A Lasting Imprint : A father and son rub their sense of humor off on buildings all over L.A. The Kanners' : designs are never dull.

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Stephen Kanner has the polite edginess of a wedding photographer anticipating a drunken reception. He doesn't really want to drive to Koreatown for fear that the two apartment buildings he and his father designed three years ago have, through no fault of theirs, fallen into neglect.

He worries about graffiti. He knows the recession has hit the buildings' owner, so he worries about the paint job and the thousand shocks a building is heir to in a rough neighborhood where people have things besides architectural design on their minds .

The Harvard Apartments won Kanner Associates two awards in 1992 and looked good in the company brochure--four austere white shapes, like the letter E stood backward, filled and flanked by yellow structures embedded with circles, and reddish structures embedded with odd-angled squares, like windows caught dancing (they used the same motif for a face lift of the St. Andrews Apartments around the corner). But the buildings were out of the brochure now and into the hurly-burly of natural and human elements.

Chuck Kanner, 65, listens to his youthful 40-year-old son all the way on the drive from their Westwood office. Finally, like a laconic Clint Eastwood squinting hard into the future, he says, "I think it'll be all right."

The apartments are the first stop on a one-day retrospective tour of some of the work that has elevated the small firm of Kanner Associates into L.A.'s architectural elite. "Evocatecture," Stephen likes to call it. "Modernism out of the Internationalist school," Chuck likes to call it--though in fact the Kanners make a point of being good listeners who can deliver virtually any style on demand.

Architecture magazine has complimented them as Neo-Expressionists whose private and public projects "combine solidly functional design with visual wit." And in numerous interviews the Kanners like to talk about recapturing the optimism of the '50s and '60s, where Googie coffee shop and Disney Tomorrowland designs were tangible proof of a local future brimming with pizazz.

Still, Stephen's worry, as overstated as it may seem, is part of a general alarm the Kanners are beginning to feel about the future of Los Angeles.

Is the city, once the sun-drenched cynosure of American freedom and youthful self-invention, spilling into entropy? Unquestionably one of the world's media and entertainment capitals, is it nonetheless missing its chance--as a livable place with more in it than Hollywood glitterati--to join New York, London, Paris and Rome in a company of equals?

"A lot of people run L.A. down, but I can't imagine living anywhere else," Chuck says. "You don't have to travel to see the world; it's here in a population of Anglos, Asians, Latinos, African Americans, all these nodes of cultural diversity. You have the tradition of the Spanish missions and you have the deconstructivism of Frank Geary--though"--he adds humorously--"I see deconstructivism as a metaphor for the shaky ground we live on.

"You have the mid-Wilshire single-family stucco houses, the Spanish bungalow style on South Olympic, and the elegant Hancock Park. You have Century City, Warner Ranch and Ventura Boulevard. What you have in L.A. is sprawl. It's all over the place."

To Chuck, what was once exuberant expansion may be changing into sclerotic middle-aged spread. The main ingredient in Los Angeles' urban diet, the automobile, may now be its inescapable impediment to civic health.

"A city cannot be great without pedestrians, and Los Angeles is not a pedestrian place," he says. "We could make the Wilshire corridor, for example, our version of the Champs Elysees. Instead, we've created some really oppressive streets: Lincoln Boulevard, Pico, Santa Monica Boulevard, places to get through to get somewhere else. People don't interact here as much as they do in London and New York. They retreat to their boxes, their apartments, isolated from each other. Think of how much square footage out there is given to the automobile. Think of what it means when you're afraid to leave your neighborhood to go to a restaurant in someplace like East L.A."

Stephen wonders if L.A.'s postwar love of the impromptu, so colorful and breezily iconoclastic that it has often led the nation in tone and style, isn't--as far as its architecture is concerned--beginning to suffer from paralysis of the imagination.

"There's this incredible sameness," he says. "Clients don't want to invent. They want to see that you've done something the same way five times before, particularly government and business people. Very few seem to realize there's a first time for everything. You get these vanilla firms where profits are everything. They ask, 'Why you?' You answer, 'Because we'll love this project, it'll be meaningful, it'll be the best building we can make.' That's not what they want to hear. What they want you to talk about in a three-piece suit is budget and time. I told Dad I'm going to stop wearing ties."

The Kanners are not by nature querulous figures--going tie-less is probably as much of a radical statement as Stephen will ever make, and both he and Chuck understand that there are economic and political dynamics in the life of a big city that far outweigh the influence of architects. Their preoccupation is with their work, not social issues.

And after all, how important can a building be?

