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A Model Couple : Architecture: An L.A. husband-and-wife design team think they have the blueprint for happiness.

<i> Whiteson is a Los Angeles architect and author</i> . <i> His most recent book is "The Watts Towers of Lond</i> o<i> n." </i>

Richard Katkov and Miriam Mulder, a husband-and-wife architectural team struggling to establish a practice in a studio behind their modest Mar Vista house, are a couple of the ‘90s. But they find the experience of living and working together “almost medieval.”

“One thin door separates home and office,” Mulder said, “just as, in the Middle Ages, families lived behind the workshop. This arrangement, I feel, eliminates the schizophrenia between home life and work life that most people suffer today.”

The converted garage that serves as their studio is painted white and crammed with drafting tables, bookshelves, architectural models and plans. It has the air of an adult playroom. And when the couple’s 4-year-old daughter, Amelia, comes home from nursery school, she loves to tinker with the models before her mother takes her into the kitchen to make supper.

“Architecture is such a consuming passion, it can swallow up your life,” Katkov said. “Living and working under the same roof allows us to be close to one another and to Amelia without having to shift emotional gears.”

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Katkov and Mulder, one of a handful of husband-and-wife architectural teams in the Los Angeles area, met while studying at the Southern California Institute of Architecture in Santa Monica. After working in other offices, they decided to set up their own in late 1986. They began with a few residential remodeling commissions handed down by Fred Fisher, an established avant-garde Santa Monica architect for whom Mulder once worked.

“Fred’s generosity gave us a kick-start,” Mulder said. “At least 50% of the work we started out with came from his office.”

The first major commercial project the couple completed on Venice’s Electric Avenue came from a client Fisher introduced. David Hendler, a garment manufacturer and developer, liked the way the young designers remodeled his house, so he gave them the commission to convert a derelict plumbing supply warehouse into a small office block.

1611 Electric Avenue is situated on the edge of a workshop district wedged between Abbott Kinney Boulevard (formerly Washington Boulevard) and the Oakwood residential area. In recent years, several rundown concrete-block buildings off Electric Avenue have been converted into cheap but fashionably designed office space for small TV, film and advertising production agencies.

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The unusual shape of the two-story block structure--a rectangle with one angled side--suggested to Mulder the image of an old-fashioned camera obscura, the most primitive camera form. This image, which graphically suggests the films and commercials produced by the building’s tenants, gave her a simple design strategy to transform the homely old structure into a handsome and lively presence.

Following the notion of a camera obscura theme--essentially a box with a hole in it--Mulder cut a vertical “lens” slot into one side of the building. This slot frames the view of a billboard-style sculpture covered with relics of the derelict cars and other industrial trash found in the neighborhood.

Another “lens” is created by the free-standing, zinc-covered screen in front of the building’s main entry. The metallic surface of the screen plays off the gray stucco and black-framed steel windows of the main facade.

Within the building, rust-colored steel beams and angles suggest the focusing rays projected by the metaphoric lenses. These rays focus on the tilted wall of the main sky-lit stairwell, which in turn mimics a light-sensitive plate upon which the external images are “projected.”

“So much energy and thought have gone into this small act of architecture,” Mulder said. “Even now I lie awake thinking about all the things that weren’t done the way I wanted, or that I could’ve done better. It’s really painful and exhausting.”

“I’m not as hurt by such things,” her husband said. “Miriam is very intense. She’s the main designer in this partnership, and I tend to manage the projects, or we administer them together. Temperamentally, we complement one another, which is why it works so well, I guess.”

Mulder, 36, has intense green eyes and a pale face that is reddened by a blush of enthusiasm whenever she talks of architecture. Katkov, 37, is tall, dark and more relaxed.

“They’re a talented couple,” said client Hendler, “and they’re also easy to work with--an unusual combination of virtues among designers.”

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Hendler, a South African who has completed several small office conversions in Johannesburg, London and Sydney, speaks from a long history of dealing with designers.

“Miriam and Richard have very specific aesthetic notions, yet they are flexible enough to respond to the limitations such small-scale remodeling projects require,” he said. “Some of this flexibility has to do with their sophisticated appreciation of the crude muscularity of old industrial buildings such as the one on Electric Avenue, and their willingness to work with this quality rather than mask it.”

Architect Fisher, who first met Mulder when she was his student at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, described her talent as “poetic and vigorous,” and her personality as “thoroughly enjoyable.”

“Miriam was one of my best students, and I was happy to have her in my studio,” Fisher said. “Clients liked her energy and her commitment. She has a lot of talent.”

Fisher said that Mulder and Katkov are among some younger architects to whom he refers projects too small for his personal attention. And, like some other leading designers of his generation, Fisher believes fresh young talents should be encouraged and supported by their elders.

Talent aside, the struggle young architects face to make a living can be crushing. Despite critical acclaim and the appreciation of their peers and mentors, many young designers live on personal incomes as meager as $1,000 a month while working up to 80 hours a week.

“If I’d wanted to make a decent living after five years of college, I’d have become an attorney or an MBA,” Katkov said. “Architects have to satisfy themselves with passion, not bread.”

“The financial uncertainty can be frightening,” Mulder said, “especially for me. I’m a mom as well as an architect, and as I watch my daughter playing, I sometimes think all this is a real indulgence. But I simply couldn’t see myself doing anything else.”

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