Design genius at play

Special to The Times

Using no tools other than his hands, architect and furniture designer Gregg Fleishman needs only 29 minutes to transform 101 puzzle-like pieces of Finland birch into one of his Cluster Structures, probably the most sophisticated playhouse ever devised. "You need opposable thumbs to do this," announces Fleishman, "and you have to be at least as intelligent as a chimpanzee."

Make that the kind of chimpanzee that can pound out "Romeo and Juliet" the first time it sits in front of a typewriter. Fleishman is a man who monkeys around with mathematics to create chairs and tables and futuristic buildings that are unimaginable to most of us.

In the sometimes puffed-up world of architecture, where "genius" is an overused word, Fleishman is the real deal. In the last 30 years, he has spent his own money and time re-imagining the process of design and building, following his flights of creativity yet remaining undeservedly under the radar. If his studious manner, spectacles, ever-present baseball cap and fluency in the language of mathematics don't make that immediately clear, his modest lifestyle and low profile certainly do.

For the students of Play Mountain Place, a humanistic alternative school founded by Fleishman's mother in 1949, it doesn't matter whether he is in Western Interiors magazine. He's just a cool, overgrown kid -- Bill Nye the Science Guy meets Bob the Builder -- who makes neat playhouses.

Fleishman was one of the early students in his mother's Culver City school and, since 1972, has used the playground and its inhabitants to test his experimental designs. His latest Cluster Structure may be a fun place for these primary schoolers to hang, but it is also an object lesson in three-dimensional geometry. More important, it is a scale version of the architecture Fleishman one day hopes to popularize.

Although he has yet to apply his design principles to a full-scale building, Fleishman is a rarity in the commercial enterprise of architecture. A theoretician with a social conscience, he creates designs that are a blueprint for prefabricated, low-cost housing, which looks more utopian than utilitarian. "My goal is to create affordable housing worldwide," Fleishman declares.

Fleishman explains his design in the closest approximation of lay language he can muster. The Cluster, he says, is an arrangement of solid wood panels joined at the corners to create open spaces "like a 3-D checkerboard." Each module can be repeated and joined together infinitely, hence the term Cluster, which provides customizing options limited only by one's imagination.

Watching the gang of 6- and 7-year-olds from Play Mountain clamber through the Cluster playhouse, Fleishman also notes that it has an engineering integrity similar to the Egyptian pyramids. "The kids are far more destructive to it than any earthquake could be," says the 56-year-old architect.

"Gregg is a structural genius," says David Wilson, the director of Los Angeles' Museum of Jurassic Technology, who furnished the museum's tearoom with Fleishman's elaborate router-cut furniture. "Everything he designs works aesthetically and with an unusually pure marriage of form and function."

Like Russell Crowe in the 2001 film about a genius mathematician, Gregg Fleishman has a beautiful mind. Rather than build things from pieces, he deconstructs solid forms into parts that can be configured into innovative shapes and spaces. As a furniture designer, he can cut a simple sheet of plywood into an intricate pattern of curves and coils that allows the wood to be folded into a lounge chair with a springy seat. Fleishman's architecture is even more ambitious, and the Cluster is a demonstration model for his larger humanitarian vision.

"Gregg is pursuing a direction that has not quite fully revealed itself just yet," observes Abby Sher, developer of the Edgemar complex in Santa Monica, who in 1992 commissioned Fleishman to design umbrellas that complement the Frank Gehry structure. "He likes coming up with his own puzzles, just so he can solve them."

Fleishman's dilemma has always been figuring out how to take his designs from drawing board to construction site. After studying architecture at USC under building science professor Konrad Wachsman, Fleishman started his career working on concrete office buildings and parking structures, including the whimsical Raleigh Studios lot with a corkscrew parking ramp.

When the concrete building industry declined in the '80s, Fleishman was well underway in a new career. He had begun experimenting with the plywood he was using for concrete molds as a material for building furniture. Thirty-three prototypes later, he had completed Lumberest, a chair that boasted a flexible back cut into a shape resembling a human spine. By 1985, Fleishman had begun exhibiting the sculptural furniture in West Hollywood and Santa Monica galleries devoted to functional art. As much works of sculpture as comfortable pieces of furniture, Fleishman's chairs and tables reference influences as diverse as Greek key patterns, Chinese fretwork and boxy Bauhaus forms.