"No graffiti," Stephen says, visibly relieved as he parks his Jeep Cherokee near the Harvard Apartments and gets out to look things over. "That's a good sign."

Architecture critics have caught in these buildings echoes of the Modernist tradition and Rudolph Schindler and Richard Neutra circa the '30s and '40s. The casual viewer saw a ham and Swiss cheese sandwich, the Bauhaus brought to you through the courtesy of your local deli.

Chuck slides his hand along a stucco planter along the sidewalk.

"This street is a friction point between Latinos and Koreans," he says. "At night, they sit on these planters and talk. It relieves a lot of their tensions."

Stephen looks up with silent satisfaction. A building is an event, full of inexpressible emotional promptings. In a conservative working-class area like Koreatown, this one could easily have been desecrated for its whimsical audacity. But it wasn't. It had passed the supreme test.

The Kanners get in their Jeep and drive on.

*

"When you talk about what's going on in L.A., the Kanner name comes up," says Michael Hrizek, incoming president of the American Institute of Architects.

"There's a freshness and sense of humor to their work, extremely intelligent designs that have subtle edges to them. They like to embrace the '50s and '60s aesthetic of optimism and play, and blend them with the best of the Modernist tradition. Their plans make tremendous sense. I'd consider them among the best firms at work here."

"They've pioneered some different kinds of architecture," says former AIA President Janice Axon, "but architecture that's sensitive to the site as opposed to being monuments to their own egos. With them, you never know what the next one is going to be."

Perhaps more difficult than making a good first impression is leaving one behind over time. The Kanners have won 19 major architecture awards since Stephen joined his father in 1984, and over its 21-year history the firm has completed 130 public and private projects citywide, upscale, low-end, pro bono.

They've done residential interiors, South-Central school design, municipal courthouses, commercial buildings, single-family homes and offices. In their first international projects, they've designed an office building in Beijing and a 300-acre urban development near Shanghai. They've created a bird feeder in which a red arrow-shaped dispenser inscribed "Eat" points to a seedbed. They have plans in the works for the redevelopment of the Santa Monica Pier and for the Village Center shopping and entertainment complex in Westwood, and both men have been members of various civic design boards. (Chuck has served on advisory panels for Mayors Tom Bradley and Richard Riordan.)

Their intensity is not apparent at first. Chuck appears laid-back; he has a deep tan and the soft-spoken, recessive manner of someone who has passed the torch. But every now and then a fixed smile seems a defensive cover for a mind preoccupied, and he gets fidgety. Stephen effects the avuncular reassurance of a family doctor, but his thoroughness on a subject, his genial insistence on exploring it exhaustively, suggests a perfectionist drive. "You have to understand that when you get the Kanners, you get family," says psychologist Alice Powell, who lost her home in the 1993 Malibu fire and had the Kanners design a new one over the old floor plan. "They're creative and meticulous. They're strong without being opinionated. Stephen in particular wants to be in the total picture. I think he even wanted to be in on our furniture shopping. I drew the line there. We did that ourselves. Fortunately, he approved."

Before the Kanners hooked up as a team, Chuck was working out of a one-room office in Beverly Hills. He had once dreamed of teaming up in one fashion or another with Frank Lloyd Wright in Arizona. Instead, the economic slowdown of the late '70s drove him to take cover in the large firm of Charles Luchman & Associates. He hated corporate practice and left after a year.

In the meantime, Stephen worked for another big company, Skidmore, Owens & Merrill. He hated it too. "I did everything I could to make them fire me, but they wouldn't," he says. For a while, it looked as though an American dream of four generations was about to expire in the quiet desperation of two unhappy men.

The Kanner story actually begins not with architecture but with celery.

"My grandfather Charles came to the U.S. from Germany around the turn of the century," Chuck says. "He was a farmer looking for the right ecology to grow celery in. He looked at two sites to buy. One was by a river near the ocean, called Sanford, which he chose. The other is now called Miami." Brief fanciful pause to wonder, perhaps for the millionth time, what it would have been like to own Miami.

"My father, Herman, was one of three brothers and started out as a civil engineer and later went back to Georgia Tech to get a degree in architecture--my mother is from Camilla, Georgia. They first came to Los Angeles in the '30s, but the Depression was on and L.A. was not a good place to be in, so he became a company architect for a shoe company in St. Louis, where I was born. I have a younger brother who works in plumbing, heating and air conditioning. Eventually my father did get back here to start his own firm. I went to school in the mid-Wilshire area, then Beverly Hills High, then USC. I was very influenced by my dad. He died when he was 50."

