The world of architecture, like those of politics and entertainment, likes to simplify complex issues with sound-bite-length catch phrases. The snappier the label, the better. Frank Israel is, therefore, a trend-spotter's nightmare--difficult to categorize and full of contradictions.
In the freewheeling arena of Los Angeles architecture, where individual expression is virtually a religion, Israel designs buildings and interiors that bear an innovative stamp all his own, while still incorporating references to Los Angeles' modernist tradition, from Frank Lloyd Wright to Frank O. Gehry, with a particular nod to Rudolph Schindler. Israel's work displays many of the same complex geometries, layering of "tough" materials and intellectual rigor that are hallmarks of other stars of the post-Gehry generation, such as Thom Mayne of Morphosis, Mayne's former partner Michael Rotondi, and Eric Owen Moss. Yet somehow Israel's work often seems more livable than that of his peers and is consistently more concerned with its natural surroundings.
From his early days in Los Angeles as a set designer at Paramount, Israel has cultivated a significant number of celebrity clients, from director Robert Altman to the late art collector Frederick Weisman, but he devotes equal energy to the far-less-glamorous task of teaching young architects at UCLA. Israel's bluntness, acerbic wit and fondness for gossip can be off-putting, yet he is famous for his generosity to friends, both in and out of the profession, many of whom he has known since his student days.
As one might imagine, the tall, burly designer, who is the subject of an exhibition opening today at the Museum of Contemporary Art, is nothing if not opinionated: In a recent interview, Israel called the prevalence of neo-traditional, Mediterranean-inspired architecture in Los Angeles "appalling--it signals our not being able to accept the responsibilities of our power and place at this point in our history." And although he is an ardent supporter of Richard Meier's architecture, he finds the hilltop siting of the new Getty Center "unfortunate." Hills erode, Israel argues, and you can't fight Mother Nature, no matter how much money and technology you throw at her.
As is often the case with people like Israel, his supporters and detractors are equally vocal. "A very talented guy . . . who has produced a body of work that's impressive" is how Gehry, a longtime Israel fan, describes him. On the other hand, there's the well-known East Coast architectural historian who recently asked the designer, "Still trying to reinvent the wheel?"
The better to amaze his admirers and confound his critics, Israel's work at mid-career is not only better than ever--displaying a startling new exuberance in addition to its usual elegance--but bigger than ever. While the work of Franklin D. Israel Design Associates is well known in architectural circles, it is only recently that Israel has broken the residential and small-scale commercial design barrier to snag larger jobs, from a recently completed book storage facility at UCLA to a housing project in the Netherlands and a school of the arts at UC Riverside. The latter two, which are still in the project stage, were designed in a new, separate partnership that Israel established last year with three of his former associates--Annie Chu, Barbara Callas and Steven Shortridge--precisely in order to alter what he saw as a public perception of his 13-year-old firm as a one-man, "boutique" operation.
And, as his practice grows, so does Israel's public profile. His work, already the subject of two books, will soon be seen in another monograph: on the Drager house, which Israel completed in the fire-ravaged Oakland hills, with its enormous roof that seems to fold down over the structure. On Feb. 10, UCLA held an Israel symposium that featured luminaries such as Gehry, historian Thomas Hines, and critics Herbert Muschamp and Suzanne Stephens, in honor of the designer's 50th birthday (which was actually last December). And although his work has been featured in numerous exhibitions, including a one-man show at the Walker Art Center in 1989, Israel can now claim a distinction all too rare among L.A. architects: He is being singled out for a major honor in his own backyard.
'Out of Order: Franklin D. Israel," organized by MOCA director Richard Koshalek and curator Elizabeth A.T. Smith, is the first exhibition in MOCA's Focus series to deal with architecture and the first show that MOCA has devoted to an architect in mid-career. "In watching Frank Israel's work," Koshalek says, "we saw that it was the most closely connected to the Southern California tradition. We decided that if we were going to show an architect of Frank's generation, he would be it."
The show may be something of a surprise to those who are expecting the standard architect's retrospective of models, photographs and drawings. Although an adjacent space will contain images and models of Israel's built work, the focus of the show will be a gallery that is transformed by myriad dynamically tilting, "folded" white plaster planes that obscure the traditional distinctions between walls and ceilings, or vertical and horizontal. While these planes constitute a thread that runs through much of Israel's recent work, at MOCA he is able to push the theme to a high level of abstraction. Inspired by sources as diverse as Kurt Schwitters, German Baroque church architecture and a crumpled piece of Xerox paper, Israel explains that he wanted to create something that "was not representational, that recognizes the place of chance in the world and that challenges people's perceptions. . . . This is not a show for architects. People should say, 'Wow! I've never seen anything like this before!' "
Curator Smith believes that the installation will indeed "confound people's expectations about architecture, in a provocative but positive way," she says. "It will give them a sense of exhilaration about space." Moreover, Smith continues, "by doing an actual installation, you make palpable the ideas that are in Frank's mind. And by following this space with one filled with actual projects, I hope that people will get the connection between the ideas expressed in the installation and those in the built work."
