They don't regard this diverse set of interests as anything other than normal. "If you look at the role that architects played historically, it was much broader than it is now," Escher notes. "They often did theater design and collaborated with artists, so it's not that unusual we try to blur those boundaries."
GuneWardena explains, "We want to reduce the core idea into its simplest manifestation, not translate all this into complex architecture."
At first glance, the result could be described as Minimalist--their projects appear cool and streamlined. But on closer investigation, such a description does not ring true.
Rather, what the two do, in some projects more successfully than others, is synthesize multiple design elements into one easy expression. If the final design looks clean, it's because they've succeeded in masking the less interesting aspects of project and making the element that excites them the most important.
With the Mar Vista bungalow, they arrived at the idea of a gradually opening box, which gave them the starting point for reorganizing previously haphazard floor plan.
"Everything is done for an honest reason and not for show," says client David Wasco. "It looks very simple, but simple is hard to do."
Wasco should know. Along with his wife Sandy, he is one of Hollywood's most sought-after production designers, working often with Quentin Tarantino. Four years ago, the two couples met in New York when all were invited to participate in the Cooper-Hewitt Museum's National Design Triennial, and the Wascos asked Escher-GuneWardena to remodel an apartment on Los Feliz Boulevard. The Wascos, who spend weeks on location surrounded by models, drawings and crew, wanted an apartment with nothing in it but their books. So the architects decided to give this corner apartment, once crammed with tiny rooms, the almost dreamlike quality of a cloud. All harsh intrusions, such as cabinetry, had to melt away. "We pushed everything back against the inside of the building," GuneWardena notes. "All that was left was open space and the line of windows around the perimeter."
Here, as in all their designs, they relied on light to assist them. The band of windows exaggerates the abstract quality of the interior, itself an almost monochromatic palette of white that extends from the walls and bookshelves to the furnishings. What remains is an almost "non-interior," leaving the city views, in this case, mostly of Griffith Park, as the only distraction. As in the Mar Vista house, indoor and outdoor spaces seem to meld.
THE BIG IDEA, MULTIPLIED
A clutch of new projects, with widely varying scales and challenges, are giving Escher and GuneWardena, who launched their firm in 1995, an opportunity to test and further refine their approach.
The largest, with a budget of $30 million, is a 250,000-square-foot office-shopping complex on a triangular lot in downtown Redmond. With offices at the apex of the triangle and stores flaring out behind, the building is "like one giant prism," says Escher, "and it's taken months to place all the elements into it."
Nonetheless, they have not lost their conceptual cool. A triangular-shaped atrium will be carved out so that natural light can pour inside. To disguise the two floors of parking on top, they propose wrapping them with a huge curtain filled with photo-voltaic cells. This multistory "ribbon," to be designed by a yet-to-be-commissioned artist, will help turn this complex structure into a single, unified form--that Escher-GuneWardena trademark--as well as provide energy.
Partnering with an artist is natural for the firm. Over the last few years, the art world has come to represent something more to them than a source of imaginative clients. The architects are now receiving commissions for exhibits. The largest of these opened in early May: their design for the Carnegie International contemporary art exhibition in Pittsburgh. Last month, another exhibition they designed, "Living Flowers: Ikebana and Contemporary Art" opened at the Japanese-American Museum in Little Tokyo.
Some may wonder how something as refined and subtle as forms to house highly sophisticated flower arrangements fit into their portfolio with the green"-oriented Dwell Home lI in Topanga Canyon. But the same sensibility--reducing multiple design demands to their essence--proved critical for a house where so many technical factors, such solar energy and gray water systems, had to be incorporated.
"Their design answered the question, 'Can a glass box be green? '" says client Glen Martin, a solar power developer. After a complicated permitting process, construction on Dwell Home II starts this month.
Balancing acts--both conceptual and human--are integral to how Escher-GuneWardena practices architecture. So is patience. It takes time to distill all their ideas into clear, simply evocative solutions. "But we've been lucky--and grateful--to have projects that vary so enormously in scale and program to keep us on our toes," Escher quietly admits. "We hope that will keep happening."
David Hay is a New York-based freelance writer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.