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Curbed LA Interviews: Stephen Kanner

The third in our semi-regular interviews with the architects, planners, politicians, and thinkers that shape LA. This week: Stephen Kanner of Kanner Architects. A self-described "Restrained Modernist," anyone driving past the intersection of Western and Hollywood will recognize his colorfully cubic Metro Hollywood Apartments above the Redline Station. And any architect who builds an affordable housing complex above public transit, punctuated by primary colors, is ok by us.

For the aspiring architect in Los Angeles, where do they begin, what should they expect, and is there any place better than LA at the moment to be doing architecture?

Well, one thing the young architect should realize is that architecture doesn’t truly start until you’re out in the real world. School is essential, of course. It’s where you can explore – sometimes without limitation. But nothing quite prepares you like the real world for creating architecture and watching it come out of the ground. You must deal with a myriad of constraints - budget, schedule, restrictive codes etc. - while being the in-house psychologist/accountant/marriage counselor. While walking those various tightropes you hope to create artful architecture.

As far as Los Angeles is concerned, I would say it’s a great place to practice architecture because, compared to other cities, there’s a higher percentage of clients with an open mind. Also, there are 11 architecture schools in Greater Los Angeles. That makes Southern California a cauldron of creativity and experimentation. So, if we’re talking best place in America, I’d say LA is the best place to be working today. That said, I’ve always been a fan of many European cities and the intangible something that informs their architecture communities. Over time these cultures have evolved in places like Switzerland, Finland, France, Japan, England, Spain. The architects have worked out issues of art and structure and learned from years of trial and success. The general public in these countries has witnessed this maturation and accepted it as progress.
As president of the AIA in Los Angeles, explain what the benefits of membership are for young architects. Well, I’m past president but it’s fresh in my mind. Your question is apropos because connecting students with AIA was a focus for me as president. Membership is free for students, so why not sign up?

And depending on where you went to school could be free for up to another 18 months. The benefits are tremendous. There’s the mentorship program, career days, portfolio reviews by AIA board members, scholarships, the annual 2x8 exhibit of student work, access to panel discussions. There is a job board and a place to post your resume so people can find you. Plus you get discounted tickets to the Masters of Architecture lecture series, which has presented such luminaries as Tadao Ando, Thom Mayne and Richard Meier.After the jump, Kanner reveals his laundry list of favorite buildings in LA. How long have you been in LA and what brought you here? What makes LA an exciting city in which to practice architecture? What about the city informs your design process?

I’ve been in Los Angeles all of my life. I’m the third generation to head this studio, which my grandfather started in 1946. Over the years we’ve developed our own design spirit that is quintessential Southern California. We take advantage of the climate. We like light spaces and we like courtyards. We have always believed in sustainability and use of renewable materials and are grateful that more and more architects are increasingly incorporating green and sustainable features. The region’s car culture has inspired a project that I’m most excited about right now, a gas station now under construction in Ladera Heights. We’ve created an homage to the freeways with a concrete on-ramp that takes the visitor up and over the store and back down through the car wash. The roof of the station with its extended elliptical form is a metaphor for freeway interchanges. It’s really cool.

Dream house: beach or hills? Can I have both? Ideally, I’d live in the hills above the ocean, far enough away from the surf and close enough to be conscious of it and enjoy the endless views to the horizon. It’s a special feeling being at the edge of the continent and considering the rest of the world is outside your window. Being in the hills also provides mountain and canyon vistas. What building in Los Angeles that you’ve designed are you most proud of and why?That’s a nearly impossible question to answer, but in the spirit of cooperation I’ll say it’s the In-N-Out Burger in Westwood Village. That’s today. I’ll probably change my mind when the gas station is done later this year. In-N-Out is such a Southern California institution that it was fun to have a chance to interpret in our own way and show the company that good design can be good business. I don’t know about today, but the location was, at one time, the third-best performing in the chain of 150. We’ve done so many larger and so-called more prestigious projects, and we’ve won awards for them, but In-N-Out is one of those projects that stays with you because it was so different from what that franchise was doing, and is doing, architecturally.

Beyond that, I am fond of In-N-Out and the gas station for the same reason: both projects are quintessential LA because they correspond to our car culture. The extensive glazing on In-N-Out opened up the drive-thru experience and the outdoor seating area activated the street facade. The gas station is really going to be a unique and iconic project. It’s very contemporary.

Which do you predict will happen first in LA: more race riots or catastrophic earthquake? A follow-up question: Why can’t urban planners and architects just get along?I’d guess catastrophic earthquake. I don’t know how catastrophic it can be, though, considering all the structural codes that arose in the wake of Northridge. As far as I’m concerned the big one already hit. That was ’94. Thanks to all the seismic requirements that made our jobs so much more difficult and raised building costs astronomically we will be much safer the next time around.

Is it really true that urban planners and architects can’t get along? I guess we could improve relations if we spent more time sharing opinions and perspectives. That was another of my main themes as president of AIA, encouraging all parties to take an interest in understanding each other and improving communications. AIA always has had a strong political outreach committee that worked to connect politicians, urban planners and community leaders. I even mediated a public meeting between the LAUSD and AIA members last year to try to breach the chasm between the school district and the design community.

