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A Window on Their Collaborative World

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

This month’s opening of the 90,000-square-foot UC Riverside Arts Building is a milestone for several architects, for different reasons. For the late Frank Israel, the original designer who died in 1996, the building is both a farewell and a memorial to a creative career cut short. For architect Annie Chu, the building’s original project architect in Israel’s office who currently serves in the same role on a redesign of the crescent-shaped structure, it may be a breakthrough for her husband-and-wife partnership with Rick Gooding in their quest for large-scale design work.

Five years after the two started their own firm, the profile of Chu & Gooding Architects is steadily rising in a city already awash in good architects. The firm has completed a small but notable body of work, including two houses in Santa Monica, a remodel of a Beverly Hills house by Modernist master Harwell Harris, and, most publicly, the installation of the R.M. Schindler exhibition currently at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

Both architects are graduates of Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc) and apprenticed with a group of notable architects in Los Angeles and New York, including Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, and Gooding has also worked with Richard Meier. Although their projects do not display an obvious signature style, their designs are often characterized by a few decisive gestures and a delight in making elegant use of unlikely materials, such as carpet underlay or fiberboard.

“Their work shows a responsiveness to materials and a poetic edge,” said Patricia Oliver, chair of the Department of Environmental Design at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, who briefly employed the couple as designers in the 1980s.

In conversation, Chu and Gooding talk about design as a process of simplification. At the UC Riverside building--where Chu is collaborating with the firms Israel Callas Shortridge and Fields Devereaux Architects and Engineers--five academic disciplines will coexist under a single roof. Chu sees a landscape metaphor in the building’s form, which she likened to a canyon spanned by bridges. “Riverside asks, what is building and what is landscape? Can we blur the edges?”

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Collaboration with clients--as well as with artists and other architects--is familiar ground to Chu and Gooding. Their willingness to combine the client’s vision with their own--to make the client’s wishes part of the DNA of the design rather than treat them as an afterthought--allows the architects to create buildings that are accommodating without seeming compromised.

This collaborative approach “separates their work either from being purely a stylistic exercise, on one hand, or purely pragmatic, on the other,” Oliver said.

A good example can be found in the Santa Monica home that Chu and Gooding designed for photographer Annie Gabbert and her husband, sound mixer Jesse Peck. “I knew [Chu] was listening to me and heard what my needs were and what my desires were for a house,” Gabbert said. The couple had requested “access to natural light” for every space in the 1,500-square-foot house, including the upstairs. In response, the architects made the Gabbert-Peck house into a study of continuous, wall-free spaces that are open to light, of which the most dramatic is a tall, glass-lined living room.

Chu and Gooding view their work as part of a tradition of Los Angeles architects that includes Frank Lloyd Wright and continues through the likes of Schindler and Harris. “We see ourselves as part of a lineage,” Chu said. In adapting and restoring the former English Residence, a 1949 house designed by Harris and currently owned by New Line Cinema’s president of production, Toby Emmerich, the architects found balance between respect for history and the needs of a living client.

Chu and Gooding showed the depth of their commitment to the Modernist tradition when Beverly Hills city officials required that the architects raise the height of the hallways in the English Residence from 6 feet, 9 inches to 7 feet, as required by current building code. The couple sought and obtained a letter from architect Frank Gehry, among others, attesting to the importance of maintaining the original dimensions of the historic house.

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Tall, fair-haired and prone to big gestures Gooding seems the opposite of Chu, who is short, soft-featured and almost serenely self-contained. Their paths to architecture were also different. Gooding was born in San Diego and says he wanted to be an architect from age 7. He met Chu when both were undergraduates at SCI-Arc. Chu, born in Hong Kong, came to California in the early 1980s for premed studies at Loma Linda College but found herself slowly drawn toward design courses. Initially fearful of contradicting her family’s wishes, Chu nevertheless showed an independent streak that remains a key to her character.

The pair married shortly after graduation in 1984 and then left for New York, which they viewed as the center of the architectural world. They spent the remainder of the 1980s working for Williams and Tsien--another of architecture’s many husband-and-wife teams--while earning masters degrees, at different times, at Columbia University School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation.

By 1990, instead of taking a larger role with Tsien and Williams’ fast-growing firm, Chu and Gooding decided to return to Los Angeles, where they believed attitudes toward design were more open and more opportunities to build would be offered them.

Caught in the recession that began that year, Gooding went to work for Meier, architect of the Getty Center, and spent much of his time working on the Getty’s Research Institute building. Chu started a six-year association with Israel, whose career of creating moody and sculptural designs, primarily for houses, ended prematurely five years ago when he died at 50 from complications from AIDS, just after a major retrospective of his work closed at the Museum of Contemporary Art. She briefly was a name partner in Israel’s firm and acted as project designer on a number of his best-known projects, including a pavilion for politician Michael Woo and Susan Fong’s residence in Los Angeles, the Drager residence in Berkeley and the Arts Building at UC Riverside.

Israel was unusual for his openness to the ideas of fellow architects, according to Chu, who also appears comfortable with collaboration. “The great thing about Frank was he always allowed people to brings things [into his designs] and accepted those ideas wholeheartedly,” she said.

But in yet another show of independence, she left the Israel firm in 1996 to start a new firm with her husband, with offices at the Brewery, the rehabbed industrial complex-turned-arts colony in downtown L.A. The couple has worked out their own method for collaborating without conflict. “One or the other of us is the principal designer for a particular job,” Gooding said. Added Chu: “We collaborate in the very beginning of the process--when the project has not yet taken form--and in the very end, when [the discussion] is about small details, not about what form the project should take.” In the middle of the design process, however, “we don’t talk,” she said.

Designing the Schindler show had personal meaning for the architects, who are longtime admirers of the Austrian-born master. “I appreciate that he was not afraid to change,” Gooding said. “It seems [Schindler] would go through different styles every 10 years or so.”

Schindler, said Chu, approached each project as fresh architectural challenge. In their own work, the couple have attempted to do the same.

“With Schindler, each project is an exploration with an individual client, and I think that applies to Annie and Rick’s work, as well,” said Joy Chen, a client for whom the couple designed a downtown apartment interior bedecked in rare fabrics from Los Angeles’ garment district.

“I once asked Annie why a project [on the Westside] was so different from my apartment,” Chen said.

“Of course it is,” Chu replied. “You are very different from those clients.”


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