Even while he enjoyed a period of recognition as a gallery artist, Fleishman remained consumed by the potential of geometric architecture, erecting his first project-- a domed structure -- at Play Mountain Place in 1972. Though he admired Buckminster Fuller as a pioneer, Fleishman considered Fuller's famous geodesic domes to be all glory, no guts because "he never really applied his principles to building a house." The problem with Fuller's dome -- a puzzle that Fleishman grappled with for 20 years -- was that there was no way to add wings or rooms without corrupting the dome's perfect symmetry.

The solution arrived rather unexpectedly 10 years ago. Fleishman was building a dollhouse with a group of 10-year-old girls from Play Mountain and realized that the 26-face geometrical form he was working with could fit perfectly with clones of itself. Thus, in a dollhouse, the Cluster was born.

Around that time Fleishman bought a building at Washington Boulevard and Main Street in Culver City. He installed a workshop, made the front a gallery for his furniture and scale models of concept buildings. The store windows, he decided, "would be my calling card to the world."

It was a good call. Though the world has not yet swamped Fleishman's switchboard, the building's prime location in booming Culver City has increased its value, allowing Fleishman to borrow the money to continue his work. "I continuously have to justify myself to people for operating this way," says Fleishman. "The benefit is that in the long run I will end up with a portfolio of designs that is unparalleled.

"If I could make a judgment," he adds with uncharacteristic impetuousness. "You'd have to look back to Leonardo or Michelangelo to find this kind of output over time, and they were fully funded by patrons. If I can do that too, why not go for it?"

Fleishman is going for it in other ways as well. Faced with the possibility that "I will run out of money at some point," he has had to consider how to balance art and commerce.

In the past, manufacturers have shown interest in his furniture designs, but despite technological advances, they still require more materials and production time. "They will never be inexpensive," Fleishman admits.

Similarly, his architectural concepts could lower construction costs in a large housing tract, but building one Fleishman home would be just as expensive as a traditional model. "It's hard for me to go out and sell it, because it's taken me this long to figure out how to explain it," he says.

Toward that end, Fleishman has hit upon something that may make popularizing his work simpler. He is now offering his Cluster play structures for sale -- $2,400 per 5-foot-wide module, available from Fleishman's studio, (310) 202-6108, or at www.greggfleishman.com -- to schools, homeowners with backyards, even apartment-dwelling Zen adepts who want a portable -- and very groovy -- meditation chamber.

And Fleishman recently joined forces with Traffic Works, a Los Angeles manufacturer and distributor of educational toys and gift items for museum stores, to produce sets of building blocks that illustrate his principles.

Like many who have become intrigued with Fleishman, Traffic Works' Steve Josephson had driven by Gregg's window for a few years and admired his work. "Finally, I just went in and started talking to him."

The result, after a year in development, is that Josephson's company recently launched three Gregg Fleishman Cluster Structures: the 43-piece Tower Pak and the 26-piece Rhombicube Pak retail at $20, the 50-piece Plato Pak at $25, available from Traffic Works (323) 582-0616. Made of colorful translucent die-cut polypropylene pieces that can be assembled in countless ways, they are educational toys for kids and pieces of mod tabletop or hanging sculpture for adults.

It is fitting that Fleishman, the product of a progressive California child- directed education, may find commercial validation designing educational playthings for kids. A new generation growing up with Fleishman's Clusters may even intuitively understand and embrace the architect's progressive designs. Not that he worries about it. "Gregg is committed to developing new ideas," says Josephson. "He works so hard on his projects that he hasn't taken time to market himself."

This, perhaps, is the most difficult puzzle Fleishman will have to solve -- how to bring his ideas to the market in order to bankroll his groundbreaking architecture and design. Driven by a ceaseless creativity that propels him to new problems and ingenious solutions, he is always in pursuit of the elusive perfection that pure mathematics and geometry promise. "I am trying as hard as I can," Fleishman says of his life's work, "but this project is bigger than I thought."

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