The Bad Boy of Architecture : Brian Murphy Designs Glass Bathtubs, Flashlight Chandeliers and Wave-Shaped Roofs. Is This Witty Iconoclasm or Self-Indulgent Trash?

<i> Ronald Brownstein is a contributing editor of this magazine. </i>

INSIDE THE crates marked “fragile” stacked in the reception area of architectural designer Brian A. Murphy’s small Santa Monica office are the first pig chairs he has ever commissioned.

To be precise, what’s sitting in Murphy’s office are two otherwise ordinary chairs with finely detailed pigs carefully painted on them. And not just any pigs: pigs elaborately decked out in full Elizabethan garb--porcine princesses. “These are period pigs,” says Murphy, deadpan, peering inside the boxes.

The pig chairs came from an artist in Berkeley who specializes--is this redundant?--in unusual furniture. They are on the way to the home of rock star Belinda Carlisle and her film producer husband, Morgan Mason, which Murphy is renovating. Carlisle--is this redundant?--has sort of a thing about pigs.

Pig chairs might sit somewhat uncomfortably in the offices of most architects. Not here. During the past seven years, Murphy, 40, has built a thriving design business through calculated outrageousness. He is a builder from the other side of the looking glass, a designer who thrives on employing familiar materials in unfamiliar ways.


That’s putting it mildly. For a client who wanted a nautical motif in his house, Murphy has stained the oak floors in the dining room a startling shade of turquoise, covered a wall with glass block, built a dining-room table of glass, ornamented it with aluminum chairs and illuminated the room with chandeliers composed of police flashlights shining through three sheets of glass, the middle one of which was shattered to give the light a wavy, shimmering effect. In a dark Santa Monica canyon a few years ago, he built a five-story tower for himself and anchored it with four whimsical bridges that improbably crisscrossed the hillside. For actor Dennis Hopper, he built in Venice a fortress-like shell of corrugated metal that miraculously opens into an airy retreat.

Murphy has mounted slate from a pool table on car jacks for a dining-room table; he has assembled triangular coffee tables from aluminum diamond plate, the material used in the cabs of trucks; he has built a chandelier from Christmas lights and concocted a chair from a surfboard mounted on two pieces of metal and skateboard wheels.

In this portfolio, no one would stumble over a few pig chairs.

Is this brilliant iconoclasm? Sly commentary on the throwaway society and architectural convention? Or just overheated self-indulgence? Murphy has received a huge amount of attention from architectural and interior magazines around the world, but he sends critics running to opposite corners. To Paul Goldberger, the New York Times architecture critic, Murphy’s “work seems in a very strange way to be both the brashest and the nicest of L.A.’s young architects. It is visually a little more startling than the other work. But as you get into it, you discover it is actually more comfortable and more likable.” To Sam Hall Kaplan, design critic at the Los Angeles Times, Murphy’s fireworks only “fulfill the cliche of Los Angeles being lightweight and faddish.” But for those on both sides of this jagged line, Murphy personifies the innovation--and excesses--of the new “freestyle” architecture that has defined the cutting edge of L.A.’s style for the past decade.

RESERVED AND somewhat guarded, Murphy seems an unlikely figure to generate such passions. He was born in Whittier, but he spent most of his formative years in the proximity of water and sand, surfing, sailing, basting on the beach. His father was a construction administrator, and Murphy grew up with the tools of the building trade around him. “I used to draw on the back of blueprints just as other kids color,” he says. “I always had every kind of drawing utensil, lots of drawing supplies, stuff like that around.”

When he finished high school, he attended junior college, then transferred to UCLA, where he thought briefly about a career as an art historian, painted, took a degree in art and graduated in 1970 with no particular clue about what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. He spent most of the next two years studiously avoiding the question--skiing in Vail, sailing in Mexico--before hooking on as an assistant to an architect in Laguna Beach. Working there rekindled the interest in architecture that he’d felt while growing up, and he returned to UCLA in 1972 to study at the graduate school of architecture. But he found his second bout with academia no more congenial than the first, and he dropped out after one year.

