Body Builder Turns Home Builder

Times Staff Writer

Body-building buddies. There were three: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Franco Columbu and Petar Laden.

Petar who?

Everyone should know Schwarzenegger: Mr. Olympia seven times, Mr. Universe five times, Mr. World once.

Now he’s in the movies: star of “Conan the Barbarian,” “Conan the Destroyer,” “The Terminator” and “Commando.”


Columbu is well-known too: Mr. Olympia, Mr. Universe, Mr. World, Mr. International, Mr. Europe, Mr. Italy.

Not Acted, Written

He wrote 12 books on body building, launched his own vitamin line and appeared in several movies: “Pumping Iron,” “Conan the Barbarian,” “The Terminator,” “Stay Hungry,” “Getting Physical” and “Raw Deal.”

Laden hasn’t acted in anything. He hasn’t written any books. He only won one body-building title: In 1968, he was the first Mr. Yugoslavia.

Yet, he has stayed friends with Columbu and Schwarzenegger since they all arrived from small European towns to train for body building in London in 1967.

And Laden, like his buddies, adheres to the philosophy: “Body building sets your mind so you can concentrate and accomplish anything.”

Wife Didn’t Like It

Laden’s accomplishment? He’s an architect.

He has been an architect since the late ‘60s, shortly after he and his wife, who is also from Yugoslavia, were married in 1967.

“I was still active then in formal body building. I worked out with Arnold and Franco in the gyms. Then I won the competition in Yugoslavia. But my wife didn’t like me becoming a professional body builder. She pushed me to pursue an architectural career,” he recounted.

He already had completed courses at the University of Belgrade and soon found work designing an office building in Belfast, Northern Ireland, for a British company. Then he designed some high-rise commercial buildings in Stuttgart, West Germany, for a German company.

Has Own Company

Switching careers was, he says, a decision he doesn’t regret.

Now 44, he runs his own company: the year-old Pannon Design & Development, named for an area of Europe known as the Pannonian Valley. “My wife chose the name,” he said. “It was to remind me of my homeland.”

His office is in Woodland Hills.

He and his wife immigrated to the United States in 1970, following his body-building buddies, who came a year earlier.

“We all lived in Santa Monica, a few blocks apart,” he said.

Wife Got Complaints

To support their body-building activities, Columbu and Schwarzenegger went into bricklaying. It was a natural, since both were obviously strong, and Columbu was what Laden described as “a very good, Italian mason.”

“Only trouble is that they used my phone number for jobs,” Laden recalled, “and my wife would get the complaints, like, ‘Mrs. Columbu, your husband hasn’t shown up for work today.’ He was busy working out in the gym.” Columbu and Schwarzenegger were bachelors at the time.

While his buddies were brick laying, Laden worked for Southern California architect Barry Berkus for a couple of years and then joined Kaufman & Broad, where he worked for 12 1/2 years.

At first, with K&B;, he supervised model home development and design. Then, after becoming a

Designed Mansion

His son was born in Paris while Laden was on that overseas assignment. His daughter was born in 1973 in Santa Monica.

So far, neither of his body-building buddies has children, though he says Schwarzenegger, who married Maria Shriver (Joseph Kennedy’s granddaughter) only a few months ago, is planning on it.

“I just designed a remodel for Arnold of a big mansion in Pacific Palisades,” he said, “and as he showed me through the house, he said, ‘These are the babies’ bedrooms.’ I loved that!”

He also designed a house that has just been completed for Columbu and his wife in Sardinia, Italy, where Columbu was born and raised. The Columbus, married for 12 years, also maintain a residence in West Los Angeles. “Before he developed his line of vitamins, they had a chiropractic practice together for eight to 10 years,” Laden said.

Family Tradition

Schwarzenegger is in developing, but he is developing real estate, not vitamins. With a partner, he is developing a $10-million commercial and residential complex on Main Street in the Venice area.

Laden never had the many careers of his buddies. He stayed with architecture after leaving formal body building, but after starting his own company, he decided to continue his family tradition of building as well as designing.

“My company’s emphasis is to build houses,” he said, “and secondarily, we design for other builders.”

His first big project, Barossa Place, is a 78-home joint venture with First Nationwide Savings & Loan in Rancho Cucamonga. He is also just finishing a 32-home project in Bakersfield. He won a Gold Nugget building award this year for a Santa Ana home he designed before leaving K&B.;