L.A. architect Jeff Allsbrook says he's inspired by frugality, by the things people can make when they have limited means. "As an architect, I find that when resources are limited, creativity abounds," he says. "With our work, we're often working with preexisting buildings and we have to make them work in small budgets. So seeing what you can do with what already exists is amazing to me."
Baan's very worthwhile 17-minute talk focuses on various informal architectural projects he has managed to record around the world: a half-built Venezuelan office tower inhabited by squatters, the commerce and cultural life in a Nigerian slum that extends out over a vast lagoon, and an underground village in China. (All of which ties in nicely with a post I did earlier this week tied about informal architecture, tied to the release of critic Justin McGuirk's new book "Radical Cities.")
Baan is intrigued by the highly particular nature of each of these projects. "Today you see these large residential development projects, which offer cookie-cutting housing solutions to massive amounts of people," says Baan in the video. "From China to Brazil, these projects attempt to provide as many houses as possible but they're completely generic." It is, he says, quoting former tech executive Zita Cobb, "a plague of sameness."
Allsbrook says that, like Baan, he is intrigued by the ideas explored in some of these informal projects. "So much of our culture, there is a sameness to it," he says. "People aspire to the same goals. You have architects that work everywhere in the world. We are losing the uniqueness of individual locales. What captured my attention about the video is these very cultural specific solutions to each location. Those underground houses in China are incredible. How do you make a house with no material? It's fascinating."
Allsbrook says that these ideas — of frugality, of locality, of taking an old place and making it new with a few simple changes — is something that inspires his own work. Last year, his firm (his partner is Silvia Kuhle) worked on a new space for Kayne Griffin Corcoran Gallery in Mid-City Los Angeles.
"It's the typical bowstring truss building," he says. "Brick walls and giant wood arch beams that support the roof and go from one end to the other. But it seems to me that every art gallery in town has white walls up to a certain point, followed by this wood structure. We wanted to do something different. So we created these square cones that lead up to the roof, changing the shape of the ceiling. You no longer see the trusses."
This was a simple way of transforming an old building without knocking down walls and adding a bunch of new ones. And some of the changes came from the ways in which the architects directed light.
"[Light and space artist] James Turrell is represented by Kayne Griffin Corcoran and we had previously worked on a private skyspace for him," he adds. "He's such an expert on light. And when you're doing a gallery, you're trying to work the light to be something that is not noticeable. He coached us about how to achieve some of that in the space."
Most recently, the architect helped a client in West Hollywood install and build a landscape around a 1950s "Structure Nomade" created by French architect and industrial designer Jean Prouvé. The designer was known for his simple, prefabricated structures that didn't sacrifice beauty for function.
"The transparency of it, the lightness of it, the simplicity of it," says Allsbrook with wonder. "It's just sticks and roof. But there are these interesting T-shaped steel columns that hold up the roof and these two or three parts are repeated, which makes it interesting to look at." (The structure is shown in the photograph at the top of this post.)
Allsbrook's interest in economies of material even came across in a cat shelter he designed for a FixNation benefit last month. Allsbrook and team transformed a concrete flower pot and bit of reclaimed wood into a design-conscious cat house for the spay-and-neuter nonprofit that would do Louis Kahn proud.
"It was very improvised, but we had a lot of fun with that one," he chuckles. "It got a really good reception."