Purple Magazine
— Los Angeles issue #30

barbara bestor

los angeles
architecture
barbara bestor

interview by FRANCOIS PERRIN
photography by TODD COLE

Barbara Bestor arrived in Los Angeles from Boston in the late ’80s and instantly fell in love with the modernist houses by Neutra, Lautner, Schindler, and others hidden in the small streets and neighborhoods of Silver Lake, Los Feliz, and Echo Park. She was one of the first young architects to sense how these areas were starting to reconnect with their bohemian and artistic heritage. She opened a studio on Hyperion Avenue in the middle of Silver Lake and is taking part in the architectural renaissance of East LA, adding a sensitive approach to community issues and the environment.

FRANCOIS PERRIN — Are you building a lot on the Eastside?
BARBARA BESTOR — Yes, I’m doing residential projects in Los Feliz, Silver Lake, La Cañada, Altadena. Most younger creative people are moving to this side of town. I also did two projects in Eagle Rock recently. That was kind of fun because it’s a lower-key neighborhood. I’m also working on a house for Jay Duplass now, one of the Duplass brothers. It’s in between Pasadena and here. It’s not as hyped of a neighborhood but has cool restaurants. It’s not too fashionable, but maybe better for families.

FRANCOIS PERRIN — So, how did you end up here?
BARBARA BESTOR — I moved here before I went to SCI-Arc [Southern California Institute of Architecture]. I took a year off after college, worked as a waitress, and worked for the architect Andrew Zago. I would go on little trips to see buildings in the Eastside and kept seeing cool stuff over here — Schindlers, Neutras, Lautners. I found an apartment on Los Feliz Boulevard and moved here. It was very cheap in this neighborhood. I moved here in ’87, ’88.

FRANCOIS PERRIN — You came at a pivotal moment of transition for Los Angeles in the beginning of the ’90s.
BARBARA BESTOR — It was a big recession then, just when I finished grad school. Before that, I spent a year at the AA [Architectural Association] in London. That was a very radical school then, but they told me that if I wanted to build interesting things, I should go to LA. Gehry had just done the Norton House in Venice, on the boardwalk with the lifeguard tower, and I just loved that. I ended up getting a job there.

FRANCOIS PERRIN — Are you from the East Coast?
BARBARA BESTOR — I’m from Boston, a city that was built a long time ago. What was interesting in Boston is that you found old buildings with a radical interior — but here in LA the buildings themselves are radical.

FRANCOIS PERRIN — What did you bring with you to LA?
BARBARA BESTOR — I brought a lot of influences from the ’70s, and some European design inspiration. The things I liked as a kid are still cool now. There were also houses from 1680 all over Cambridge and Boston that were just painted black or maroon. That colonial-minimalist style is something I’ve been doing a lot in LA. It looks different with the light and with fewer trees, so the houses are more noticeable as objects. A lot of projects I’m doing these days are giant offices with something like a little city in the inside, or the small-lots subdivision, trying to create an urban context. As we see a lot of people moving here and the city having a new density, a lot of off-the-shelf solutions look bad in LA. I’m really interested in how you densify LA in a way that’s very different and interesting and appropriate.

THE SILVERTOP HOUSE OF JOHN LAUTNER, 1656, RENOVATED BY BESTOR ARCHITECTURE

FRANCOIS PERRIN — The growing scale of your projects means you have to deal with more urban situations.
BARBARA BESTOR — I did so many small projects, trying to create multiple atmospheres or moods in a single small project. When I started doing these big offices, like 100,000 square feet and 600 people, I had to think about it differently from a residence. Although the one thing I am doing is bringing a sense of residential scale back into corporate offices,  which are horrible.

FRANCOIS PERRIN — This is what you did in your office here in Silver Lake, no?
BARBARA BESTOR — Yes. It was meant to be kind of a showcase.

FRANCOIS PERRIN — What do you think about the recent development going on in Hollywood for housing?
BARBARA BESTOR — This is killing me. It’s developers from Florida. There’s no style. I feel we have conceded the floor to this developer-driven model. Often, if architects are hired, it’s to wrap this nasty diagram, which is penny-wise, pound-foolish. You would have a much larger picture architecturally — better efficiency, even in terms of rent — if you would have a better design and spend time on thinking how to make this better. That is a structural problem of American economics.

FRANCOIS PERRIN — Yet major international architects like Herzog & de Meuron, Rem Koolhaas, BIG, and MAD are coming to LA to do development. Do you think this is interesting?
BARBARA BESTOR — I’m optimistic.

