L.A.'s Designing Woman

Times Staff Writer

How is it that the architect responsible for the historic restoration of a slew of Los Angeles' most important historic landmarks--the Bradbury building, the Wiltern Theatre, Grand Central Market and the late-1920s Oviatt and Fine Arts office buildings--is virtually unknown outside her field?

How is it that this person has spent the last eight years restoring City Hall to its original 1928 splendor . . . and still escaped notice?

"I've built a reputation, and I have a body of work that's substantial," said Brenda Levin, sitting in the corporate-style conference room of her offices in the Fine Arts building on 7th Street downtown. "But if you read the lists of who gets talked about and considered for all the major projects around the country, it's the same five firms over and over."

She pauses for a moment. "If there were the equivalent architect who was male and who had this body of work, would that person be recognized in a different way? I don't know the answer."

Architects operate in a world of developers, construction crews, engineers and various administrators and clients--almost all of whom are men. And despite the hordes of women who have graduated from architecture school in the last three decades, few women with international reputations spring readily to mind. There's London-based Zaha Hadid, 50, whose first U.S. commission is Cincinnati's new Contemporary Arts Center. And that's about it.

Harold Hewitt has followed Levin's work on six projects commissioned by Occidental College, where he is vice president for administration and finance. He suggests Levin's low profile may be partly her own doing. "She is admired in Southern California in the academic community, but I have wondered why she isn't wider known. It may be that she operates with a small shop, and she has a tendency to focus on the project. She's not the kind of person who boasts, and she is not driven to be in the limelight."

Adds developer Ira Yellin, a client on multiple projects: "She's a discreet, intellectual type with a strong sense of decorum."

Discretion has rarely been the hallmark of architects who become famous. Frank Lloyd Wright was a relentless self-promoter. California legend Myron Hunt was too. Today's masters, such as Frank Gehry, are known for latching onto influential media figures in the hopes of getting favorable treatment. That's not Levin's style. Posing for a photo in the center of City Hall's newly refurbished rotunda this week, she winced, uncomfortable at the attention. Dressed in a black pantsuit and low heels, she barely fussed with her hair before letting a photographer click away, and she admitted that at a recent book signing for her new monograph from the Master Architect Series (Images Publishing, 2001), meeting the public had been a challenge.

"I had to talk about my work," she laughed. "I'm very comfortable pitching it; I'm very proud of what we've accomplished, and I can sell it. But just talking about it, that's hard."

People who know Levin well tend to say that "she knows her own mind." She's not showy. At 55, Levin wears not a Rolex, but a Swiss Army watch borrowed from her son. She drives a Lexus that is dusty from its many trips to construction sites. Her Los Feliz hillside home, designed in 1980 while she was pregnant, is modest too--a 2,600-square-foot wood and concrete structure she shares with her husband, David Abel, publisher of the Planning Report and Metro Investment Report. Eliot, their only child, is now a student at Stanford.

Levin doesn't complain about the lack of recognition, but she admits that attention could be helpful. "I don't care about the recognition for its own sake, but I care about the opportunity it affords to do more work. I know it looks like I have had amazing opportunities, and I have. But with recognition comes an ability to expand your world. Most of my work has been in Los Angeles, and I'd be happy to have work that was in a more national context."

No Slowdown In Her Schedule

As her work on City Hall winds down, many other projects are in the works. Most notable is the restoration of the Griffith Observatory, whose $63-million upgrade, which has been under discussion for decades, is scheduled to begin construction next year. She's also transforming the former St. Vibiana's Cathedral into a performing arts center for Cal State L.A.; renovating the Frank Lloyd Wright buildings at Barnsdall Art Park; and creating a master plan for the Autry Museum of Western Heritage in Griffith Park.

Plus, with developer Yellin, she is toying with ideas for the former Herald-Examiner building downtown, a revered Mission Revival landmark that has been vacant since the newspaper folded in 1989.

Levin's firm of 12, Levin & Associates, employs nine architects and has frequently worked in collaboration with other firms. Albert C. Martin Partners Architects & Engineers did the seismic retrofitting and code upgrading on City Hall, which will have its official unveiling Sept. 2. Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates will do the underground expansion of Griffith Observatory's galleries, as well as upgrade the planetarium.

And although Levin is best known for fixing up historic structures, she also has designed new buildings, including science and athletic facilities at North Hollywood's private Oakwood School and a new building for St. James School, just west of Koreatown.

