Elyse Grinstein has a simple explanation for why, at age 65, she's still a full-time architect, a political activist, a board member of numerous arts education organizations and an art collector: "I have three children and five grandchildren living all around Los Angeles, and I want to leave them something." She doesn't want to build monuments, nor does she think she can change the world; but she does want "to make this a community where there is excitement, where people feel as if they belong to a place. Art and architecture can do that."
Grinstein's father didn't approve of her desire to become an architect, so she became a schoolteacher and married Stanley Grinstein, who runs Mifran-Boman Forklift Co. Together, they began collecting art in the 1950s and quickly established one of the city's preeminent collections of contemporary painting and sculpture. In 1968, they started the Gemini G.E.L. (Graphic Editions Limited) workshop-gallery-studios on Melrose Avenue and collaborated with artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein and Frank Stella to produce high-quality prints. Gemini has had retrospectives at the Museum of Modern Art and the National Gallery of Art, where a 1984-94 update is now on view.
With her children grown, Grinstein finally realized her dream of becoming an architect. After earning a master's degree at UCLA in 1978, she worked for old friend Frank Gehry before striking out on her own. She remodeled David Hockney's Hollywood Hills house and her own Brentwood house ("to make room for this huge Stella we had") and, with former partner Jeff Daniels, designed such eye-catching structures as the spiraling Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant at Western and Oakwood. "If people gather in fast-food joints," she asks, "why can't a chicken shack be a community center?"
That same concern for public space has made her a leading advocate for strong civic architecture. During Mayor Tom Bradley's administration, Grinstein served as president of the Cultural Affairs Commission, promoting new standards in street lighting, signage, awnings and other public amenities. She also has been involved with the Hollywood Women's Political Community and, with her husband, worked in Barbara Boxer's senatorial campaign.
Most recently, Grinstein and new partner Susan Narduli have been busy remodeling CalArts' quake-damaged campus in Valencia. They've redesigned walls, floors and lighting for several areas, including a new acoustical shell in the main gallery and new seminar rooms. And Narduli/Grinstein Architects in Venice is part of the design competition for new LAX concession facilities.
Grinstein manages to find time to organize fund-raisers, to push the city into incorporating design in its landscape and to appreciate her art. "It all comes back to architecture, which can give us the vision we have always lacked. That's why I'm devising some walking tours of Los Angeles, so that visitors can take them and then go back to the Midwest and say: They do walk in L.A., and there's lots going on there."