L.A. Designer Hitting High Gear With Mix of Modesty and Moxie

Rebecca Binder launched her architectural practice 10 years ago with a rare boldness. Rather than wait for a client to come along with a first commission, as most hopeful young architects do, Binder became her own developer. With her husband, Gary Fisher, she purchased a site in Santa Monica and built a row of condominiums that immediately caught the attention of the design community and won a national award from the American Institute of Architects in 1985.

The Pacific Condominiums, slotted onto a narrow lot near the beach, epitomize Binder's design signature. Compactly contrived, with every inch of the tight four-story units considered in detail, the condo townhouses draw upon the historical reference of Irving Gill's early modern Horatio West Court apartments while expressing their own 1980s high-tech individuality with brightly colored metal pipe rails and a cubist clarity of composition.

Building on her 1985 national design award, her small but thriving Playa del Rey practice has produced an array of boldly conceived, scrupulously detailed designs that have won several hotly contested commissions for Southern California university projects. This fall Binder will be one of four young American architects chosen by the U.S. Information Agency for a display of avant-garde design in Moscow.

Two recent projects on the UC Irvine campus show Binder at her best. The Satellite Food Facility for the School of Social Science has the witty air of a small temple unearthed by archeologists. The fragmented geometry of the pavilions, with sharply conflicting angles and tilted roof planes, suggests a future history of the imagination that might transform the raw new campus conjured out of the semi-desert of the Irvine Ranch.

Less Playful Design

UC Irvine's Engineering Research Facility is functionally a less playful design. The ERF building's workmanlike computer laboratories, classrooms and conference rooms are housed in gray stucco volumes that act as a sober foil for the design bravura of the neighboring complex designed by Frank Gehry.

"Rebecca has a distinctive design quality that doesn't dominate where it shouldn't, or fail to make a powerful statement where that is called for," said former UCI campus architect David Neuman, who commissioned both Binder campus projects. "She can be both modest and bold."

Women designers are often accused by male colleagues of being too modest, too concerned for the welfare of the people who use the buildings they design, at the expense of making powerful formal statements. Male architects wonder--in private and off the record--if women have the moxie to make it as stars in a tough and competitive profession. "Reticence is a notorious female virtue," one male "starchitect" commented recently.

Binder counters that she sees no real conflict between an architecture that cares about the people that must live, work and play in its spaces, and one that makes a major design statement. "To pose those elements as an either-or choice is foolish," she said forthrightly.

Her clients agree. MCA executive Fred Bernstein, for whom Binder designed an expansion of his Sherman Oaks house in 1985, said that she "managed the subtle task of fusing our needs with her own concepts, without compromising either. More than that, she showed us how we could get what we wanted out of a tight little lot we thought would constrict our ambitions. Rebecca is bright about a lot of things, apart from architecture." Bernstein was so impressed with Binder's professionalism he has commissioned her to design a new more elaborate house on a much larger lot.

An intense talker with bright brown eyes and a mop of dark black hair, the 38-year-old Binder looks as bold as her architecture. She manages her 10-person office with a brisk yet easy assurance that allows her time with her 3-year-old son, Max.

Binder says she always knew she wanted to be an architect. As a child she drew and painted obsessively. "By age 14," she said, " I was certain architecture was my preference." Yet she got her undergraduate degree from the University of Pennsylvania in English literature, "for reasons I can't quite recall." In Los Angeles she followed her true metier, graduating with a master's in architecture from UCLA in 1979.

Binder's particular balance between boldness and care for detail is best illustrated in the tiny Eats restaurant in El Segundo, completed in 1985. In a cramped space barely 12 feet wide and 60 feet deep, she created a chic little cafe by a skillful manipulation of free-form lighting troughs and angled planes that make the eatery seem ample. The brightly lit, gaily colored Eats grabs attention by sheer force of personality.

This year Binder's career has entered high gear. Apart from the projects at UC Irvine, she has won commissions for the expansion of UCLA's Ackerman Student Union on Bruin Plaza and for the proposed Visual Arts Facility at UC San Diego.

In San Diego, Binder triumphed over competition from several architectural heavyweights, including Rob Quigley and Barton Myers. Members of the UCSD selection committee reportedly chose Binder for her intensity and intelligence, plus the fact that a small firm would give particular personal attention to the high-profile project.

"The recipe for successful architecture requires total dedication, social skills and a large dash of chutzpah," Binder said, "plus something else--that mysterious ingredient called talent, that gives your designs a powerful flavor without killing a client's appetite. It's a subtle mixture that takes a lot of careful cooking."

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