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Frank Escher and Ravi GuneWardena -- John Lautner's architectural heirs

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Walk into Anthony Pearson and Ramona Trent's Mar Vista home and it's difficult to tell that the dynamic space, rippling into the outdoors from a deceptively low entryway, began its life as a simple postwar California bungalow. By the time its latest owners encountered it, the house, not far from the Santa Monica airport, had already been renovated several times. "An L-shaped floor plan had turned into something approaching a zigzag," Pearson laments.

To help them re-imagine its possibilities, the artist couple--Pearson is a rising star whose work combines sculpture with photography, and Trent is well known for her emotive portrait photography--sought out Frank Escher and Ravi GuneWardena, partners in an increasingly high-profile Silver Lake architecture firm. Nearly two years of conversations about design led the owners and architects to a plan for transforming the inward-looking, traditional home into a highly varied expression of easy, futuristic living. "In the day it feels very calm--like a vacation home," Trent says. "But at night, when the architecture's almost primal, it can become very dramatic."

The architects suggested moving walls and adding giant structural ceiling beams to create an open box. Then they proposed a gently rising roof. No longer strictly a cube, the now wedge-shaped space began to promise a sense of movement and excitement.

Implementing the design took some ingenious construction, especially with a budget under $500,000. In one inspired move, they lowered the roof above the front door. So now, says Escher, "when you walk through and come into the long, open living room, it feels like stepping into the rear of a cave."

That may sound unusual, but it's where Escher and GuneWardena's concept takes off. Not only does the room expand before your eyes, but the far end of the outsized living room appears to have been ripped right off. As indeed it was. The only barrier to the outside is a four-panel set of floor-to-ceiling windows that, for most of the year, remain tucked into a wall cavity. Looking out from this multipurpose living area, the rest of the house now seems to float off the hillside--into thin air.

The process of turning this bungalow into a unified space mirrors the transformations the architects have made in other unlikely Los Angeles locations--such as the extremely minimal Café Pho, in a Silver Lake mini mall, or the run-down warehouse on La Cienega they re-designed for the Blum & Poe gallery.

Here and across the country, they're earning a reputation for experimenting across a broad field of design. "They have such a multidisciplinary approach because they are, in part, scholars, artists, architectural historians, designers and architects," says Don Albrecht, curator of architecture and design at the Museum of the City of New York.

"It's an approach that a number of new, exciting firms have adopted, and it allows for a much more experimental and enriching architectural practice than has been traditional in this country."

THE LAUTNER CONNECTION

In all their projects, the architects work first to understand, then re-conceive, the essential bones of a space. But, unlike, say, Richard Rodgers, who often highlights the nuts and bolts of a building--as in his Georges Pompidou Center in Paris, co-designed by Renzo Piano--Escher-GuneWardena melds diverse, often contradictory elements into a single form.

In some ways, their work is a highly sophisticated advance on the early midcentury modernists, whose design sensibility and affection for industrial materials led them to pursue straightforward geometric forms. Not that this pair feels at all constrained by that tradition. Indeed, their desire to create new and seamless spaces is perhaps more inspired by the courage and rigor of architect John Lautner, who, decades earlier, broke free from many of the constrictions of Modernism, playing with steel and concrete in rhapsodic and highly expressive ways.

Escher has a long-standing connection to Lautner's work, an interest that led to his co-curating the exhibition opening July 13 at the Hammer Museum, "Between Earth and Heaven: The Architecture of John Lautner." The exhibition, while acknowledging some of Lautner's early work--such as the almost infamous Googie's coffee shop, that, in turn, inspired a succession of outlandish commercial look-alikes--showcases not only his engineering and design prowess but also his utter lyricism. Thus, the Aranga residence in Acapulco, with its floating concrete moat, is not simply an extraordinary feat of design but, say the exhibition's curators, a prescription for easy Pacific Coast living.

"The exhibition debunks some superficial myths: For instance, that Lautner was eccentric and over-the-top. Rather it showcases the deeply poetic nature of the architecture he pursued throughout his career," says Escher, whose book "John Lautner, Architect," came out three months before the architect died in October 1994--and began the long, slow process of giving him the recognition he was due.

Escher, along with Lautner's family, helped marshal the architect's documents and drawings into a full-fledged archive, which last year was acquired by the Getty. More recently, Escher-GuneWardena restored Lautner's flying saucer-like Chemosphere House for its current owner, publisher Benedikt Taschen.

Although the architects admire Lautner's commitment to push the boundaries of architectural expression--his free-flowing, curved roof lines and his use of materials as sculptural elements--what inspires them is his determination to stay true to a vision that, at times, may have seemed jarringly over-expressive.

It's that attitude they see invisibly connecting their own commissions, stellar projects that include a shopping mall in Redmond, Wash., and the Dwell Home II, a model "green" house in Topanga Canyon, as well as the design of art exhibits at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

COMPLEXITY, STREAMLINED

The architects, both 47, make an interesting pair, the black-haired, heavily-bespectacled Escher and the wryly humorous, more ebullient GuneWardena. The former, who spent much of his childhood in Switzerland, is a graduate of the prestigious ETH architecture program in Zurich. GuneWardena's training at Cal Poly Pomona, where both are guest lecturers, included a year studying architecture in Florence.

Partners in life as well as in work, they immerse themselves in the Los Angeles cultural scene. They move with ease from architectural preservation to fostering relationships with artists, including their friend Sharon Lockhart--the photographer whose museum and gallery exhibitions of "Pine Flat Portraits" the architects designed--to their involvement with Con Gioia, the Claremont-based early-music ensemble on whose board they sit. It's all grist for their constantly evolving set of inspirations."When we are trying to understand what's important about a new project, we make references to all sorts of things, often not architectural in nature," Escher says. According to GuneWardena, these references are just as likely to include their experience of light in the Basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence and the voice of Michael Maniaci, who sings in the upper soprano register without using falsetto. His sound is not only unexpected but has a purity the architects admire.

Perfectly simple yet traditional pillared halls, such as the Embekke temple in Sri Lanka, also speak to them. (GuneWardena's family is from there; Escher, born in New Orleans, maintains a strong kinship with his family in Zurich.)

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."

The key to making this broad design approach work lies in how they process this vast array of seemingly unconnected information. "We start off seeing nothing but complexity as we put together all our ideas," Escher says. "But what we strive for, and what we know is the solution, is getting to the point where we can express all these ideas in a simple sentence."

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 magazine@latimes.com.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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