December 16, 2003 - From the December, 2003 issue

Architect Brenda Levin Honored With Creative Force Award

Brenda Levin, FAIA recently received the ArtTable's Creative Force Award. The Award honors an individual who has made a distinguished artistic contribution to the nation's cultural life. Ms. Levin, the first West Coast recipient of an ArtTable award, was introduced by Frances Anderton, host of KCRW-FM Radio's "DnA: Design and Architecture" and producer of KCRW-FM Radio's "To the Point" and "Which Way L.A.?" The ArtTable is a national organization of professional women in leadership positions in the visual arts. TPR is very pleased to reprint Ms. Anderton's thoughtful and architecturally insightful remarks regarding Brenda's many contributions to Southern California.


Brenda Levin

Brenda Levin has meant a lot to me personally since I first arrived in LA in 1991. The office I first worked in--as editor of LA Architect magazine--was in the wonderful Art Deco Wiltern Center at Western and Wilshire in Koreatown, where Brenda had brilliantly restored the Wiltern Theater for the developer Wayne Ratkovich. I regularly visited the nearby Chapman Market, a Spanish Colonial LA classic that had also been revitalized by Brenda Levin for Wayne. And many in the architecture community were then abuzz about Brenda's just completed work on the Bradbury Building in downtown.

I recently spoke with Brenda in the midst of the opening hoopla for Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall. And Brenda said, jokingly, that Frank Gehry designs buildings for the 21st century, while she designs 20th century buildings.

I want to say that, one, Brenda DOES design 21st century buildings--her new buildings are every bit as contemporary in their way as anything by Frank Gehry--but, two, and perhaps more importantly, you can't have the 21st century without the 20th century.

Walt Disney Concert Hall would likely not even have been built if there had not been a sense among power brokers that downtown was a worthwhile place to invest in the future. And why did those wealthy businessmen and politicians and culture leaders believe that downtown was worth investing in?

I would argue that thanks in part to the efforts of Brenda Levin and her early clients--the developers Wayne Ratkovich and Ira Yellin--the restoration of 20th century downtown had helped make it a place worth investing in for the 21st century.

In the early part of the last century, downtown was a bustling urban center, with art deco and neo-classical and Spanish-Colonial edifices as gracious as any in the country. But in the post-war years, with the creation of freeways and suburbs, downtown diminished as an urban center as Los Angeles sprawled further and further out. The trend was for new building, not reuse of the existing fabric, and by the 1980s much of its stock of architectural gems from downtown's heyday in the teens and inter-war years had been demolished or fallen into disuse.

But in the early 80s, the developer Wayne Ratkovich bought a historic Art Deco jewel that had been slated for demolition, the Oviatt Building on Olive, and hired Brenda Levin to restore it. She not only restored the Parisian fixtures and fittings and Lalique glass, but she also transformed the ground floors into a now popular restaurant and the upper levels into desirable office space.

Next, she and Wayne went to work on another classic, the Romanesque Fine Arts Building on 7th Street, and managed again to meld historic preservation with adaptive reuse into offices and restaurants on the ground floor. As testimony to the viability of the workspaces, Brenda maintains her own office there!

It may seem hard to imagine now, but these two projects were perhaps as surprising in their way as a wavy metal concert hall is now. The renewed gems shone like polished diamonds, they helped revive the 7th Street and Pershing Square districts and they signaled an act of love for the city and an act of resistance against amnesiac developers armed with the wrecking ball.

Next, Brenda took her talent for both preserving and remodeling classic buildings to the now-named Historic District East of Pershing Square. With the late and much-lamented developer, Ira Yellin, she restored and created new uses for the 19th Century marvel, the Bradbury Building and for Grand Central Square on the other side of the road. This involved remodeling Grand Central Market, turning the neighboring onetime commercial buildings Homer Laughlin and Million Dollar buildings into housing, turning the Lyons Building into offices, and creating a parking structure.

I list the components of Grand Central Square to emphasize that Brenda Levin was never simply restoring the crumbling moldings and fading paint of former Grande Dames of downtown architecture. Yes, she did that and she did it well, using her artist's eye, her innate attention to detail and her respectful relationship with craftspeople, to conserve and to replicate historic features.

But she was doing something far more than that. As the architect Jon Jerde said about her work in downtown, "she taught everyone how to give life back to things that were, at first glance, hopelessly lifeless." These projects revived buildings but, by injecting new uses as well, they also revived the city, a downtown that had been given up for dead.