Housing crunch, transportation nightmares. Quick – how do we solve them? Three words: transit-oriented development. You are seeing it all over town now, multifamily housing built over or adjacent to transit hubs. Our Metro Hollywood Transit Village at Hollywood Boulevard and Western Avenue was one of the first. You’re seeing development now along the Red Line in North Hollywood, at Wilshire and Vermont and the Gold Line has some TOD, as well. MTA put out an RFQ last year seeking developers for six different transit stations.Most underappreciated neighborhood and why?There are many around town. While working on Ross Snyder Recreation Center in South Los Angeles, I was fascinated by the way that community uses public space. Parks and recreation centers are gathering places for families. I went to a number of public meetings in these parks and at 7, 8, 9, even 10 o’clock. These parks in South Central Los Angeles were being used for baseball, basketball, picnics, whatever. There’s a social liveliness in that community and it’s really an uplifting experience. It’s like that also when you drive east on Third Street heading Downtown. There are so many people on the street, interacting, socializing, enjoying each other. The street is energized. Favorite building or landmark in LA?This was a tough question for me. I can’t come up with one. It’s just impossible. However, here’s a baker’s dozen of my favorites, in no particular order:
1. Frank Gehry’s Disney Hall
2. Richard Neutra’s Lovell House
3. Rudolf Schindler’s Buck House
4. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Ennis House
5. Welton Becket’s Theme Building at LAX
6. Becket’s Music Center
7. Rem Koolhaas’s Prada Epicenter
8. John Lautner’s Silvertop
9. Lou Naidorf and Becket’s Capitol RecordsTower
10. William Pereira’s CBS Television City
11. Charles and Ray Eames Case Study House #8 (Eames House)
12. A.C. Martin’s Department of Water and Power Building
13. Various buildings on Avenue of the StarsFavorite public space in LA – park, farmer’s market, mall, beach, whatever?I grew up on the Westside, so for me it’s the beaches. They’re wide and open and you have the Pacific in one direction and the beauty of the hills in another. I just love everything about it, the bike paths, the families, the piers.If you could choose any architect, living or dead, to design your dream house, who would it be and why? And no, you cannot choose yourself.I’d pick the Brazilian Oscar Neimeyer. He was a genius and way ahead of his time whether working with fluid or rectilinear forms. He worked closely with the great landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx to create seamless harmony between building and landscape. It would be like living in a work of art. His work has a lightness and optimism like we hope our work at Kanner does, a sense that the buildings are floating quietly, hovering over their site.Where are all the developers with a sense of adventure in LA? How can we encourage them? Well, there are plenty out there. Dan Rosenfeld at Urban Partners, for instance, is one. Chris DeBolt at Urban Environments is doing a number of progressive buildings. Larry Bond at Bond Capital is ahead of the curve. The folks at Combined Properties Inc. are committed to staying on the leading edge and support dynamic design. CIM Group has been leading the charge to create remarkable city centers and upgrading neighborhoods with attention to design. It’s tough because so much money is at stake. Especially right now, with the cooling residential market, it’s not easy to get developers to take chances. There is a tendency for many uncreative developers to want to max out their numbers for the least amount of money. Unfortunately, the logical way to do that is build a box and make the units stack. Not very adventurous. But as more interesting projects succeed it will become easier to show developers that you can do interesting things within your budget and people will pay a premium to live there, work there, shop there. Sometimes it simply takes a little imagination and the vision to see where you can use alternative planning approaches to create value.

Preferred mode of transportation?My car. Again, having grown up here, it’s something that’s pretty much a part of my makeup. I’m really looking forward to the day, though, when well-designed hybrids are ubiquitous or, perhaps, the only cars on the road.Favorite meal at 2am?The Original Pantry. I love their cole slaw and sourdough.There’s some controversy over the name of the new rail line from downtown to Culver City. Its proposed name is Aqua or Purple. Bernard Parks wants Rose. What would you name it?Hopefully it will go all the way to the beach. Call it the Beach Line?Let’s end with the bane of Curbed LA’s existence. The problem that has been plaguing us from the beginning: Why is there such a proliferation of faux-Tuscan architecture in LA? How do we stop it?This is a debate that I’m really passionate about. The proliferation of this so-called architecture is largely a function of our failure to educate the public. That’s what we’re trying to do with the A+D (Architecture and Design) Museum of Los Angeles, where I’m president. We’re trying to show people the advantages and benefits of Modernism and sustainability and diverse materials. We’ve been around for four years with exhibits of city planning, student work, the masters, all with a focus on contemporary design and planning. We are such a young country, and LA is even younger as a cultural center, that we still are acquiring our appreciation for architecture and its history. That’s why so many great architects come from countries with more history. They’ve had time to work all this out.

I got into a cab at the airport in Helsinki and in talking with the cab driver I said I was an architect. Well, I immediately knew I was in a sophisticated country because the cab driver pointed out buildings as he drove and told me who designed them. Can you imagine that happening in LA?

Most Americans aren’t aware of what contemporary architecture is or what it means. What is familiar is comfortable. We become used to what we grew up with, what we’ve seen our whole life.

One obstacle is that there are a lot of bad Modern buildings out there that are cold, that are not functional, that are big boxes on steroids.

I really take issue with the idea of designing buildings with a traditional idea behind them because those traditional ideas were appropriate in their time, but are ridiculous on their face today. There was a time when windows were small and walls were long and wide for support. Well, guess what? We have structural steel now, which by the way is a recycled product. We’ve got the environment to deal with and we have the technology of sustainable materials and systems, we have greater capacity for spanning and cantilevering structures.

A lot of architects and builders are designing and building traditional structures and making money. They’ve opened up “their market,” but I simply don’t embrace it. We have refused commissions where the art of architecture is lost. What’s the point if you don’t grow and evolve?

Fortunately, I think the tide is shifting and a lot of the credit has to go to web sites such as Curbed and hip magazines in the vein of Dwell, icon, wallpaper*, California Home + Design, Surface, and even HGTV. As more mainstream media cover and promote contemporary design of all types, the masses will begin to understand.

As far as how we stop it, I don’t think we can. You can’t force people to do what you want them to do. The best you can do is start with one person in your life – a student, a friend, a client - and explain that there’s a great opportunity to change his or her life through design. Then, you hope it works like the shampoo commercial and that person tells two friends and they tell two friends?