Exhibition Review: Architect Stephen Kanner, a quiet cosmopolitan

Los Angeles Times Architecture Critic

Stephen Kanner, who died earlier this year of pancreatic cancer at age 54, was something of an outlier among architects of his generation for the sheer volume and range of his output. The son and grandson of Los Angeles architects, Kanner moved with near-inevitability into the family business and in his 30s was designing the kinds of projects that most architects these days don’t land until they are nearing 60 — or even 70. With his colleagues in Kanner Architects, which he began running in his early 40s after the 1998 death of his father, he produced expansive private houses, condominium projects, courthouses, guest cottages, rec centers, affordable-housing developments, retail outlets and even a gas station.

How and why the gas station, designed for United Oil at the corner of La Brea and Slauson avenues, , turned out to be one of Kanner’s best-known and well-liked designs is among many fascinating threads running through a richly layered exhibition of his work at the Architecture and Design Museum until Jan. 16. With a dipping, curving, swooping roof meant to suggest a stacked freeway interchange, the station is a celebration of the car, the highway and the dream of free-flowing mobility, with exuberant and oversized signage to match. Like another of Kanner’s best-known projects, a 1997 branch of the In-N-Out burger chain in Westwood, it borrows liberally from billboard culture and Pop Art.

And yet what the show — impeccably organized by Kanner Architects’ Lincoln Tobier, Reuben Herzl and Danielle Cornwell, drawing from the firm’s deep archives — makes clear is that the gas station and the burger joint are themselves outliers. They are anomalies in the portfolio of an architect who (quite accurately) described himself as a “restrained modernist” and for the most part produced buildings that were straightforward and civic-minded in the great L.A. tradition of William Pereira, Welton Becket and Albert C. Martin — not to mention of his father Charles Kanner and grandfather I. Herman Kanner.


Los Angeles has always had too few of these buildings, designs that are well-crafted, even quietly cosmopolitan, yet happy to exist outside the architectural spotlight. And it has had too few architects adept at producing them. Kanner will be missed for a number of reasons — he was a friend, confidante or tennis partner to architects including Richard Meier, Ray Kappe and Steven Ehrlich — but at least in part because he was a throwback to an era when architects were more consistently able to infuse mid-sized civic and commercial projects on L.A.'s boulevards with real presence and character.

Everywhere you turn in the show you find yourself looking at one of these buildings. There is the Sunset Vine tower, a commercial skyscraper that Kanner wrapped in a new glass skin and reinvented as a residential tower. There is 26th Street Affordable Housing in Santa Monica, a building whose western elevation, in particular, recalls Richard Neutra. Outside of L.A., Kanner’s design for a Puma store in Chicago — one of more than 100 his firm produced for the shoe company — has a classically modernist, even subtly cubist composition on its narrow facade.

Still, any architect craves variety and the occasional departure from what’s expected of him by clients and the public — and perhaps by himself — and Kanner was no different. Indeed, perhaps because his firm (which is continuing to operate after his death) had as much work at it did over the years, he enjoyed the ability to strike out in new directions when the inspiration struck.

One of those side trips was in the direction of post-modernism, and the exhibition shows a handful of examples from the 1980s and early 1990s, including the unbuilt Plinth House for a site in Napa, of Kanner beginning to toy with the grids, color palette and drawing style fashionable in those days. These projects, straining toward trendiness, are not his best work.

When a few years later Kanner took a second turn away from straightforward modernism — toward Pop — he found better results. The United Oil station, finished last year, is all about the mobility and freedom that come with car culture in L.A., and in addition hints with remarkable effectiveness at the memorable scale of automobile infrastructure that Los Angeles built for itself in the second half of the 20th century.

The In-N-Out building, meanwhile, while it also is clearly an exploration of drive-through urbanism, works surprisingly well in relation to the sidewalk and the pedestrian culture of Westwood and the UCLA campus. Formally it is among Kanner’s most impressive designs; it takes the red-and-yellow In-N-Out logo and turns it into a three-dimensional architectural signature.

The exhibition at the Architecture and Design Museum — an institution Kanner helped found, and lived long enough to see installed, at long last, in a permanent home on Wilshire Boulevard — includes a long wall covered with sketches by the architect, who drew unusually well. The back room features his furniture designs and abstract paintings and photographs of him from the 1980s (complete with Izod shirts and Ray-Bans) and later with his wife and daughters. That is not the only way in which the show is suffused with nostalgia. Kanner’s work — even the post-modernism, and certainly the Pop buildings — was unfailingly optimistic, as was the man himself, and in that sense reflects an attitude about the city and its future that we associate more with 1960 than 1990 or 2010.

Kanner’s Los Angeles was not the dystopia of writer Mike Davis or the disjointed landscape of architect Thom Mayne. Nor was it a metropolis where the car is seen as a villain or the symbol of an unsustainable attitude about urban infrastructure or the environment. It was a clean, bright, modern, can-do place where the buildings were handsome, the gas and the hamburgers cheap and the roads wide open.