Brenda Levin sometimes said that she wishes her original architectural designs would get as much attention as her historic-preservation efforts, such as the restoration she’s just completed of the Griffith Observatory. If so, there is no detectible ambivalence in her voice on this bright, if hazy, morning in Griffith Park. As the architect recites a list of materials and techniques she used in bringing back to life the stately, white, beaux arts-style building, which now looks as bright and sharp-edged as it did when completed in 1935, it’s clear that Levin’s warm, approachable manner belies a core of strong will and clarity of purpose. The observatory has personal attachment for her.
“It’s practically in my backyard,” said the Los Feliz resident, adding that she and her family have been hiking in the nearby trails of Griffith Park for more than two decades.
The observatory, which this weekend celebrates its reopening after a $93 million renovation and expansion, is one of the best-known structures in Los Angeles. For decades, it has been a pilgrimage site for visitors, not least for its unparalleled vista of the L.A. basin, which flows downward from its site like an immense green checkerboard, intersecting with the spiked spine of tall buildings along Wilshire Boulevard.
“Of the 2 million people who visited the observatory before it closed,” she wonders aloud, “how many came here for the view alone?”
Levin is decidedly not ambivalent in acknowledging that 2006 will be a landmark year for her practice, which she opened in 1980 in the Fine Arts Building in downtown Los Angeles. Not only are her years of painstaking work on the Griffith Observatory coming to fruition — “we have been over every inch of this building,” she said firmly — but another long-awaited, long-delayed project, the Barnsdall House by Frank Lloyd Wright, is set to reopen nearby, in a radically redesigned Barnsdall Park in Hollywood.
Further, Levin is discussing plans to rehabilitate and enlarge another notable project: Wilshire Boulevard Temple, the ornate synagogue built by Harry and Jack Warner in the 1930s. (She and her husband, David Abel, a political consultant and school construction advocate, are longtime members of that congregation. Her son, Elliot, celebrated his bar mitzvah at the temple’s Camp Hess Kramer in Malibu.)
Even without being a member, it would be hard to imagine that Levin would not be on the short list as the temple’s architect. She is the reigning historic-preservation architect in the city, and few other people in the design profession can boast comparable credentials. (Disclosure: This writer wrote the introduction to Levin’s 2001 monograph and remains a friend.)
Levin’s preservation work, in part, reflects a lifelong interest in cities, she said, having grown up in suburbs outside New York and spent much of her early youth exploring that city on foot. After completing studies at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design in the 1970s, the newly married Levin decamped to Los Angeles, where she briefly worked for John Lautner, a Wright disciple who built a series of boldly engineered houses in Los Angeles. Her own home, which she designed in the 1970s, has some of the geometrical purity and quirky planning of the older architect.
In the 1970s and early 1980s, she helped spark the revival of downtown Los Angeles — a firecracker with a 30-year fuse — by acting as the architect for developers Wayne Ratkovich, on the renovation of the Oviatt Building (and later the Pellissier Building-Wiltern Theater) and the late Ira Levin, who was responsible for reviving the Bradbury Building and the Grand Central Market. Although architects and developers are often adversarial in their dealings, both developers had lifelong friendships with Levin.
The downtown projects were widely published, and Levin became pigeonholed, possibly unfairly, as a historic-preservation specialist. She likes to point out the volume of original architectural designs she has built, including the sensitively scaled music, dance and athletic center and math and science building at Oakwood School’s upper-school campus in North Hollywood. Among her current nonhistorical projects are a new student center at Whittier College, a new civic park in the Grand Avenue mixed-use development in downtown Los Angeles and the outdoor Ballona Discovery Center planned at Playa Vista.
This morning, however, belongs to the observatory, the master plan of which was a collaboration between Levin and Pfeiffer Associates, which was responsible for the newly designed portions of the building, while Levin focused on preserving and updating the observatory building itself.
For a 71-year-old building that had not undergone any major repair, she said, the observatory was in relatively good shape, in large part because of the quality of the original materials, including concrete on the exteriors with domes covered in copper and marble and travertine on the interior. According to legend, the materials in the observatory are particularly fine, because the cost of those materials plummeted during the Depression years.
Levin’s preservation and updating work on the observatory includes a number of new spaces and details that she emphasizes are compatible with the historic originals. One of her most elaborate efforts was to re-cover the central planetarium dome with new copper panels. This delicate task required construction of an elaborate scaffolding — a design feat in itself — that encircled the observatory dome without touching it at any point.
Characteristic of Levin’s concern for improving the quality of public life in her buildings, a number of rooftop spaces at the observatory that were formerly closed to the public have become viewing platforms. “This building is now accessible from all four directions, just as it was originally intended to be,” she said.
The Griffith Observatory and Wilshire Boulevard Temple, have some design features in common, Levin points out. Both buildings are topped with enormous round “drums” supporting domes, reminiscent of early 19th century German architecture. The observatory, built of concrete, was originally intended to have a skin of terra-cotta ornament, much like the temple has today. Given the local history of earthquakes, however, Levin quickly adds that the observatory was probably better off without the brittle clay ornament.
