A Desert Designer Sweeps to Stardom
Jogging along Ocean Front Walk on Venice Beach early one morning, Albuquerque architect Antoine Predock grappled with the multitudinous images passing before his eyes.
He needed to sort out the Venice Beach scene in his mind to define the character of the beachfront house he was designing for a client, he said, explaining, “Venice Beach is so many things crammed into a compact space. It contains amazing conflicts of scale and atmosphere.”
An ‘Eternal Scale’
He talked of “the cosmic and eternal scale of the Pacific Ocean,” cheek-by-jowl with the transitory, fun-filled life of the seashore and the changing character of the crowded small houses and apartments along Ocean Front Walk.
“I had to find a way to fuse these disparate scenarios in the context of a shelter for a typical young family,” he said.
Predock’s brilliant resolution of this conflict of scales was to treat the deep, narrow house as a kind of live-in telescope focused over the sand toward the waves. From the front door, the main rooms widen out to frame a slot of ocean that seems to reach all the way to Japan.
This profound sense of place has elevated Predock in the last five years from an obscure New Mexico regionalist into a “cosmic modernist” with an international reputation. From his base in Albuquerque, Predock has built a practice that now runs projects from Paris to Pomona.
In the process of establishing his name, Predock has in the last few years beaten out famous “starchitects” in four major competitions, winning commissions for the American Heritage Center and Fine Arts Museum in Laramie, Wyo.; the Arizona State University Fine Arts Center in Tempe, the Las Vegas Central Library and Children’s Museum and the classroom-laboratory-administration building for California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.
Dubbed by some commentators as a “portable regionalist,” Predock responds without preconceptions or formula to each new place or cultural situation. His designs have powerful, particular personalities, distinguished by strong, almost elemental shapes. They are architectural icons symbolizing the essence of their time, place and meaning.
In his 1986 Fuller House in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert outside Scottsdale, Predock devised a miniature Mayan temple complex surrounding a ziggurat. Narrow water channels link the pavilions and lead the eye out into the harsh dry landscape patrolled by solemn saguaro cacti.
Besieged by Water
By contrast, the 1,000-room hotel he is designing in Orlando, Fla., is besieged by water. Predock conceived the giant project as a labyrinth skirting the surrounding lake. In this fashion, a sense of mystery is induced in a mundane building that could easily have become a boring barracks.
Predock’s direct aesthetic influences include Mexico’s Luis Barragan, noted for his powerful, Aztec-like architecture, and Philadelphia modernist Louis Kahn, the master of the intellectual organization of space and form.
“The best of Predock’s buildings are charged with a hybrid vigor,” said V. B. Price, architecture editor of Artspace, the southwestern arts quarterly. “They’re the product of a cross-fertilization of the history of architecture, a poetic talent for transforming metaphors into forms and Predock’s willingness to submerge his imagination in the ecological history of a particular place.”
In the Cal Poly Pomona project, Predock impressed the judges with the depth of his insight into the social and physical context of his design. “Apart from the usual consultations with the faculty and the administration, Predock spent several days ferreting out the character of the campus,” said Patricia Oliver, Cal Poly Pomona associate dean of environmental design. “He walked, ran and bicycled around the area, trying to understand how human settlement had altered the natural landscape.”
Predock said he was fascinated by the conjunction of “the dry swept earth of the old Rancho San Jose and the technological super-scale of the nearby interchange between the San Bernardino and 210 freeways, which must be one of the most beautiful man-made objects in Southern California.”
This sweep of sympathy, embracing the artlessly natural and the highly contrived, is the basis of Predock’s unique architecture. At its core is a sense of mystery, a feeling that the building reaches beyond the circumstance for which it was devised.
In Japan’s GA Houses magazine, Predock said that “Architecture derives from the elemental, spiritual and human energy of a selected place. . . . I attempt to produce an architecture that transcends history and region, that is expressive of the richness and diversity I see.”
With a shock of white hair framing bright blue eyes and a slender figure trimmed by marathon running, Predock, 52, has the air of a New Age prophet peddling a mix of cosmic joy and jogging. His body, soul and mind seem formed by the harsh purity of the New Mexico sky and mountains that root his architecture.
His Spiritual Center
“New Mexico, where I’ve lived for the past 35 years, is my spiritual center,” he said. “Though now I spend a lot of time traveling to projects all over the place, I have to return home to fill my lungs with that powerful air, to survive the violent dust storms and sink myself in the high mesas that seem so close to heaven.”
Divorced, with two grown sons, Predock runs a practice that now employs more than 30 associates in Albuquerque. He has a house in New Mexico and rents a pied-a-terre studio near Venice beach, where he spends about a third of his time.
Predock--whose California works include another house in Manhattan Beach, a 400-bed residence complex on the UCLA campus, a university theater in La Jolla and a concert hall for the UC Santa Cruz School of Music--finds Los Angeles “tremendously energizing.” He appreciates the architecture, which he describes as “an extraordinarily rich collage.”
While he admires the work of the Los Angeles avant-garde, Predock feels most of these designers do not dig deep enough, saying: “Architects like morphosis are clever at peeling away one layer of cultural history to reveal what’s under the city we see today. But they stop there. They don’t seem compelled to skin the onion to its core, to strip the references that dazzle the eye in this amazing metropolis by the ocean.”
Emphasizing “an obligation to an eternal order,” Predock insists that architects should ask themselves the hard question: What exactly should be understood and interpreted here?
In his Venice Beach house design, he collected references like a beachcomber gathering driftwood and pondering its provenance.
Images Crowded Together
“There are so many images crowding together on this small site,” he said. “There’s the sea-washed bones bleached by the sun you find buried in the sand. There’s the lifeguard tower that sits right in front of the house like an oversize grasshopper. There’s the busy beach scene, trashy and sexy together. And then there’s the memory of Balboa on a peak in Darien, staring out to sea on the edge of the American continent.”
All these references are compressed within the 30-foot-wide slot of the Venice Beach house. Yet the interior space is cool and calm, filled with the stillness Predock values above all else.
“You have to know how to be quiet,” he said, pacing out the length of the living room. “Quietness is the core of being, reaching back to before the Big Bang that was the beginning of the universe. The contemporary buzz is fascinating and compelling, but if we can’t connect with the beginning we’ll buzz ourselves to death.”
After he said that, he trotted off intently along Ocean Front Walk, a slender figure topped by a shining halo of silver hair, soon lost in the cosmic haze of sea, sand and sky.