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Building a Name for Herself

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

At 10 a.m. on a brisk winter morning, an hour after packing her two kids off to preschool and the baby-sitter, architect Barbara Bestor is on an Echo Park job site, multi-tasking with a vengeance. She inspects a painter’s touch-ups. She fields questions from a reporter. She juggles phone calls with the finesse of a Hollywood producer. One client wants to discuss her ideas for his Los Angeles sneaker store. Another wants to fly her to Northern California where she’s designing his weekend retreat.

Pretty heady stuff for someone who’s been in town all of one week. “It’s weird,” says Bestor, who has returned to L.A. after living in Rhode Island for eight months. “It’s like you go away, and people want you more.”

At 35, Bestor is in the small vanguard of female architects striving to succeed on their own terms. The old stereotype that put men in charge of architecture and relegated women to interior design is dead. Yet the vast majority of Bestor’s female peers still labor in obscurity at male-dominated practices, stake their claims in academia or forsake the profession altogether. “There are very few women with their own practices, the reason being that many choose not to deal with the incredible demands,” says architect Robert Mangurian of Studio Works, who was director of the graduate program when Bestor attended the Southern California Institute of Architecture. “In grad school, the ratio of men to women is about 60-40, where women do as good as men, sometimes better. But out in the field, it’s hard. Architects don’t bill like lawyers. And some people opt to have families.” He added that there’s enormous discrimination on the part of clients, who tend to hire older men.

As head of her own architectural firm, Bestor is a rare exception. Less than 10 years out of school, she already has seen two single-family houses built, not to mention about 60 home renovations/additions and commercial projects, including the trendy clothing stores Union on La Brea Avenue and X-Large in New York City and Tokyo.

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Now that she’s reestablishing her L.A. office, she’s eager to resume work as a California Modernist, following in the tradition of the 1950s Case Study architects but pushing the envelope in terms of a building’s transparency and the use of mass-produced materials.

“I like to build out of things that aren’t pretending to be something else,” she explains. “I like to let the rawness of how things are built hang out, to show traces of all the different tradesmen who worked on them. To me, building is a collaborative process, not just a piece of real estate for sale at the end.”

Bestor’s clients share her enthusiasm for experimentation, but most are involved in the arts and can’t afford elaborate, price-is-no-object architecture. “Right now, the aesthetics and budgets of my projects are pretty much conjoined,” she says, chuckling. “But I don’t know that I’d want to clad a whole building in marble anyway.”

Her knack for producing what she calls high design at low cost may be her strength.

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“Sure, when you look at Frank Gehry, who works on a large scope on projects with multimillion-dollar budgets, things are probably going to turn out great,” says architect Dagmar Richter, an associate professor of architecture and urban design at UCLA. “But Barbara is capable of taking a limited budget and getting a lot more out of it for the money.”

As Bestor conducts an on-site tour, it’s easy to imagine her as the bookish Cambridge, Mass., girl who decided to become an architect. She prowls around in a black zip-front jacket, black cropped pants and black woven Nike slip-ons, but shaggy blond bangs undermine the tidy ensemble. When her hair falls into her eyes, she could easily pass for a student at least a decade younger.

“When I was 12, I used to baby-sit for a lot of architects, and I remember their homes and libraries being different,” says Bestor, the first of two daughters born to an anthropologist father and college administrator mother with a taste for Danish Modern. “It was the first time I realized you could control your environment and that your environment could be a form of self-expression.”

Following that epiphany, Bestor changed her bedroom to reflect her preference for Marimekko linens and Joe Colombo stacking storage units. In high school, she signed up for drafting classes and interned at Cambridge Seven Associates, a prominent architectural firm. As a student at Harvard University, she took lots of art and film classes because the school has no undergraduate architecture program. She continued to indulge her architectural curiosity whenever she could, but finding inspiration wasn’t easy. “It was the ‘80s, and there were no architects that I liked,” she says. “I hated the postmodernists because of their conservatism. I wasn’t interested in neoclassicism.” She soon became a fan of Toyo Ito and other avant-garde Japanese architects.

During her junior year abroad, Bestor immersed herself in radical theory at London’s prestigious Architectural Association School of Architecture, where design powerhouses such as Rem Koolhaas and Zaha Hadid taught and fostered lively debate. She returned to Harvard inspired but increasingly troubled by the lack of role models.