Her design for Wilshire Boulevard Temple remains preliminary and subject to change, Levin said, but she said officials there are considering the conversion of the east-facing parking lot into an outdoor event plaza, the addition of a new school building and a new parking structure, among other new spaces, as well as historic preservation.
Although synagogue architecture is a new undertaking for Levin, she said the dignity of sacred architecture is not essentially different from what she describes as the spirituality of all great architecture.
“Whether it is the Disney Concert Hall or the Griffith Observatory, beauty and inspiration and spirituality are part of the things you hope to achieve as an architect,” she said.
Which came first: the building or the dress?
A model at a Parisian fashion show sports an enormous collar that almost hides her head in an aureole of stiff, folded cloth. So stiff does the cloth appear, in fact, that it could almost be mistaken for concrete. Meanwhile, in Yokohama, Japan, architects have covered the ceiling of a port terminal with a folded material that looks very much like pleated fabric. Are these chance coincidences, or signs of some odd convergence between fashion and architecture?
“Skin + Bones: Parallel Practices in Fashion and Architecture,” opening Nov. 19 at the Museum of Contemporary Art downtown, proposes that building design and haute couture have increasingly begun to overlap and borrow ideas from one another. Even if the premise seems thin, the show’s parallel images of buildings and clothing suggest that meaningful connections can be found between these two very different kinds of design. Indeed, “Skin + Bones” turns out to have much to say about the current practice of both building design and fashion design, not all of it positive.
Skepticism is a legitimate starting point. Clothing and shelter have different purposes, different materials and different methods of assembly. Why should they be compared? Well, for starters, because designers are always searching for fresh ideas, and architects and fashion designers apparently check each other out on a regular basis.
In an essay for the show’s catalog, Brooke Hodge, MOCA’s Curator of Architecture and Design, who has previously organized shows on the architecture of Frank O. Gehry and Peter Eisenman, as well as the fashion designs of Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garcons, identifies some obvious and not-so-obvious commonalties between the two mediums.
“A vocabulary derived from architecture has been applied to garments, describing them as ‘architectonic,’ ‘constructed,’ ‘sculptural,'” she writes. Architects, on the other hand, have borrowed some “sartorial strategies,” such as “draping, wrapping, weaving, folding, printing and pleating architectural surfaces and materials.”
Although Santa Monica-based Gehry may not be a “dedicated follower of fashion,” to quote the Kinks, he has undoubtedly boosted the cross-pollination between construction and tailoring with the biomorphic curves of buildings like the Disney Concert Hall, referencing to the human body and other natural forms. Gehry, Eisenman and Preston Scott Cohen are among the Jewish American architects who have contributed work to this international collection of design.
The complementary opposite would be clothing that looks hard and structural, such as a tulle dress from the spring/summer 2000 collection of Hussein Chalayan that appears to be a rigid structure, inflating by four or five sizes the shape of the woman who wears it.
Another structural-looking garment, this one from Chalayan’s autumn/winter 1999 collection, is the “Aeroplane Dress,” which appears to be a smooth, hard shell. A portion of its form seems to be slipping away, like a panel of airplane fuselage that has not been properly bolted, revealing the wearer’s navel and a seductive slice of abdomen.
Some architects are interested in exploring fabric-like materials, sometimes called extreme textiles. The “Carbon Tower,” an unbuilt project by Los Angeles-based architects Peter Testa and Devyn Weiser would be built with a lightweight carbon-based material that curves and bends much like fabric. Although the method of construction on the building is not visible from the images in the show, some so-called “technical textiles” can be woven or sewn together.
The “Inside Out 2way Dress” from the spring 2004 collection of Yoshiki Hishinuma, for its part, seems inspired by the glass “curtain walls” of high-rise buildings. The garment is a tight-fitting transparent tunic (think glass) held in place by a white band (think steel structure) wrapped in a crisscrossing band of cloth around the model’s body.
The relationship between buildings and clothing is not new, according to Hodge. In her catalog essay, she identifies some parallels, both ancient and modern. In ancient Greece, the flutings of classical columns may have been suggested by the folds in the chiton, a garment worn by both men and women. In the Middle Ages, the “propensity for extreme verticality” can be found in the “sharply pointed shoes, sleeves and hennins [conical headdress]” that seem directly related to the “ogival arches and soaring vertical spaces of Gothic architecture.”
Not all of Hodge’s examples are equally convincing, however, such as the analogies to fashion design in the soft curves of the landscape elements of the Yokohama International Port Terminal by Foreign Office Architects. Or the comically oversized collar of folded and feather-like white fabric from Junya Watanabe’s fall/winter collection for 2000/2001.
What is convincing, however, is the degree to which architectural style has become as attention seeking, and in many cases, as short-lived as fashion design. Here the commonality between architecture and couture is the quest for spectacular display. While display as a value in itself is not new, the degree of importance placed on display — so that buildings can make an impression in two-dimensional media such as magazines, newspapers and the Web — has undoubtedly increased.
