Not long ago, architects Hank Koning and Julie Eizenberg won two national design competitions within four months for bold, edgy buildings that defy classification. Their expansion of the Pittsburgh Children’s Museum connects two beloved old stone buildings with a structure whose pleated white plastic exterior is lit from within, like a nightlight. Their Chicago elementary school design uses glass to make kids inside feel like they’re playing outdoors. These two projects, Koning Eizenberg Architecture’s first outside the Los Angeles area, illustrate how this married Australian-born couple has used an outsider’s ability to question convention in order to create innovative design. Koning, 48, and Eizenberg, 47, share a subversive sense of humor, an easy confidence and a penchant for black clothing. Despite the fact that their work has been mostly on their home turf, their 20-year-old firm has established a national reputation for designing affordable projects with a social conscience.
“They’re especially attuned to how air and light move through a structure,” said L.A. Architect editor Laura Hull. “They use a lot of really large sliding doors that act as walls, and transform a space from inside to outside.”
Considering the firm’s reputation for unusual design and sliding glass, it might seem an odd choice for restoring and expanding L.A.'s historic Farmers Market at the corner of Fairfax Avenue and 3rd Street, the funky, wood-sided structure that sells everything from produce and meats to doughnuts and fine French cafe fare, toys, candles and stationery. It is a landmark meeting place, founded in 1934, that has always been beloved by locals and has become a magnet for tourists.
The market’s $45-million, 170,000-square-foot expansion, scheduled for a March 14 unveiling, marks the firm’s largest commission to date, with four new buildings that will extend the existing retail space and prevent it from being visually overshadowed by the Grove, a huge retail mall being built next door and scheduled to open the same day. Koning Eizenberg also designed a second clock tower for the complex to anchor a new pedestrian plaza connecting the old and the new shopping areas.
The firm’s work on the Farmers Market is the outgrowth of a series of small mending and restoration projects that Koning and Eizenberg have done at the market during the last two decades, many of them the kind of forgettable but crucial paying work that can keep an architecture firm afloat during lean years. “We did tons of little things that our architect friends would think were crazy, because there was no architecture in it,” said Eizenberg. “It was fabulous, because we could never have sustained a practice without that kind of regular patronage.”
Hank Hilty, great-grandson of Farmers Market founder A.F. Gilmore and president and chief executive of the A.F. Gilmore Co., which owns the market, makes no claims of being an architecture critic or patron, but he says he quickly trusted the couple when he met them, just after they’d completed their graduate work in architecture at UCLA. He liked the fact that his family’s market reminded them of the Victoria Market in their native Melbourne.
“They have a very keen awareness and affinity for the style and the manner of the market,” says Hilty, who has sandy hair and glasses. “From very early on, we used them as a firm that we would take plans to and use them as a touchstone, the owner’s architectural consultant.”
The architects liked that the market represents the smaller, intimate scale of regular people’s everyday lives. It is the kind of scale that appeals to them. “We do schools, we do gymnasiums, we do community centers and we do children’s museums. We do retail. It’s not to become an expert in a building type, because I’m always leery of experts, but to provide for living on a daily basis,” Eizenberg said. Along these lines, they have designed PS No. 1 Elementary School in Santa Monica, the Sepulveda Recreation Center in the San Fernando Valley and the Signal Hill Golf Center, each of which is distinguished by a playful use of strong colors in simple, straight-forward designs.
Couple Felt Like Outsiders
in Their Own Culture
Koning and Eizenberg met when they both were 18, on their first day of architecture school at the university in Melbourne. She was raised in an Orthodox Jewish family, and he was the son of Dutch immigrants; both felt like outsiders in their own culture. When they were accepted to UCLA in 1979, they married and moved to America. Their first commission after graduation fell through, but, with a characteristically avid jump-in-feet-first enthusiasm, they started their own firm anyway.
“We said, ‘Well, we’ve already bought the pencils, so we should hustle for work.’ And we did,” Koning said. “Then we got involved with doing affordable housing. That was at a time when architects weren’t particularly interested in affordable housing, because they didn’t see it as an opportunity for design. We were fortunate enough to get a number of awards for these small projects, and that really helped us get credibility.” Among their honors was the Progressive Architecture First award, which they won in 1987 for their Berkeley Street Housing project in Santa Monica.
Eizenberg became the front person; Koning’s job is to make sure their designs are implemented properly. Drawing side-by-side at a table, as they still do, they have designed private homes and nonprofit housing projects. Koning got his contractor’s license so they could make extra money by building their own projects.