“All my heroes were men,” she says of Alvar Aalto, R.M. Schindler and early Frank Gehry. “There were no women, except for Zaha Hadid. The women I knew about were usually teachers who were the girlfriends of architects. I wanted to make buildings, not just think about them.”

After earning her degree, Bestor moved to the West Coast and enrolled at Sci-Arc in 1988. As she recalls: “L.A. was becoming known for people like Gehry, Eric Owen Moss and Thom Mayne at Morphosis doing interesting work, and Sci-Arc was known for being the radical hotbed of architecture schools. It’s where I wanted to be.”

Here, Bestor finally found a role model in Richter, who balanced a practice with teaching and raising a family. “At the time, I had four women students who were all quite talented, but Barbara was detail-oriented, highly educated and very mature and the only one of the bunch who could combine the intellectual part with the design ability,” says Richter, who served as Bestor’s thesis advisor.

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At Sci-Arc, Bestor explored domestic and industrial buildings in an urban context and came to appreciate her field’s wide-ranging potential. “I love architecture because you can live with it. It’s not some installation in a gallery,” she says. “Our relationship with it is so complicated. On the one hand, it’s a form of art with amazing history and experiential qualities. But it’s also a part of our daily life that can influence the people living or working there.”

After graduating in 1992, Bestor opened her office and began designing small residential, retail and music industry projects. She married architect Adam Silverman, who helped launch the X-Large fashion company. They had two children, Beatrice and Charlotte, now 3 years old and 22 months. Last year, the couple moved to Rhode Island, where Silverman worked as a potter and Bestor taught at Harvard, but they have since separated.

During the early days of her practice, Bestor teamed with architect Norman Millar on joint ventures that included a house in Pacific Palisades and the Actors’ Gang theater in Hollywood. “Barbara didn’t have the connections some people do,” says Millar, chair of the department of architecture at Woodbury University in Burbank. “She’s been able to meet people on her own and establish relationships and earn their trust. She’s a good collaborator and a good leader.”

More recently, she produced two houses by herself that have more in common with the cheap chic of Dwell magazine than the opulent ostentation of Architectural Digest. Both were built for roughly $110 per square foot, about half the cost of a residential project designed by a big-name architect. Still, Bestor was able to make them feel sensuous and smart.

When teacher Chuck Collings and artist Tine Haurum hired Bestor to design a cliff-top Mount Washington home for them and their son, they asked for a large, loft-like space that would take advantage of a view of the L.A. skyline. They also wanted a place for their books and a guest room that could double as a studio.

Bestor came up with a rectangular box whose sides are covered in inexpensive painted cement board. The city view at the rear of the house is visible from the front door through the long central hall. Windows and glass doors, plus a cantilevered deck, merge inside and outside. A built-in bookcase of sanded and clear-coated medium-density fiberboard provides plenty of storage. And to keep the interiors as open as possible, curtains hung from hospital tracks in the ceilings act as closet doors and room dividers. “It’s the best use of space. It’s only 1,400 square feet but feels like so much more,” Collings says. “And we love the integrity of the materials. So many people cover them up. We like that she didn’t veneer everything.”

Bestor’s clients in Echo Park, another artist and her filmmaker husband and daughter, needed their hillside house to provide living space as well as a studio and office. Bestor again employed modest materials--cement board left unpainted this time, plywood paneling and exposed concrete--but she took the concept of a see-through house a step further.

For the three-story, 1,650-square-foot building, a two-car garage can also function as living room, studio or gallery, depending on how rolling walls connect it with or close it off from other rooms. Upstairs in the sleeping quarters, more rolling walls create communal space or privacy as needed. And inexpensive storefront windows and doors not only frame garden scenes but also reveal construction elements such as wood studs, batt insulation and floor joists that are typically hidden from view.

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As soon as Bestor puts the finishing touches on this house, which she has sublet for her family to live in while her clients are out of the country, she hopes to renovate and move into a house she’s buying nearby. The building stands half-demolished, but the prospect of turning it into her dream home/personal design laboratory clearly excites her: “It’ll be really great because I can punch holes in the walls with impunity and try out all sorts of unusual stuff.

“Maybe,” she says, tongue not entirely in cheek, “it’ll be a simple shell with a skin of something strange, like one-way mirrored glass.”


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