For most of the 1970s, Murphy contentedly supported himself as a carpenter. “I was,” he says now, “a happy little builder guy.” But he still had a yearning to design, and he finally let his imagination run free on his own house in Venice. Working at night, Murphy remade the house with his characteristic eclecticism--Astroturf covering the floor and the bar, wardrobe shelving in the kitchen--but it had, he says, “a real Eastern kind of quiet and calm to it.” The combination of energy and stillness caught the eye of a neighbor, photographer Philip Dixon, who was looking to renovate a graffiti-covered house and grocery store that he had acquired in Venice.

For a while, Murphy was unsure about branching into design work; at first he resisted Dixon but eventually he broke down. In 1982 Murphy produced for the photographer a stunningly stark and minimalist composition. He approached the exterior of the house as if he was building a fort: He left intact the decaying facade--graffiti and all--and covered the windows with asphalt tile. Behind the walls, Murphy constructed what looked like a New Age monastery: a sky-lit retreat, sleek and white and bright, its hard clean lines broken by only the most minimal furnishings--a glass dining-room table resting on concrete blocks, a glass-block bathtub, a simple fireplace capped by a piece of unpolished and jagged onyx.

It was a design of singular vision--unsparing, unclouded, assured and distinctive enough to land on the cover of the prestigious Progressive Architecture magazine. Murphy gradually found himself spending less time building houses and more designing them. As the commissions accumulated, Murphy’s trademarks emerged: bright colors, witty visual metaphors (he left a suburban white picket fence in front of Hopper’s post-apocalyptic urban Alamo), and the aggressive use of unusual materials--shattered glass, diamond plate, sandbags, even drafting triangles--to fashion subtly subversive designs.

At his best, Murphy creates what might be called architectural oxymorons. He describes Hopper’s house as “paramilitary suburban.” For Art Options, a new functional-art shop in Santa Monica, he blended austere warehouse shelving with lush banana trees to create a style that one of the owners calls “tropical-industrial.”

Murphy proved to have as good an eye for publicity as for design, and virtually every one of his new projects received a lavish photo layout in one of the glossy home and design magazines. With each layout came more buzz, more ripples, more heat, and inexorably more clients: Hopper, actor /writer Harold Ramis, Jeff Goldblum and his wife, Geena Davis, Mason and Carlisle. Murphy showcased his work by buying a house, renovating it, selling it and beginning the process again--he’s now on his fourth house. Today, by his count, Murphy has a respectable 40 projects standing in Southern California and a stack more on the drafting table.

WITH HIS triumphant debut in Venice, Murphy raised his flag in a Los Angeles architectural community that was itself suddenly bustling with energy. Fueled by the enormous wealth coursing through the city in the early ‘80s and inspired by the liberating example of iconoclastic L.A. architect Frank Gehry, a loose collection of young Los Angeles architects had begun forging a distinctive and indigenous “freestyle” of design.

What linked these architects was not so much a similar approach as a shared attitude: brashness, love of color and strange materials, an eagerness to experiment with unusual shapes. (For Dennis Hopper’s house, Murphy built a gently rolling roof that looks like a wave.) As the decade progressed, these architects, whose ranks included Murphy, Frederick Fisher, Eric Moss and the firm Morphosis, all began to attract national attention. Now--though these architects are just beginning to make their imprint on public spaces as well as on private homes--many observers see Los Angeles as a center of architectural innovation.

Like most of the other architects usually associated with this amorphous freestyle school, Murphy doesn’t consider himself part of it--or any other school, for that matter. He tries hard to appear completely unaffected by architectural trends: He says he doesn’t subscribe to any architectural journals and insists, “I can’t think of when I went to look at a building.” He even resists the idea that he has developed a characteristic style. “I think when you look at the body of work, there isn’t much continuity,” he says. “There isn’t much of a style.” To be categorized, Murphy seems to believe, is to be entombed.