FRANCOIS PERRIN — Why don’t we have interesting architecture now in LA, like the LA School in the ’80s?
BARBARA BESTOR — The clients are different. In the ’80s the land was cheap — the real estate was cheap. You could build your crazy-ass house for nothing. What I think is terrible in Venice is that everything that is vaguely interesting architecturally gets knocked off within a year by a developer to make a bigger version of it. It is so weird. But there is a huge potential because the citizens of LA are more educated about architecture than before. I think there’s a good chance that we’ll see a lot more cool buildings in the next 10 years. Even Downtown, you see a lot being built that is interesting.

FRANCOIS PERRIN — Can you talk a bit about your clients? It seems that a lot of them are high-end.
BARBARA BESTOR — I spent a long time remodeling Silvertop, the Lautner house in Silver Lake. That was very lovely. Everything about it was kind of custom and unique. It was very different from trying to build for $180 a square foot. I don’t mind doing super-cheap cool stuff — I just don’t want them to be boring.

THE SILVERTOP HOUSE OF JOHN LAUTNER, 1656, RENOVATED BY BESTOR ARCHITECTURE

FRANCOIS PERRIN — Is there any specific material that you like?
BARBARA BESTOR — What we developed in the last five to six years were a whole lot of crazy strategies in two-dimensions, whether it’s reflectivity, super-graphics, color, vinyl, wallpaper. We’re trying to create an atmosphere by any means necessary, and often, they aren’t all the tools that architects have — door, windows, walls. You don’t have money to do that. So, what if that wall is leafy green, or a big reflective piece, or it becomes some kind of painting strategy or 2-D art strategy, like graphic design? That’s where I kind of developed an extra brain, and it’s been really useful. I was just in India and found a lot of precedents for this there, like cutouts in the wall.

FRANCOIS PERRIN — Do you miss a very direct relationship to materials and nature where you can really experiment?
BARBARA BESTOR — A lot of us miss this as we are going to build bigger in LA. Or maybe we will have to end up in Joshua Tree building some wacky experimental stuff in the desert, or wherever: small places where there aren’t building codes, and you can do whatever the hell you want.

FRANCOIS PERRIN — Let’s talk about East LA: Silver Lake, Echo Park. What do you like about them?
BARBARA BESTOR — I’ve lived in this area the whole time I’ve been here. The natural assets were a combination of the geography, the hills, the reservoirs, Griffith Park. You have this amazing thing that almost doesn’t exist anywhere else in the US:
a city around all these hills, and then the scale of a single-family residential neighborhood. And then it’s completely full of iconic pieces of architecture all over the place from the early 20th century. Plus you have the best restaurants in LA. You can also walk around or bicycle. That doesn’t happen in LA, and it is even new here.

FRANCOIS PERRIN — This area was already the center of cultural life a century ago. The movie industry attracted actors and bohemians who settled in this part of town.
BARBARA BESTOR — It was — and that never changed. All the people painting the sets, doing the make-up, the costumes — everybody lived around here. Not the movie stars, but all the creators, and that became a bohemian enclave, left-wing and progressive. It’s where the gay culture started, in 1950, with the Mattachine Society. This part of the city had a real alternative culture vibe. But then it was sleepy for a long time. All the power centers in LA were not there: they were on the Westside in Hollywood, in Beverly Hills, Hancock Park. So, when I moved here in the ’80s, there were people in Santa Monica who’d say, “I don’t ever go east of La Brea.” It was some kind of joke, but it was true.

FRANCOIS PERRIN — And for some people it’s still the case!
BARBARA BESTOR — People were afraid of gangs and helicopters flying constantly over the hills. And some people think it’s still nuts. And too far away.

FRANCOIS PERRIN — What do you dislike about Silver Lake and Los Feliz?
BARBARA BESTOR — The real estate explosion! It used to be so cheap to live here 10 or 15 years ago. If I had a magic wand, I would love to stop the property values from going up. It makes it almost impossible now for younger generations to move into this neighborhood. It used to be so cheap to live here. On the other hand, it opens up other areas further east like Mount Washington.

FRANCOIS PERRIN — Echo Park used to be called “Red Hill.”
BARBARA BESTOR — It was seen as a Marxist and Communist hangout by Hollywood people. I wrote a book on this area called Bohemian Modern.

