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The MaryLou and George Boone Gallery, The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens
The MaryLou and George Boone Gallery, The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens
Morris Newman
Los Angeles-based Writer specializing in architecture, urban design, and business


Brenda Levin: Virtuosity in Context

"Design answers the need," Charles Eames said in his famous film of 1958 "Design Q&A." The statement is a little ambiguous. Eames himself was quick to suggest that need went beyond mere functionality. Still, it is interesting, if idle, to wonder how different the architectural profession would be if practitioners worked solely for the well being of the city and its inhabitants, rather than for the advancement of their careers.

In this fantasy world of un-selfserving architecture, one career that would be little changed is that of Brenda Levin. That is not to suggest that Levin is not interested in advancing her career. But the thread running through the first 20 years of Levin's practice is her insistence on solutions that are appropriate both for the project at hand and the people who will use it. The right solution, as it turns out, is not always the most extroverted scheme or the most effective advertisement for the firm. Her work, instead, responds to the design problem at hand, whether the need is for a seamless blend with an existing structure, or something pointedly original.

"For Levin, context is not an abstraction, it is a reflection of the actual life of a city street or a college campus."
A simpler way of saying all this is that Levin's design builds upon the existing context, whether that context is physical or something less tangible. Context, in this sense, is to be understood far more broadly than the commonly accepted notion of "more of the same." Real contextualism is about responding to a site in multiple ways--historically and culturally as well as in terms of space and massing. Levin is constantly looking for cues beyond the four walls of her own buildings. For her, context is not an abstraction; it is a reflection of the actual life of a city street or a college campus. Her interests lie in the environment at large, where architectural gestures can reverberate with public meaning.

The drawback of choosing the appropriate solution over the more overt one is that some observers might miss the point. The design is hidden in the solution, rather than trumpeting its ingenuity to the observer. We might assume, wrongly, that The MaryLou and George Boone Gallery at The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California, is simply the updating of a building by Myron Hunt, the beaux-arts architect who designed the original structure in 1911 as a carriage house, garage and chauffeur's quarters. (In more recent years, the building housed lawn mowers, while suffering from water damage and general neglect.) In fact, the new gallery is essentially a new building within its restored exterior shell. Starting with Hunt's elevation--a seeming fragment of a larger, Classical elevation, with three Ionic columns--Levin has generated a set of proportions, out of which flows the organization of the gallery into a system of three bays. The gallery is frankly contemporary, with details that are derived from the Classical vocabulary. Aware of the importance of the building in the landscape, Levin also designed the path leading to the gallery, allowing visitors a distant glimpse of the building while en route, and then guiding them onto a foreground of formal, symmetrical landscape, in a way that recalls the approach to a Palladian villa.

Another essentially new building that can be mistaken for preservation is the Johnson Student Center at Occidental College, which is one of Levin's most important projects of the last decade. Levin's aim was to "reposition" Johnson as the new "heart" of the campus, which was a difficult challenge for a building without lobbies or major public areas. Here, the context--the old Freeman Union, also by Myron Hunt--became a point of departure to create a new, composite building to serve as the social center of the campus. The scheme for Johnson does more than expand an older building in functional terms, but uses the occasion of building an addition to re-think the circulation, the massing, and the social spaces both inside and outside the building to create a new place--a community center--which did not previously exist. Levin has intervened decisively and unapologetically into this serene, Mission-tinged building, removing a clumsy addition from the 1950s. She extended the building 50 feet to the north, doubling its size. Levin's elevation for the addition is an interpretation of Hunt's historic style (as opposed to historicist) that is sympathetic to the original but does not replicate it.

Memory is another form of context, as in the exquisite, beaux-arts Mediterranean campus for Scripps College in Claremont, California, designed in 1938 by Gordon Kaufmann. The elegance of Levin's design reflects the wishes of founder Ellen Browning Scripps, who envisioned a "campus whose simplicity and beauty will unobtrusively seep into students' consciousness and quietly develop a standard of taste and judgement." Commissioned to re-configure a former arts building into a centralized dining and student facility, Levin conducted a series of "visioning" workshops with college alumnae, students, and faculty; the memories of students, past and present, as much as the physical context, became an informing principle of the design. This exercise in group design process did not start out easily. Many participants argued strongly against the concept of a centralized dining hall, preferring the memories of intimate meals in each of the residence halls. In the workshops, Levin asked participants to recall their most memorable or significant experiences at Scripps. Levin's interpretation of those intangibles was Malott Commons, a campus-wide "servery" with four separate dining areas, each differing from the other in both scale and mood. Drawing from the Mediterranean vocabulary of the campus, Levin drew upon details, patterns, textures and landscape found throughout the campus to design a building that would be unique to Scripps, and hopefully, encourage the same quality of intellectual interchange found elsewhere on campus. The result is a building that integrates almost seamlessly into the existing campus, providing a sense of continuity between the old and the new. Even those highly vocal opponents found the solution convincing.