She is an urbanist born and raised in suburban New Jersey who has worked extensively in the densest neighborhoods of Los Angeles. She is well-known within the field of adaptive reuse--finding new life for older buildings--and she says she regularly gets calls from developers exploring downtown renewal projects. Though Levin rarely works outside the L.A. area, her projects include UC Santa Barbara's University Art Museum, Scripps College in Claremont (the Elizabeth Hubert Malott Commons) and a small study for a building at Stanford University.

"Brenda has been at the forefront, working on the highest-profile preservation projects in Los Angeles for a long time," said John Kaliski, principal architect of Urban Studio in L.A. "She's also worked really hard to develop some real skill and real excellence in building on difficult [urban] sites, the kind of careful piece-by-piece buildings that one would hope to see a lot more of in Los Angeles." Referring to St. James' new structure, Kaliski said, "Her work is not slick, but it will really be appreciated by the people who use it and the community around it." Levin does not impose a signature style on any single building but, rather, does her best to accommodate and integrate with surrounding buildings. It is the kind of approach that doesn't usually make the history books but seems to work for neighborhoods.

Restoring a Landmark to Its Full Glory

Most people don't realize how many decisions are made in the process of bringing new life to an old building. On a walk through City Hall, still largely a construction zone despite having reopened a few floors of offices in recent weeks, Levin pointed to the innumerable details that have been touched by construction workers, engineers, conservators and artisans since the city began to plan the overhaul of the 27-story building in 1993.

Work on City Hall began as a seismic retrofit, before the Northridge earthquake caused significant new damage to the building. Although the work was first budgeted at $153 million, costs rose dramatically over time, and at one point city officials considered tearing it down and starting over. Despite Los Angeles' typical disregard for history, the desire to preserve the historic structure prevailed, and the city committed funds to preserve the building, as well as its many murals, tile flooring, elaborate lighting fixtures, the glorious mosiac rotunda and the terra cotta tile exterior. Final costs are just under $300 million.

It wasn't easy getting her work done the way she wanted it, Levin admits. "Every battle was hard-fought for the scope of the preservation work," she said. "Both for the aesthetics and for the money." But, she said emphatically and with clear satisfaction, "the scope that I'd hoped for was almost entirely achieved."

As Levin stands in the rotunda, she smiles affectionately at the optimistic iconography of the mosaic ceiling, with its stylistically eclectic human figures honoring the literary and scientific values of Greco-Roman culture. An enormous original bronze chandelier hangs at the center of the ceiling; it was removed in the 1970s as an earthquake hazard, stored and nearly forgotten. Getting the chandelier back in its rightful place, said Levin, was "such a victory." She'd seen pictures of it and insisted that it be found.

Restoring the painted and mosaic murals also consumed vast amounts of time and energy. At every step, decisions had to be made as to the level of conservation, even when a painting just needed touching up. Maria Carvajal, one of five project managers who oversaw City Hall's seismic rehabilitation, said Levin always had the final word on major color and design decisions. "They did mock-ups to show the 1928 colors, and sometimes the original colors had to be reevaluated to [adapt to] the tones of the 2000 era. The colors they used originally were sometimes surprising--baby pinks and baby blues--some people might even find them offensive today. Brenda used the same colors, but she worked with the hues to bring more harmony."

In the finished building, Carvajal said, "a lot of what you see is Brenda," even if it's subtle. "She has a quiet strength, yet she's very strong. She knows what she wants, and when she says something, you know she's done the research to support her ideas."

Carvajal laughs as she adds one more thought: "It's great for us women."

Unsolicited Praise From Her Clients

Without being asked, Levin's clients gush about how she understands them better than they'd imagined. How she took their rough ideas further than they could have hoped.

At the Mercado La Paloma, a $2-million project that transformed a former sweatshop near Exposition Park into a neighborhood marketplace run by the nonprofit Esperanza Community Housing Corp., a market manager interrupts Levin to say how happy everyone has been since the place opened in early spring. At the Johnson Student Center, which she built as an addition to a historic Myron Hunt building at Occidental College, a bookstore manager grills her on what she's doing next. People see Levin as a friend, a colleague and, to a large extent, an alchemist.

James Astman, headmaster of Oakwood School, worked with Levin on the school's math and science center, completed in 1994, and then a music, dance and athletic center, finished two years ago. At the time, Levin's son was a student at the school, and she said he agonized over the intrusion of his mother's work. And so, said Astman, did many of the other students.

"Children are fundamentally very conservative, despite what they think," he said with a laugh. The two large structures represented a departure for the school, which is known for its funky small-scale buildings and close relations between faculty and students.

"We gave her an impossible task," Astman said. "We asked her to build something large in scale that still embodies the sense of familiarity and community of a school in which ethos and scale are critically important. I think she solved the challenges brilliantly."

