Hansen: Curvaceous peace in architecture

There are a few ramshackle stretches of Coast Highway in Laguna Beach cluttered with tired buildings and bad imagination.

You become immune, driving by in a daze because there's nothing much to look at.

But then you notice the curve. It's an organic, perfectly undulating S shape that takes your breath away.

Located at 883 S. Coast Hwy., the building is the latest creation of Laguna architect Horst Noppenberger, and it will be the home to Obagi Skin Health Institute, set to open later this spring.

"The architecture actually begins to speak to what happens inside the building," Noppenberger said. "The concept that we came up with was to replicate the contours of the human body in stone."

Perhaps it is this inherent intimacy that attracts your attention. Or it could be the location: squeezed between a kind of Dutch Colonial Revival-style clothing store and a 1960s-era bead shop with brown shingles and patchouli oil.

"I think what really sets Laguna apart from other communities is its willingness to embrace diversity in the architecture," Noppenberger said. "You probably would not be able to do these types of creative buildings in many of the other communities around us. For me, the diversity, the eclecticism, of Laguna makes it unique."

No doubt this quirky juxtaposition is what helps define Laguna. It's also what sometimes causes friction. Not everyone understands or appreciates modern architecture.

In fact, many people in Laguna would be perfectly happy if the city stayed in 1972.

Historically, the city has had a reputation among architects as being parochial in its design criteria, favoring the status quo. But that's changing, according to Robin Zur Schmiede, who has been on the Design Review Board since 2009.

"There isn't a design review against or for modern; it's only in the context of neighborhood compatibility," she said. "I think you may have seen some people say, 'Well, we can't do great architecture in this town because of design review.'

"In my experience, we often have the architect at the end say, 'Because of design review, our design is better.'"

There are, indeed, many homes in Laguna that are modern, particularly along the beach and packed onto the hillsides. And there is the famous neighborhood next to Alta Laguna Park that is almost exclusively modern.

The outcome of that neighborhood is almost disorienting, as if you are on some futuristic movie set. The lone "regular" house looks like an anachronism, highlighting how our rather pedestrian suburban roots have dominated the way we've lived over the course of the past 50 years.

"When I go up there and see modern architecture, one after the other, it could be a little overwhelming sometimes," Noppenberger said. "They are pretty aggressive. It's like, hey, look at me. There's a lot of architectural gymnastics."

What is evolving in architecture, however, is a greater sense of place and respect for sustainability.

"What I'm shooting for in my work right now is this aspect of stillness, quite repose, buildings that sit gracefully and dignified in their landscape," he said. "For me it's much more interesting to see modern buildings within the context of diverse architecture. It's the surprise juxtaposition between material and form that makes it really interesting."

It is suppleness amid the lines: texture, resonance, permanence. If it's great, you want to be able to touch it. Like life, if it's not palpable and causes a connection, it's not real.

"Architecture should acknowledge its place and be inspired by culture," Noppenberger said. "I think it's important for modernism to begin to make some adjustments in its materials and forms to work contextually better with the different neighborhoods."

Another important key to modern architecture, particularly in Southern California, is light.

We have the envious ability to use light and space as major design elements. When you look at a modern building or home, it's not just the wood or stone, it's the air around it.

"One of my favorite quotes on architecture was by Le Corbusier; he said that architecture is the magnificent play of light upon surface," Noppenberger said, citing the Obagi building as an example. "It's the play of light on those curved walls on the inside as the sun begins to move during the course of the day — those shadows, that play of light, are constantly changing."

Architecture in Laguna is also changing — perhaps not as quickly as some would like, but building by building, there are new shapes that spark our imagination.

Le Corbusier also said that "architecture only exists when there is a poetic emotion."

Poetry and architecture.

Zen and balance.

Sustainability and peace.

Perhaps it is still 1972.

DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at davidhansen@yahoo.com.

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