FRANCOIS PERRIN — Which houses in LA inspire you?
BARBARA BESTOR — I still love a beautiful tiny wooden house constructed by John Lautner. A friend of mine used to work for him when I was in grad school. Lautner’s old clients would ask him if he knew someone who could take care of their houses while they were away. So she used to house-sit all these beautiful houses. She once stayed in that tiny wooden house, which is up here on Micheltorena, about a block from Silvertop, and it couldn’t be more different. It’s only 1,200 square feet, and he probably built it in the ’40s. But it has all the nice features, that sunken threshold where you get compressed while entering, but nothing as dramatic and big as in his later works. I really loved that house. It is not well known, and maybe more of the sensibility of a house by Gregory Ain.

FRANCOIS PERRIN — More houses you love?
BARBARA BESTOR — So many. For example, the Eames House, where I went a few times, I knew someone who was part of the family. The Neutra VDL House, where I went a lot, but it wasn’t open. I also liked the tiny bungalows in Echo Park, only 500 square feet. When I was in grad school, I really got into Frogtown. It was built as workers’ houses, so a lot of them are only 400 square feet.

FRANCOIS PERRIN — Did Lautner live in Silver Lake until the end of his life?
BARBARA BESTOR — No, he lived in an apartment building for the last 25 years; he was an odd duck. At the time, he was working on the Carling House, the one that had the living room wall with the couch built into it that opens out, and the couch became the outdoor couch. I went there a few times. There are these weird things holding up the roof — not trusses, but poles.

FRANCOIS PERRIN — How does the feminine relate to your work — the integration with the surroundings, the intimacy? You redid Kim Gordon’s house.
BARBARA BESTOR — Yes, I did! I am a constructivist feminist. The idea of the feminine being something as an essential concept — the gender thing — is not constructive. I guess things changed for me when I had kids. I started to include more things that were fun, as I was more formalist and rigorist before I had children. With kids you kind of get back in touch with your own childhood. Architects are trained to be very rigorous. The training is almost like a religion. You’re given a methodology, a language, and aesthetics, but over time, things change. I was able to throw away a lot of the rules earlier on. I’m a big fan of a lot of different architecture. I don’t think I came to school as a neo-Miesian modernist of some kind — I liked Shin Takamatsu, I liked Frank Gehry. I also didn’t want to just be rebellious. I liked Alvar Aalto a lot. So, over the years, I got rid of the rules that I got as a young architect. The best way to get rid of them was motherhood. And maybe divorce, too. I was, like, “Fuck it, I can do whatever I want. I don’t want to follow the rules anymore.” On the intimate side, I do really care about everyday-life issues. I do feel that people experience aesthetics on a daily basis, and I think it’s a stronger experience to have it every day, in a bathroom or in a coffee shop. I’m not interested in the single gesture, the monument. I kind of prefer the daily-life stuff. As architects, we get to uniquely affect the 3-D experience, but that’s not what I would call a male point of view.

FRANCOIS PERRIN — How was your experience working with Kim Gordon? Apart from her music, she writes and paints, but she is also an icon for a lot of American women — very independent and strong. What did you get from this collaboration?
BARBARA BESTOR — She’s an amazing person. I knew her a long time ago because she did that X-Girl line, but I also looked up to her for being a design icon, an LA-attitude icon, musician, artist, everything. She did the same thing as us, moved to LA to try something different. She’s actually from LA, but ended up spending a long time on the East Coast. She had a painting studio, her daughter had just gotten into college, and she was getting divorced and suddenly had all this new freedom. I looked at a lot of houses with her because she was trying to figure out where to live, what was the right thing. She ended up finding this great ’40s house, ambiguous style-wise, modern/Georgian. It had what a lot of houses like that had: a lot of cut-up little rooms that were not conducive to contemporary life. We took out all these walls and made this fun couchy area in the kitchen, a really great hangout place next to the living room. We added a lot of intense colors in other rooms. It was very collaborative. I don’t do these kitchen projects all the time, mainly for friends, and there’s a lot of back-and-forth. There’s a lot of discussion: how do you drink your coffee in the morning, how do you hang out? Some people don’t cook, so you won’t make a big open kitchen. She has a lot of artists coming to stay with her. When you’re doing people’s intimate places, inherently there’s this collaborative aspect. People don’t give you their space and say, “Okay, I’ll be back in 10 months.”

END

BESTOR ARCHITECTURE
HYPERION AVE
LOS ANGELES CA 90027

[Table of contents]

Los Angeles issue #30

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