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This Year's Modern

Photos by Debra DiPaolo

TODAY'S CONSUMERS WANT THEIR STUFF DESIGNED. THEY'RE NOT SATISFIED with standard-issue sheets or sneakers. Target was one of the first chains to capitalize on this trend, commissioning architect Michael Graves to design domestic goods such as teapots. Now New York fashion legend Stephen Sprouse is on the payroll, with his über-patriotic Americaland clothing line, and French architect Philippe Starck is designing everything from baby monitors to curling irons.

But architecture for the masses? Modest houses that are big on design but small on price? Modernism failed to deliver on that promise midcentury even when Los Angeles' postwar in-house talent included the Modernist masters Rudolf Schindler, Richard Neutra, Charles and Ray Eames, Harwell Harris, J.R. Davidson, Gregory Ain and Raphael Soriano. The Modernists demonstrated that good houses can be made of cheap materials, but only one of them, A. Quincy Jones, ever designed a prototype for a tract home. Not that the public was clamoring to buy Modernist houses. Modernism remained an intellectual style without the mass appeal that could have afforded buyers the economies of mass production. And then contractors usurped the production of housing from architects, leaving us to wallow in the dreck of pseudo-Spanish-style tract homes and featureless McMansions of indeterminate lineage.

But the Modernist tenets that design enhances quality of life and doesn't have to be expensive have been revivified and reinvented. And once again Los Angeles is teeming with young architects who are trying to create better, cheaper ways of living in houses that are respectful of site and made of eco-friendly sustainable materials, and don't indulge in the American cult of gigantism and conspicuous consumption.

Building modest Modern houses in Los Angeles is very, very tricky, of course, because plots of land are both scarce and expensive. Santa Monica-based architect David Hertz and Syndesis did succeed in building a house out of sustainable materials for $295,000 in Venice, but increasingly the new Modernists are turning their attention to less-expensive real estate on the Eastside. That's where, for example, Jennifer Siegal's Office of Mobile Design is creating a home out of shipping containers near the downtown arts colony the Brewery. Escalating costs are also the reason so many young architects are doing remodels: It's a way to recycle existing sites in ways that embrace Modernism and avoid the price tag associated with having to meet the stricter building codes that govern new construction.

At the happy confluence of several trends in contemporary Modern architecture is a company called Built, located in Silver Lake, which was the epicenter of Modernism in the '30s, '40s and '50s and still boasts a very large collection of midcentury-Modern masterpieces. Owned and operated by John Sofio out of an office and furniture showroom on Silver Lake Boulevard, Built is both an architecture firm and a construction company. This design/build arrangement is a holistic solution to several problems that have arisen from the separation of church and state in architecture: Architects have been discouraged from dirtying their hands in construction, which has been turned over to the contractors, who are dissed as incapable of understanding or implementing architecture. Schindler, Neutra and John Lautner, in contrast, designed and built their houses, which gave them control over design from conception to completion. And then they designed and built the furniture that went in the houses.

That's what Sofio is doing. Moreover, because his clients tend to be of modest means, he will, as he says, "back into a project," starting with the amount of money that's available and "working the design into the numbers, while always striving to maintain a fixed budget." The result is custom-built architecture within reach of other than top-of-the-hill clients. He's done remodels, a restaurant and some retail. And two recent projects, one in Silver Lake and one in Los Feliz, have earned him notice: He built a strikingly Modern home designed by a San Francisco architect on a very marginal lot just off Silver Lake Boulevard. And on a nearby street called Waverly, he's designed and built a house that is considered a remodel -- insofar as it was erected on the footprint of an unremarkable house that was torn down to make room for the new structure.

The new house is thoroughly Modern inside and out, from the bamboo flooring to the CeasarStone countertops to the pivot doors to the sliding-glass walls to the cantilevered metal staircase with leather handrails to the family-size bath with three shower heads. The project was conceived as a modest 2,800-square-foot remodel, begun before the real estate market overheated, and accomplished for $100 a square foot. But the owners, who'd intended to live in the house, saw the opportunity to make a killing, bought another house, and put this one on the market for $925,000.

Before the house is sold, Sofio has been holding dinner parties there as he also did in the house off Silver Lake Boulevard to which he invites other designers and writers and real estate agents and neighbors. He's interested in provoking a public conversation about architecture; he also hosts openings for designers at his store and recently staged a juried furniture-design competition to "assess what people are thinking about globally -- they're thinking in terms of design that's very modular and sustainable."

A small crowd of neighbors gathered outside his newest house on a recent evening, drawing near to admire the way the house reads architecturally when brightly lit up from the inside, the front wall floating above narrow glass windows that separate it from the floor, and light shining through the triangular glass windows above that illuminate the flat, slanted plane of the roof.

"Why, it looks like it was designed by, oh, who was that man?" asks an elderly woman out strolling with her husband, who avers, "Frank Lloyd . . . er . . . Wright." Indeed, the public still attributes any residence with a flat roof to this country's only well-known architect. The Modernists of the new millennium have their work cut out for them.

Built, 1626 Silver Lake Blvd.; (323) 661-8293.


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