Maybe Murphy is right in shunning labels; he voraciously commandeers ideas from all directions, without an apparent set of rigid underlying principles to guide him from project to project. To his thrill-seeking clients, what’s perhaps most attractive about Murphy is his unpredictability, his penchant for extravagant gestures--such as building an 80-foot bridge into a tiny aerie at his first canyon house. Working with Murphy is a little like trying to keep up with Robin Williams on stage: There’s no road map, or at least not one that more linear minds can decipher. “I don’t know how Brian’s brain works,” says Jorga Prover, who bought the canyon house from Murphy. “I don’t know how he conceived of doing this in the way he did; it is fascinating to me how he figured this out.”

Murphy has no more clue about his inspiration than his clients do, and considerably less interest. When he’s asked how he comes up with his ideas, he says unaffectedly, “I don’t know.” Murphy practices a kind of architectural free-association. When he’s on the telephone, he often doodles elaborate designs on his date book, some of which have materialized in his work. Like all designers, he also spends a lot of time talking to clients trying to draw out--and perhaps even stretch--their instincts. But there is no set process that guides him through his work. When he’s asked to describe the method he uses to plot his constructions, he looks around the room as though he’s trying to find a blackboard, and then says: “That’s a good one. When I was in school, I had a professor who wanted you to make a pictographic representation of your design process. Everybody had these sort of matrixes and bar charts. I thought about it and just couldn’t do it. There is no process that I can figure out. I don’t know where it comes from. I don’t know. Allah, maybe.”

MAYBE ALLAH HAS a hand in it, but Murphy’s work doesn’t emerge entirely from divine inspiration. It is very rooted in Los Angeles, drawing on some main lines of myth that stretch through the city’s history. In many respects, Murphy’s designs encapsulate the strengths and limitations of the convulsive city in which he builds.

As much as anyone else now working here, his admirers say, Murphy embodies the freedom from stultifying rules and the willingness to experiment that defines Los Angeles at its best. Open and inventive, his work crackles with a casual playfulness--an irreverence that architecture critic Joseph Giovannini calls “benignly insolent.”

For the people who live in his houses, that spontaneity has real appeal: Murphy always salts his designs with zingers. Murphy took a cramped beach bungalow in Santa Monica Canyon and converted the center of the house into a sky-lit atrium--where he planted huge banana trees that now soar through the house like great, unwieldy green pillars. “You can tell that he’s free in how he approaches things,” says movie producer Laura Ziskin, who lives amid the foliage. “There is a lot of whimsy and sense of humor in his design. It’s so light. You can’t be depressed in this house.”

But innovative as they are, some of Murphy’s designs walk a fine line between insouciance and camp, his critics maintain. At its most precious, Murphy’s work has the feel of an in-joke. Murphy’s work predominantly draws from and speaks to just one narrow segment of Los Angeles: the affluent, hip record-industry and movie crowd.

So far, Murphy hasn’t fully demonstrated that his unusual visions can move a broader audience. Working on a low budget, he gave UCLA’s James A. Doolittle Theater in Hollywood a completely new look by stripping away its marble facade to reveal the rough stone below and using left-over scaffolding from the 1984 Olympics to create a new marquee; but now only a few years later, faced with criticism over the new look, the theater is being renovated again. “The outside of the theater was a big experiment on his part and our part, . . . and some of it needs to be modified,” says Gordon Davidson, who is producing a series of plays for the Ahmanson Theater at the Doolittle this year. Murphy characteristically professes indifference: “Like I said, I’m not married to it.”

Murphy’s work reflects another ambiguous theme in Los Angeles mythology: the city’s unstinting fascination with the new. Murphy’s design has an aggressively temporal quality, not only in the severity of its style, but in his attraction to inexpensive, untraditional building materials whose life span is measured in years more than decades. Murphy takes an equivocal position on the value of building obsolescence into houses: He insists he isn’t celebrating transience, but it’s clear he sees no harm in it. “I’m too California,” he says. “These things are not precious. They’re temporal. It’s the back-lot mentality. It’s here for today, and manana , who knows? I don’t see this stuff as living monuments.”