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These projects helped precipitate an interest in the future potential of the past. They showed that 21st century office space could fit comfortably in 19th and 20th century buildings, and that 21st century workers would be attracted to these buildings steeped in character and civic pride. They garnered the attention of developers and politicians, hitherto prone to razing our heritage. And they galvanized the LA Conservancy, a then-marginal agency, whose efforts helped ultimately secure the passage, a couple of years ago, of an adaptive reuse ordinance that now makes possible the retrofits of commercial buildings into residential now going on throughout downtown.

You probably know the Standard, the trendy hotel in a former Oil Headquarters at 6th and Flower, or the swath of residential rehabs in the Historic District by lively developer Tom Gilmore, or the 60s Transamerica office building in South Downtown that has been purchased by Magic Johnson with plans to turn it into upscale residential dwellings.

I think it's true to say that none of these projects would have happened without Wayne and Ira and Brenda and their pioneering work in downtown. And without the renewed vigor and the return of residential life to downtown, I think it's true to say that Walt Disney Concert Hall would have been a far less appealing prospect to county supervisors and civic leaders in Los Angeles. As I said at the start, you can't have the 21st Century without the 20th.

And it this ability to give not just life, but NEW life to lifeless buildings, that has characterized much of Brenda's work both in and outside of downtown. She has strengthened campus life at Scripps, Santa Barbara and Occidental colleges, with confident, but delicate, restorations and expansions. She is currently rejuvenating one of the LA's most beloved buildings, the Griffith Park Observatory, and she brought civic splendor back into local politics with her restoration work at City Hall.

And, where appropriate, she has blended old with 21st century, for example, at the planned National Center for the Preservation of Democracy, at the Japanese American Museum in Little Tokyo. For this she has designed a glass and steel addition to the former Hompa Hongwangi Buddhist Temple, scheduled for completion next year. Drawings suggest that in scale and rhythm it makes aesthetic sense; and its unashamed modernity and transparency side by side with the old also acts as a metaphor for past, present and future of democratic processes.

Or there's her pending conversion of the 60s University Club in downtown into a residential building called Library Square. There, she'll combine the existing marble structure with the very latest in curtain wall technology, creating apartments with external walls of floor-to-ceiling transparent and translucent glass.

I say "where appropriate" because what sets Brenda apart from a lot of designers is that she does not offer a one-size-fits-all, or should I say, one-style-fits-all design. Each unique design problem results in a specific and unique design solution. For this reason, it can sometimes be hard to detect her hand in a building, because the solutions seem so right, they feel as if they've been there forever.

While this problem-solving approach was traditionally expected of architects, since the birth of Modernism it has become increasingly commonplace for architects to design with a distinct signature style, one that can upstage every other building on the street--for good or bad, depending on the type of building, and quality of the architecture. Buildings that draw attention to themselves in this way, while often very striking, can seem as if they have been designed with the camera and press attention in mind.

But the perhaps more difficult art of architecture is in creating buildings that sit well with their neighbors, that embrace the user with comfort, functionality, light and architectural delight; that age well, and that add life to the urban environment. It is in these regards that Brenda Levin is a leader in the creation of civic space. And it is why, in the 23-year life of her practice, she has been chosen to design numerous civic, cultural and socially responsible projects--from schools to pumping stations to art galleries to a center for homeless women and affordable housing in neighborhoods destroyed by the riots.

It takes many diverse talents to be an architect: the ability to put buildings together, or, in Brenda's case, also to take buildings apart and put them back together again. It takes the ability to handle the builders, subcontractors, utilities and numerous skill teams involved in building. It requires an ability to translate the needs of the client, and to maintain an often long-working relationship with that client; the ability to bring projects in on budget, and to handle the politics of construction, the approval processes, and so on. In addition, the profession requires an understanding of structure, of space, and, ideally, of what makes a building more than just shelter, and that is a sense of art. Very few architects embody all of the above, and the sense of art is perhaps the most elusive skill. But Brenda does embody many of those divergent talents. And, she is an artist.

Despite her career success, Brenda has never lost a sense of modesty in design, the understanding that design and architecture serves its client, the community, its users and the future. In that sense, Brenda is perhaps a different kind of model for a 21st century architect. Los Angeles is very lucky to have her quietly forceful presence, and I think it is great that you at Art Table are honoring her with the Creative Force Award today.

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