes his ego out of it and really lets the original architecture give the cues.” 

Robert Thibodeau of Du Architects, who worked on a restoration of Craig Ellwood’s 1953 Johnson House notable for its emphatic use of standardization, agrees on the importance of maintaining as many original details as possible. “It was incredible as we stripped and polished and replaced, the house really started to feel alive again,” he said of the careful work. He points out that compromises that impair the integrity of a home often come when owners are trying to sell the house for maximum profit.

A good example of this unfortunate phenomenon is the fate of the above-mentioned Singleton house. In 2004, it was bought by Vidal Sassoon, the hair-care magnate, who decided to change the house and then put it back on the market for $20 million. The project included enlarging rooms, moving walls, and adding bathrooms and other amenities. The house is currently for sale and has been cause for major uproar in the preservation world. Many architects have openly admitted that they wouldn’t consider it a Neutra anymore. One architect who spoke off the record said, “it was a travesty, a complete bastardization of a beautiful piece of architecture.” The architect added that the saddest thing about the whole affair is that the home isn’t selling. “The house now will not appeal to a Neutra lover and because it’s not a McMansion, they’re losing out on a lot of the potential buyers looking for a home in Bel Air.”

Crosby Doe, a real estate broker who specializes in the sales of modern architecture, met with Sassoon when he purchased the Singleton house and took him to the Getty to view some 30 images of the home photographed by Julius Shulman. “It was incredibly disappointing,” he admitted. “We had a complete disagreement about the restoration. It’s really upsetting.” 

Leo Marmol of Santa Monica-based Marmol Radziner, which has carried out close to 20 midcentury modern renovations in the area, said that it is important to remember that homeowners almost always think they are doing the right thing. But he added that they should be able to do what they want. “With the attention that many of these homes get from the media and exhibitions comes a lot of social judgement,” he said. “I think it’s important to remember that there are a lot of factors that go into a restoration—time, budget, and a whole slew of other things. It can cause a lot of unnecessary anxiety for both the homeowner and the architect.”

Still, his firm’s recent renovation of Richard Neutra’s 1946 Kaufmann House is now seen as the gold standard for meticulous work and an example of the sustainable value of many modernist homes—and the inestimable value of good clients. The home is expected to fetch more than $20 million at auction next month. Its owners, Brent and Beth Edwards Harris, supported the firm’s efforts to reproduce the sheet-metal roof, match the stone to replace what had been damaged, and even find original paint and fixtures. For Doe, the Kaufmann House is emblematic of what can and will continue to happen in the future. It is essentially the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. “The restoration was done beautifully and the homeowners have maintained the property meticulously,” he said. He also pointed out that homeowners who are truly sensitive to the history of a home will be rewarded. “You don’t take a Picasso and make changes,” he said. “The value would go out the window.” He paused. “Can you imagine what the guy who bulldozed the Maslon House is thinking right about now?” he said, referring to the 1963 Neutra House in Ranch Mirage. “He literally threw millions of dollars away.” Still, changes to modernist houses are not always frowned upon. Sometimes they can help achieve the architect’s original intention, thanks to increased funds or better technology. When Frank Escher of Escher GuneWardena Architecture was hired to restore John Lautner’s 1960 Chemosphere House, he understood that the house was not completed the way Lautner envisioned it. Even though there were only four pages of original plans, little notes gave the team clues and a sense of direction during the process. “There were things that we were able to do in that house because we were given a cue from the plans,” he said. He was able to create more seamless expanses of glass, and the kitchen floor was designed to be the way Lautner intended it to be, not the way it was actually built. “I was asked at the time why I didn’t replicate the orange tile in the kitchen the way the original photographs showed it,” he said. “I knew he intended to do a jagged slate floor and that’s what we decided to do.” He also spoke about why it’s important to hire experts. “I’ve seen so many poor examples of restorations and renovations where the architecture is ruined,” he said. “These are not do-it-yourself projects. The best advice I can give people is to hire someone who knows what they’re doing.”

Exterior detail of Rodney Walker’s 1953 house. Former owner George Mimnaugh said, “Not everyone has the deep pockets that it takes to turn these homes into museum pieces, nor is it always practical.” TIM STREET PORTER

John McIlwee owns the Lautner-designed Garcia House, which was completed in 1962. When he and his partner purchased the home, they were given a notebook filled with snapshots and documentation of various changes made to the house over the years. “I really have to believe that every owner along the way had good intentions,” he said, “but in most cases it was abominable.” Though some of his changes strayed from the original blueprint—like turning four children’s bedrooms into three, and subtly adding a new master suite—they believe that Lautner himself, who was very open to change, would have applauded the decisions they made along the way. “We have no problem going head-to-head with anyone about our house,” he said. “We believe this house has been done correctly.”

According to John Umbanhower of Venice-based SH_ARC, the renovation of Neutra’s Troxell Residence, built in 1956, took cues from the original post and beam residence, but quite a few alterations were made. The footprint was changed and the house expanded to 3,000 square feet. A cantilevered addition to the master bedroom made the home more livable, and a pool (present in Neutra’s original plan, but never executed because Dr. Troxell maintained he had the best pool in town already—the Pacific Ocean) was finally installed.


Venice-based SH_Arc replaced the wood, stone, plaster, and glass of Richard Neutra’s 1956 Troxell House. PASEO MIRAMAR PHOTOS

While the issues of standards, ownership, and actually living in a home may collide in unfortunate ways, LaFetra said that as people become savvier, the horror stories related to renovation should diminish. “That being said, the only way you can truly save a house and restore it sensitively and properly is to own it.”

Real estate broker Doe believes it is still possible to live in a house built 60 years ago: “If people take the time to live in the house before they make drastic changes, they’ll begin to understand how every day, the house will give something back to them.”