They sought out and used inexpensive and environmentally friendly materials to save money, and gained a reputation for how they used textures. Their Santa Monica office is floored with the particleboard that most contractors use as subflooring, and its skylights look like industrial lamps but use only natural sunlight.
In the early 1980s, they met Hilty while working on a community project to upgrade the Fairfax district, and Hilty asked them to make some minor improvements to the Farmers Market. Since then, they’ve also added a patio facing 3rd Street that serves market eateries like Kokomo’s and Starbucks. They also designed the new Johnny Rocket’s that faces Fairfax, and restored the 1950s-era Gilmore Bank building, which was later demolished to make room for new development. They’ve done such mundane work as adding heat lamps and removing old ceiling tile.
The market work came in bit by bit, even as their style evolved, combining bold colors and shapes with spare ornamentation. Among notable projects is the 1989 Santa Monica home they designed and built for themselves and where they live with their two sons, 16 and 12. It’s a narrow three-story structure with glass doors that open onto a surrounding garden. The house sits back from the street in a nest of sycamore and eucalyptus trees, and because vines cover most of the facade, all that’s visible from the street is a row of third-story windows peeking over the foliage.
In 1994, they won a national American Institute of Architects award for the Simone Hotel, L.A.'s first new single-room-occupancy hotel on skid row in 30 years. This boxy, five-story yellow building has a curved parapet that adds an unexpected cheerfulness. “They’re extremely well-respected in Los Angeles,” said L.A. Architect’s Hull. “They’re very calm, levelheaded, grounded people. You do feel a sense that everything’s going to be taken care of with them.”
When Hilty decided to redevelop his 31-acre plot, he looked to Koning and Eizenberg again. For the Grove, he leased 20 acres of the land to a developer, Caruso Affiliated Holdings, which is building an adjacent 640,000-square-foot shopping mall--housing the likes of Nordstrom, the Gap and Banana Republic--designed by Caruso’s staff architect, Dave Williams. At the same time, Hilty asked Koning and Eizenberg to expand the original Farmers Market, which occupies just 50,000 square feet, so that the behemoth mall wouldn’t overshadow it.
“The market needs to continue to be part of whatever happens on this property. It is the anchor and the cornerstone,” Hilty said recently.
The result is a series of retail buildings between the Farmers Market and the Grove, as well as a three-story office and retail structure that defines the rear perimeter of the market property. Because surface parking is such a prized feature of the market, Koning Eizenberg also reorganized the lots so that shoppers could pull their traditional green, wooden grocery baskets straight to their cars without hitting a curb. They worked with Caruso in choosing landscaping, lighting, signage and paving materials to wed the two projects, and helped design a trolley to shuttle shoppers between them.
“Our directive was to look after the interests of the Farmers Market and make sure that through this process, the market would stay healthy,” Koning said.
Koning and Eizenberg’s first three buildings form an evolutionary progression from 3rd Street into the parking lot and through to the rear of the property. The two-story building closest to 3rd Street is very similar in style to the existing market, with a green shingle roof and wood siding. The high-end culinary retailer Sur La Table will occupy that space, beginning in March. The second structure, which will house Bath and Body Works, is somewhat bolder--a two-story glass box with a maroon steel-beam frame.
The third and largest of their buildings has a white, Teflon-coated fabric roof designed to look like a tablecloth. Cost Plus World Market, the discount household retailer, will be one of its tenants. Koning Eizenberg’s vision was that all of the retailers should relate to food and home. The notion of the tablecloth evolved from a colleague’s reminiscence of his Italian aunt throwing her tablecloth over a balcony railing to shake out the crumbs.
“It’s going to be tied back to the building, so it has this billowy nature as it moves around the building,” Hilty said. “It’ll be as white as a sheet of paper.” Eizenberg described the roof as an intentional risk: “We needed something with enough wow to contend with the strong invented architecture that was across the road [at the Grove]. This was one way of doing it. We’re hoping to illuminate it at night so that it can be kind of a beacon.”
The fourth building, at the back of the property, is three stories high, with cement siding designed to evoke the original market’s clapboards. It will house small retailers, such as dry cleaners and beauty salons on the first floor and office space on the second and third floors.
At the Grove, architect Williams worked with each business to design individual facades; by contrast, he sees the Farmers Market expansion as a vivid representation of the Koning Eizenberg style.
“Many people around town will be able to look at it and say that’s Koning Eizenberg. It’s very much an embodiment of their work. They are,” he said, “true to themselves.”