There's the tendency, said Levin, "when you go to architecture school, to think that design is the most important element. And everybody wants be a designer. I was no different." Her work on the preservation and adaptive reuse projects, however, taught her that she needed to master more than design to be good. "I really needed to understand all the aspects of drafting, construction and context before I could become a very good designer. And because my designs have evolved from that process, I am less interested in doing pieces of architecture that stand alone on a piece of property--the isolated sculptural piece of architecture."

Building an Early Interest in Urban Landscapes

Levin grew up in Teaneck, N.J., a middle-class suburb just across the Hudson River from Manhattan. Her mother was a homemaker and her father a real estate agent, and both were active in the community. Levin remembers falling in love with construction sites as a girl while tromping around after her dad, looking at all the new developments sprouting up in the neighborhood. She also remembers going into the city for every special occasion, loving the urban life and falling in love with the pageantry of places like Radio City Music Hall, memories that would greatly influence her work on buildings such as the Wiltern.

She studied design and painting at Carnegie Mellon University and graduated from New York University in 1968 with a degree in graphic design. After teaching art for a while, then working as a graphic designer, Levin enrolled at Harvard University's Graduate School of Design and earned her architecture degree in 1976.

Harvard imbued her with a strong sense of history, particularly Modernist architectural history, but when she and Abel moved to Southern California, Levin landed a job with L.A. visionary John Lautner after a friend showed her his work on a tour of local landmarks.

"I knocked on John's door, literally, that was all I did, and said 'I just graduated from architecture school and I want to work for you.' He said, 'Sure, kid, five bucks an hour if you can build me a model.' "

Lautner's work was nothing like what she'd known on the East Coast. "It was an unbelievable leap," Levin said. With him, she worked on Bob Hope's famous "flying saucer kind of house" in Palm Springs, which had been damaged in a fire.

Levin spent about 18 months with Lautner, then launched her own business, doing kitchen remodels and other small work. It was lonely, she said, so she went to work for Group Arcon, a firm specializing in commercial and industrial projects. While there, L.A. developer Wayne Ratkovich commissioned the firm to rehabilitate the Oviatt Building.

"We started the project in the late '70s, and we were venturing into territory that was virtually unknown in L.A.," Levin says. There was no L.A. Conservancy, no love for older architecture. And the building codes were for new buildings, not old ones. Levin was hardly experienced and knew nothing about preservation work. She made it up as she went.

"It wasn't a sexy project," she says now with a laugh. "Whether they gave it to the 'woman' or they gave it to the 'person who came from Boston and might have some historic sense,' or I just happened to be free . . . whatever, they gave it to me."

Ratkovich laughed when asked if he felt he was taking a risk in getting Levin to do the job. "I'm not sure I really thought about it," he said. "Brenda came from an environment that prized historic architecture, but we were all early in our careers and we were embarking on an adventure, trying to do something exciting."

Ratkovich said the choice of architect was not quite as easy for Mauro Vincenti, the late restaurateur who helped introduce contemporary Italian cooking to Los Angeles with Rex il Ristorante, the now-defunct eatery he built in a former men's haberdashery on the ground floor of the Oviatt. "He was a wild Italian with very strong views as to what could and couldn't be done," Ratkovich remembered. "It was very important to him that our architect would measure up. And she did."

Levin left Arcon in 1980 to start her own firm, even as she was building her own house and had a new baby. She juggled, and one job led to another. Ratkovich hired her again to work on the 1931 theater and office building then known as the Pellissier Building. The lavish Art Deco movie palace had fallen into decay and was going to be demolished by Franklin Life Insurance Co. until protests by preservationists saved it. Ratkovich and Levin's make-over became the Wiltern, still Levin's favorite project. A hand-colored and collaged blueprint of the building hangs in the front hall of her home.

Levin received recognition for her work with Yellin on the ornate Bradbury, and across the street, Grand Central Square. The latter is a multipurpose complex that includes the famous 1917 market, as well as a conversion of two adjacent buildings into housing and the addition of a new parking structure.

And as the big projects progress, Levin has made a point of taking on small, less profitable ones too, just because she cares about them. She's worked on the Downtown Women's Center Residence and Day Center, a place for homeless women; the Adams Congress Apartments in an area of town hard-hit by the 1992 riots; the community center and food court at Mercado La Paloma; and now the Echo Park Senior Apartments for the Menorah Housing Foundation.

"Each of these projects is an extraordinary opportunity to affect the life of the city, some on a large civic scale and others in a more personal way," Levin said. "Being able to impact the economically disenfranchised, those seeking parity in the world, is as important as the civic projects. It's about repairing the world--and both types of work feed each other."

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