Actually, like a growing number of his contemporaries, Murphy seems excited by the idea of viewing buildings as works in progress. For one client who needed to watch costs, Murphy built an addition onto a house using corrugated fiberglass--suitably inexpensive but expected to last only 15 years. “When I sold it to him, I said in 15 years we can put up something else,” Murphy says. “It has a life of its own. We can build change into it. I’m not afraid of that at all.” That’s an attitude long dominant in Los Angeles--but it makes preservationists wince.

Once Murphy relied on these inexpensive materials to meet cramped budgets, but now he also uses them for clients who can afford much more. (Murphy’s services themselves aren’t inexpensive: His construction fees range from $70 to $150 per square foot, and to that he’ll add a creative services fee of 7% to 20% of the total project cost.) That seems to be part of the point: Murphy offers a way for people to assert that they are beyond aspiring to the traditional monuments of success their affluence could buy. Murphy is in many ways the perfect designer to deliver that ambivalent message. For all the wondrous things he makes, Murphy has relatively few possessions. He takes hardly anything with him when he moves from house to house every few years (“I don’t have any real attachment to any of this stuff,” he says looking across his living room); his wardrobe seems to consist primarily of short-sleeve white shirts and khaki shorts. His aversion to things may help explain his appeal to people laden with them. Murphy is an anti-materialist creating ironic status symbols for clients trying to simultaneously proclaim their affluence and independence--the perfect builder for people who want enviable possessions that suggest possessions aren’t very important to them. His clients, Murphy says, want “something they can show their producer or whatever. Their producer has all this polished brass and marble in his house and they think that’s what’s happening, and then they come over to my client’s house, and they just blow their minds.” That’s what Murphy delivers--status with a smirk.

Some critics worry that Murphy risks being trapped by his success into fashioning nothing more than idiosyncratic fantasies for a narrow clientele that demands increasingly outrageous designs. “What can happen to an architect is that his clients become more and more similar and his work develops more and more in one direction, . . . and there are other parts of him that atrophy,” says Richard S. Weinstein, dean of the UCLA graduate school of architecture. “That’s a danger. It is called type-casting in Hollywood. The same thing can happen to architects.”

Murphy seems sensitive to that risk. “I only wanted to work steady,” Murphy said one day after touring some of his most distinctive houses. “I had no vision of doing this kind of work. My first clients were so low-budget it required extraordinary solutions, which attracted the eye of the press, which attracted other clients who wanted those kinds of extreme solutions. . . . I’m in a slot where I’m attracting the zany, creative types from Hollywood with the funny money.”

There was a touch of remorse in those words, but not much. Murphy doesn’t spend too much time philosophizing about what he does. (Asked a moment later if that type-casting bothers him, he shrugged and said, “I’m just glad to be working.”) Beneath that lunch-bucket pose, Murphy does want his constructions to be seen as making some statements about the culture. He talks about his work replicating the “collage” of designs that has long marked Los Angeles and about expanding the palette of materials builders use to the point where the developed world learns the Third World lesson that “these things that other people throw away” can be recycled.

But Murphy doesn’t discuss any of this with burning conviction. It’s as if he feels the need to have these opinions more than he feels the opinions themselves. Discussing architectural aesthetics with Murphy is like trying to give a cat a bath: He squirms, wriggles, darts away at the first glimmer of escape. He seems genuinely uninterested in critical opinion except for positive notices he can use as marketing tools.

His agenda is modest in scope. Perhaps more modest than the claims his admirers make for him. Murphy doesn’t seem to be out to overturn convention, challenge the art world or teach hedonistic Westerners to bring themselves into more serene balance with their surroundings. He just enjoys building places with a funky edge and a sly sense of humor, and doing it on his own terms as much as possible. “I love to build,” he says earnestly. “I love to design. I’ll build anything.” He’s waiting for the museum and library and university commissions to come his way. Until then, he has his loyal clients, good word of mouth, time to surf and a view of the ocean every morning when he drives to work. That’ll do for now.