The Sunday Conversation: Steven Ehrlich, architect

Culver City architect Steven Ehrlich, 65, recently received the 2011 Maybeck Award for achievement in architecture from the American Institute of Architects California Council. The design principal of the 30-person firm Ehrlich Architects, he is also a visiting professor at USC and his work the subject of the recently published “Steven Ehrlich Houses” (Monacelli Press).

Let’s talk about multicultural modernism, which is what you call your design philosophy. I would think it would be more relevant than ever as globalization continues apace. First of all, what is multicultural modernism?

It’s a term that we coined here; we even trademarked it. I have no idea why. It’s kind of a broad term that means we live in a very complex world, a very interesting world and that there is no single architectural design solution as you apply it to different locations. And it certainly doesn’t work if you apply it to different cultures. For example, why would a building in Beijing look like a building in Boston? … Our society and other societies around the world should embrace modern technology that takes us to wonderful new places and simultaneously listen to people and to place and to culture. And that uniqueness can express itself.


How does it express itself architecturally?

I’ll give you two examples. We now have under construction the federal courthouse in Yuma, Ariz., and it’s named the John M. Roll United States Courthouse, so it’s named after Judge Roll, who was slain in the Gabbie Giffords [shooting]. We wanted to give something back to the city of Yuma, and we created this very large canopy that creates shade made out of photovoltaic panels, which produces 25% of the building’s electricity. Here we listened to the climate, which is very intense, and we’re creating a beautiful location very close to downtown. We’re creating a new gathering place using the highest technology of not only creating shade but producing electricity. It’s kind of an ancient interpretation of a modern solution, but it’s culturally imbued in that it’s giving something back to that community.

Another example is we recently won a design competition for the new parliament building for the United Arab Emirates. We prevailed over Norman Foster and Zaha Hadid, so we’re very thrilled with that. I think our solution was selected in part because it was very rooted in the culture, and our big idea was that we created a dome that’s 100 meters in diameter. The dome is actually a sunscreen device that creates a veil over most of the site and therefore creates a micro-climate where people can enjoy themselves outside near fountains as well as greatly reducing the heat load on the buildings below as well as the people.

Another good example is the Abuja City Gate in Nigeria. It seems that your practice has come full circle.

It has. I spent six years living and working in Africa in the ‘70s when I was in my 20s, starting off with the Peace Corps and extending into a professorship of architecture in northern Nigeria.

How did you incorporate Nigerian culture into the city gate?

The big idea was instead of building a gate that looked like a big archway, we created a pedestrian bridge that allows all the people of Nigeria to be part of the gate. And Abuja, being the capital, has people from all over the country, who have their special style and dress. And we’re essentially suspending them above this 10-lane highway where people can see a stream of Nigerian people walking over the bridge, and there are two cultural centers on each end.

Whose work do you admire?

Louis Kahn and vernacular architecture in North and West Africa. [Living there in the ‘70s] taught me about the simple elegance and sustainable wisdom of indigenous architecture.

I wanted to ask you about the biotech research facility in Cambridge, Mass., and also Arizona State’s School of Earth and Space Exploration. Do scientists have special needs that can be addressed architecturally?

We are looking for ways of bringing people together and creating community. Inside the [biotech] building is a soaring atrium, where everybody is connected not only horizontally but vertically too, because you can see activity [around] this very large atrium. And we’ve extended certain areas of the balconies and created what I like to call “living rooms in the sky,” and it’s here where people are really bumping into each other, so it’s creating community. And I think that the idea of the chance encounter is extremely important because we are becoming more and more isolated as we go deeper into the computer screen or scientific experiments, and that it’s really important for people to have the ability to have these synergistic chance encounters.

Your firm also designed the Contemporary Arts Center at UC Irvine.

Which just opened. And one of the main ideas there is that in the heart of the building there are two very large volumes — a theater and an art gallery. And surrounding those two large spaces are artists’ studios, support spaces, faculty offices, lobbies, etc. everything on the perimeter of the theater and the gallery are actually naturally ventilated. We’re not even air-conditioning them. And that is a LEED Gold building. Our buildings are quite sustainable, and we just completed the residential halls at Pomona College. That’s still-pending platinum, but it will be the first platinum residential hall in California.

Are all of your designs sustainable to the extent that they can be, and how long have you been doing that?

I’ve been doing it forever. I designed an experimental theater in the mid-'70s for Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria, Nigeria. And that theater was built out of mud, and to this day, it’s still in operation. It’s a building loved by the drama department of the university and they maintain it, but when they stop, it will just melt back into the earth from which it came.

What impact is all this economic turmoil having on the development of important public architecture?

Unfortunately, I see less and less of it happening. The biggest issue right now is governments — federal, state and city — have depleted resources and therefore the construction process is slowing down. I will say, however, when we bounce back — and “we” may be the whole world — I think there is going to be a renewed interest in building buildings that are more sustainable, will be built better and will last longer. And there will be fewer of them.