Buildings that lack context, or that ignore it, can be reconnected to their context in a way that gives new meaning to them, as in the recently completed art museum for the University of California at Santa Barbara. That haphazard site plan of the campus, arguably the worst in the university system, seems all the more unfortunate amid the unearthly beauty of the site, a natural cove framed by a rugged shoreline. In one of her strongest gestures, Levin designed a new courtyard plaza for the front of the building, based on a nautilus-shell spiral that spins outward from a diagram of the Golden Section at its center. The spiral is a daring gesture, except for the Ionic capital, spirals are unfamiliar in architecture perhaps because of the restless, uncontainable energy of the line. Here, the restlessness of the spiral pushes us outward, reorienting our view to the ocean. In this way, the courtyard provides the visual context that makes it possible to experience the campus as a unique place, not just a group of buildings in an incongruous setting. The spiral also informs other design elements on the plaza, including the curving contour of both the steel-and-glass trellis and museum signage in front of the new entry. A single gesture cannot fix a flawed campus, but Levin at least provides an example of how such a turn around might begin.

We get a deeper understanding of the sources of Levin's architecture and her contextual sensitivity by a brief glance at her biography. Although a suburbanite and not a native New Yorker, Levin visited and "used" the city when growing up, and an architect who grows up in New York is a life-long urbanist. Her undergraduate degree was in graphic design and to this day Levin reserves for herself most of the graphics and signage design for her buildings. After graduation from Harvard's Graduate School of Design, she and her husband moved to Los Angeles, albeit reluctantly. It is instructive to learn that an architect who has become so knowledgeable about the difficult urban issues of Los Angeles was not an instant convert to the city: one of her first experiences was to work in the office of the late John Lautner, the adamantine loner and scion of Frank Lloyd Wright, whose anti-urban bias seems antithetical to Levin's later practice. Levin's own house, which generates a plan and section from a pair of triangles, could be viewed as a kinder and gentler version of the geometrical purism of her mentor. The Lautner experience was followed by work with Group Arcon, the firm that developer Wayne Ratkovich hired to renovate the Oviatt Building in downtown Los Angeles. The firm assigned the project to Levin.

This point in Levin's career is open to a feminist reading. In the late 1970s, historic preservation did not yet enjoy its current prestige, and Levin may have been "saddled" with preservation work at the firm because "rehab" was perceived as less important than new construction, or tantamount to interior decoration -- in other words, woman's work. Notwithstanding, the relationship with Ratkovich became the linchpin that gave Levin the confidence, and the work, to open her own studio in 1980.

A historical note about Los Angeles of the time may be helpful: the idea of historic preservation, let alone a viable residential community and street scene in downtown Los Angeles, seemed implausible in the 1970s. Los Angeles was the epitome of the postwar, suburbanized city, often described as a city with multiple centers, rather than the traditional concentric city that, like an onion, pushes out successive layers from its core. As a comparatively young city, Los Angeles until recently had a plentiful supply of cheap land in the suburbs. Older parts of the city could simply be leapfrogged, creating layers of decay and disinvestment between urban centers. In a city where boom and suburban expansion are part of the culture, Levin found herself one of the pioneers of urban revitalization, trying to restore life to parts of the city that nearly everyone, except the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency, had written off.

Her earliest preservation projects have been useful to her as both a laboratory and practical education in traditional building techniques and materials. Levin views the preservation assignments as collaborations with architects of an earlier generation. The day-to-day contact and problem solving with builders and craftsmen, in addition, have given her a respect for the craft of construction that is not shared by all architects.

The work for developer Ira Yellin in downtown Los Angeles at the intersection of Third and Broadway, including the renovation of Bradbury, Million Dollar Theater, and the Grand Central Market/Homer Laughlin Building, as well as designing a new parking structure, gave her the opportunity to think in terms of large-scale urban design, and how a group of renovated buildings can influence and improve an entire downtown area. The Broadway buildings put the historic core back on the map of downtown Los Angeles. These buildings, and Broadway by extension, became part of downtown that office workers now actively frequent.

Most of Levin's activity in the past decade has been diverted away from the urban core to educational campuses and the picturesque environs of the Huntington and Santa Barbara. Her real preoccupation is the city, however, and I hope that her energies are redirected toward dense urban conditions of her early practice.

It is impossible to predict the work that Levin will get in the future, but I can draw up a wish list. I would like to see her design large educational campuses from the ground up. Few other architects in the region have given as much thought to the day-to-day issues of how colleges work. Tackling a mixed-use urban district, incorporating housing and historic preservation, perhaps near a rail station, would make the best use of her hard-won knowledge of urban design, and allow her to manipulate the relationships between buildings that preservation or reuse does not always allow.

High-density courtyard housing would bring her sensitivity to human scale to a building type in which scale is often lacking. Whatever projects fall her way, however, one can be reasonably sure that Levin will approach them all with the high value she places on urban and social connections and above all, the sense of connection that is a special source of pleasure in her buildings.

Buildings, like people, lose their way without a network of connections, and Levin's ability to discern and build upon these connections means that her skill set is uniquely valuable in a city where context is often hard to discern. In the Los Angeles of the 21st century, the skill to bring buildings and spaces back into public life is a more valuable skill than the facadism that has sometimes passed for architecture in recent years. The age of the heroicized architectural monument, if it ever existed, is over. In the coming century, architecture will be about repairing the city, adding density, bringing together different uses, supporting the pedestrian and encouraging the active use of the city. In this new world, Brenda Levin, who made her reputation as a preservation architect, has helped define the practice of architecture for our urban future.




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