When Israel describes the installation as "more expressionistic than anything I've done," he's not just talking about architecture. There is also, he admits, "a sense of anger" in the which-end-is-up quality of the space. Architecture may be, as the saying goes, an old man's profession, but the odds that Israel will enjoy the elder-statesman status of an I.M. Pei or a Philip Johnson are not exactly in his favor. For the last six years, Israel has been battling Kaposi's sarcoma, the cancerous lesions that are an all-too-common indicator of AIDS.
Rather than retreat, however, Israel has chosen to stare down this particular enemy. "Frank's attitude about AIDS is just like his attitude toward everything else," says architect Richard Weinstein, a professor of architecture and urban design at UCLA and former dean of its Graduate School of Architecture and Urban Planning (now a department of the School of the Arts and Architecture), and a friend of Israel's since they both worked for the Lindsay Administration in New York in the late 1960s. "He looks it right in the face."
"When you have KS, you can't hide the fact that something is wrong," Israel says. "So when I came down with it, I decided that I could be more helpful by being upfront about it, both as a teacher and as a designer. I don't bring it up in class or with clients, but if someone else does, I talk about it."
Israel has managed to stay relatively robust throughout his illness and its grueling rounds of chemotherapy with regular exercise, yoga and acupuncture. Although friends and clients have been extremely supportive, Israel has clearly been stung by the insensitivity of others, like the colleague who asked Israel just how long he had left or the would-be client who suggested that the designer accept a reduced fee. Israel understands people's ambivalence on the subject, but insists that illness has done little to diminish his capacity for work. "I intend to run this office until I get hit by a truck," he says defiantly. "My work keeps me going. It's the most important thing in my life."
But if work is still No. 1, more personal considerations have become Nos. 2 and 3. Israel is in a new relationship, with an artist in his 30s named Tomas Haase. And after years of wishing he had a dog, Israel stopped wishing and started looking. Schamroy, a chocolate-colored standard poodle puppy named after Jayne Mansfield's dog, now rules the roost in Israel's funky-chic Beverly Hills office, bringing out a tenderness in the designer that might surprise those who are familiar with his more caustic side. Not that he'd care. As Israel says: "This disease liberates you to say what you think."
You have to wonder if it hasn't liberated Israel's work, too. How else to explain the bolder forms, the looser lines and the generally more joyful tone that pervades his recent buildings? Always possessed of a delicacy of detail and a sophisticated sense of proportion, Israel's earlier work always seemed a bit too buttoned-up, a tad too self-conscious. Now, while his architecture is no less complex, it seems almost effortless by comparison. A just-completed house in Malibu, for attorney Michael Dan and his wife, Cecelia, CECILIA?and another under construction in Jupiter, Fla.--to cite two notable examples--are dynamic yet graceful, the product of a designer whose creative powers are soaring.
They seem a perfect illustration of Israel's contention that "sensibilities, not intellect" should guide the way one sees architecture. The ability to express what one is feeling, he maintains, is the key. That's why he so admires Le Corbusier's fortress-like monastery of La Tourette near Lyon, France: "You're so moved spiritually and emotionally that the cleverness and fastidiousness of the architecture seem unimportant." And, he continues, it's what informs the "provocative, charged forms" of his mentor Gehry's buildings. "The ad hoc nature of his work reflects L.A.'s own disconnection and lack of harmony," Israel recently told a British journalist. "Gehry opened my eyes to the city's aesthetics; from looking around I grew to understand what was special about it."
The future of architecture, Israel predicts, isn't exactly most people's idea of rosy. "Given the condition of this country and others, large-scale public projects will dwindle. There won't be another Mitterrand," he says, referring to the late French president's massive civic building program, which included projects such as I.M. Pei's Louvre pyramid.
Nor, he insists, will the Wrightian ideal of the architect as lone romantic hero serve tomorrow's designers: "It's an unrealistic role model for the future." Collaboration--between architects, and with clients and community groups--is necessary to produce what Israel calls "pluralistic work that gets its forms and attitudes from the particulars of the site or neighborhood."
This may sound a bit disingenuous coming from someone whose clients have been relatively affluent, but his vision of the future is, understandably, a pragmatic one--which, by the way, also rules out "futuristic" design scenarios. "Once you get into futurism," Israel says, "you start developing a World's Fair type of architecture. There are enough challenges right here and now."
"Out of Order: Frank D. Israel," Museum of Contemporary Art, 250 S. Grand Ave. Today through May 26. Tuesdays-Sundays, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Thursdays, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. (213) 626-6222.