If the result of fashion design dipping into architecture is not profound, neither does it seem harmful, because couture is ephemeral, fading away quickly into the next sensation. Architecture, however, is about permanence (or relative permanence), and most buildings are expected to last for decades and to serve many different users. Building design that is guided by momentary fashion, can lose sight of its purpose in search of the values of celebrity culture. “Skin + Bones” hints at the degree to which the runway mentality has influenced architecture for the worse.
“Skin + Bones: Parallel Practices in Fashion and Architecture,” Nov. 19-March 5, Museum of Contemporary Art, 250 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, 90012. (213) 626-6222.
Morris Newman has written about architecture and other subjects for many publications, including the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times.
Mendelsohn — Better Than Beethoven!
A Healer Returns
Daniel Libeskind is coming back to New York to help heal the
wounds created on Sept. 11. He won’t be working with words or medicine but with
stone, cement, glass and steel.
“My hopes are that out of the tragedy that happened, from
the depths of the ground, something will soar into the life of New York that
reaffirms the values we share: democracy and family and freedom and
independence,” said Libeskind, whose architectural designs were chosen to
replace the World Trade Center, which was destroyed in the Sept. 11 terror
The decision, announced Feb. 27 in New York, means both a
homecoming for Libeskind and the weaving together of themes that wind through
much of his work: openness, contrast of dark and light, the interplay of memory
and dreams for the future.
While Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin is a sprawling
zigzag that hugs the earth, his main tower in Manhattan would soar toward the
heavens. Yet the two designs have something in common: Both contain elements of
sadness and hope.
“I have learned many things” through working in Berlin,
including that “one has to believe the future holds something better than the
past,” the 57-year-old Libeskind explained.
Like his Jewish Museum, which contains a space for
meditation on the destruction of European Jewry, the design for lower Manhattan
includes a memorial at the original foundation of the World Trade Center, where
some 2,800 people were killed. Relatives of some victims already have said they
appreciate the fact that Libeskind did not want to build over the pit.
Libeskind was born in Poland in 1946 to two Holocaust
survivors. He became an American citizen in 1965 and studied music in Israel
and New York.
He was described as a musical genius but ultimately decided
to study architecture. He earned degrees in 1970 from New York City’s Cooper
Union for the Advancement of Science and Art and in 1972 from the School of Comparative
Studies at Essex University in England.
Libeskind and his wife, Nina, moved to Berlin with their
three children in 1989, after Libeskind won the competition to design the
city’s Jewish Museum. It was his first contract, but his first completed
building was the Felix Nussbaum Haus, a museum that opened in Osnabrck, Germany,
in July 1998. His Imperial War Museum in North Manchester, England, opened in
He has a number of other works in progress, including the
Jewish Museum in San Francisco and the Maurice Wohl Auditorium at Bar-Ilan University
The Jewish Museum, the work for which he is most famous, was
completed in 1999. Its unique design drew hundreds of thousands of visitors
even while the building was still empty. The museum was to open to the public
on Sept. 11, 2001, but the event was postponed two days because of the tragic
events in the United States.
“When the attacks happened, I felt personally attacked,”
Libeskind said in a telephone interview from his Berlin office. “My
brother-in-law worked for 30 years in that tower. He had just retired” and so
escaped the fate of thousands of others.
Working on the Berlin museum “prepared me to compete for the
project in New York,” Libeskind said. “I believe the memory of what happened”
in New York “is an eternal part of the place and has to be seriously addressed.
And it is so important to also have something that soars.”
Libeskind said it was essential that people feel comfortable
going to work again at the site.
“It should not be just a symbolic entity. It should affirm
that people work every day at a height that is safe,” he said.
Site developer Larry Silverstein reportedly wanted more
office space in the design proposals.
But “it’s not realistic that anyone would want to work at
that height or that any investor would build it,” Libeskind said. So he created
a place that transforms itself with gardens, an observatory and a restaurant as
it rises to 1,776 feet, symbolizing the year of American independence.
The main tower would be the world’s tallest building. Several
smaller structures would surround it, with the original four-and-a-half-acre
World Trade Center foundation as a focal point.
Libeskind has said it would cost approximately $330 million
to build his design. Construction reportedly would be funded partly by
insurance payments for the destroyed buildings. The plan may go through changes
before it is realized, Libeskind said.
“I think every design evolves, if it is good, and this one
will also,” he said.
Libeskind’s museum has changed Berlin. One of Germany’s most
visited institutions, it has exhibits covering nearly 2,000 years of German
Jewish life. The museum is expecting its one millionth visitor, according to
Eva Soederman, spokeswoman for the Jewish Museum.
School classes provide a large number of the visitors, and
students come away with an understanding that Jews are not merely Holocaust
victims but a people with a rich history, tradition and faith.
Berlin also has changed the Libeskind family — in
particular, his daughter Rachel, who became a bat mitzvah one day before the
gala opening of her father’s building. Speaking to the Oranienburgerstrasse
congregation that morning, Rachel said the history around every corner in
Berlin had affected her self-awareness as a Jew.
“I am the most religious member of the family,” she said.
“That still is true,” her father said with a laugh. “And she
will bring that to New York, a city that has a vital and deeply rooted Jewish
community. That is one of the reasons I am happy we are going there.” Â
A Costly Win