Chuck is at his office desk when he talks about his family. At the mention of his father's death, he looks up at a photo on the opposite wall. There stands Herman Kanner, a soft-featured man with thinning dark hair dressed in a pale suit. He looks like a movie executive of the period, someone proud of his acquired taste and success.

What's remarkable about the photo is not that he bears no resemblance to his son, but that he looks enough like Stephen to be a brother.

Chuck took his architecture degree with him into the Air Force, where, under Gen. George S. Brown (who later became chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff), he supervised the conversion of Williams Air Force Base in Mesa, Ariz., so that it could accommodate the newly invented jet airplane. By this time he had married his wife, Judith, who later became a screenwriter and interior designer. Stephen and his younger sister, Catherine, an artist and art instructor, were born in military hospitals.

"I come from the generation where you went to school, got a job, got married, then went to work," Chuck says. "In Arizona, we'd go up to Taliesen [West], where Frank Lloyd Wright was living. I'd love to have stayed there, but we didn't have those options. I admire Stephen and Catherine for seeing a bit of the world before they started families." (Stephen is married to Cynthia Kanner, director of post-production at HBO; they have an 8-month-old daughter.)

Not that the world proved a succulent oyster for Stephen. "I have all the worst stories," he says. "In Europe I got ripped off. Then I had major food poisoning. In Boston, my apartment burned out. I like Boston, and New York, but I couldn't take the winters. You have to dress so heavily for the cold that you feel like you're going out in a spacesuit."

UC Berkeley, where he earned his undergraduate and master's degrees in architecture, didn't prove much better (though he was the school's top badminton player). "I'd been spoiled by early success. I wanted to be an artist. I was a teen-ager at Oakwood School when an entrepreneurial classmate sold one of my graphic designs as a logo for a business, so I had money of my own. At Berkeley I was arrogant, obnoxious, a hermit. My mind was always on L.A."

Two major Berkeley awards gave Stephen a chance to work at the firm Cambridge Seven in Boston, but Los Angeles still beckoned. After Skidmore, Owens & Merrill, he was briefly at Urban Forms when Chuck landed the 1983 contract to design the $18-million East Los Angeles Courthouse. They've been together ever since.

*

For the daylong tour that began at the Harvard Apartments, Stephen had listed 16 other sites to show off the firm's work. By the time the sun had dipped low over the ocean at the elder Kanner's Seacliff condo in Malibu, they had managed only three other stops: the Lakeshore toy store at National and Venice; the award-winning Montana Collection, a series of renovated low-rise commercial buildings in Santa Monica, and the Morton house, a private residence in Malibu. That's how long it took to explore them.

Each was more of a revelation than its predecessor. The front of the Morton house, modeled after New York's Whitney Museum, is a cool monolithic rebuke to the traffic noise. The ocean-facing interior is just the opposite, an airy blend of cedar, white Carrara marble, steel, and plenty of glass--during the day the house feels borne in natural light. Its simple lines convey elegance as well.

"I'm a New Yorker," says Lorraine Morton, who along with her husband, Dr. Donald Morton, commissioned the design. He is the director of the John Wayne Cancer Institute in Santa Monica. "At night you can't see the ocean," she says. "I look outside and feel as though I'm seeing the Manhattan skylight. It's amazing how they've been able to capture that feeling."

"Very top hat and tails, isn't it?" Stephen says, standing at a stairwell beside a grand piano that gleams like a tuxedo pump. He had pointed out every room, every detail, right down to the penlight that beamed a sharp light through three levels of glass in a bathroom alcove.

Chuck follows, saying little, taking it all in. Afterward, they walk to the Jeep in prideful silence. Other people may own their buildings, but in all of them the Kanners have left something of themselves behind.

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Chuck and Stephen Kanner

Family background: Chuck lives in Malibu with his wife of 43 years, Judith. They have two children: Catherine and Stephen, who lives in Pacific Palisades with wife Cynthia and their 8-month-old daughter.

Passions: For Chuck, practicing tai chi, walking, playing tennis; for Stephen, tennis.

Stephen on attracting a diverse clientele: "A lot of architects have never worked in the public sector. Their mediocrity is bolstered by a comfort level. That's why someone like us who comes in with enthusiasm and seems arty is a threat."

Chuck on L.A.'s missteps: "I've always wondered about our priorities. We think nothing of putting $40 million into a movie when we could easily put that into a hospital or a school. What's more valuable?"

Stephen on style on demand: "We are not prima donnas. If you want a Mediterranean building, we'll give you the best."

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