An LA Architect Crosses the Border Into Relevance

It was my first trip to Tijuana. I left Los Angeles with 44-year-old LA-based architect, educator and urbanist Peter Zellner to visit a recent project he had just finished. This is Zellner's 16th architectural commission, second free-standing building, and first private residence. Zellner's commission, named "Casa Anaya" built on a hilly suburban development overlooking downtown Tijuana felt bright, alive and fresh, in ways that most spaces aren't and should be.
As an object the house is a modernist composition. It is unencumbered by digital tools that are producing a new aesthetic that can be seen driving around LA that I call "sketch up houses" -- a reference to Google's free 3D modeling program.

When talking about his project Zellner was less interested in talking about the object than the context.

Here is a residence that exists in contrast to contemporary architectural criticism which rejects traditional ideas of beauty and is interested in the odd, and grotesque. According to Zellner, "this house in not interested in producing aesthetic novelty, the most radical thing about the house, is not being weird."

Seen in a larger context, of cultural and architecture, Casa Anaya can be understood as derivative of architecture that has an ability to fit into the generic nature of Southern California buildings as seen in early Frank Gehry and Greg Walsh projects: Faith Plating and Danziger Studio come to mind.

To understand the broader context that Casa Anaya is produced in, head to MOCA in downtown LA and see A New Sculpturalism: Contemporary Architecture from Southern California. This is an exhibit about architecture by LA's architectural elites. The show has been panned by critics Christopher Hawthorne and Aaron Betsky who call the work, insular, out of touch, and irrelevant.  

To me this is the context that is interesting to talk about as Zellner teaches at SCI-Arc an institution, led Eric Owen Moss whose own buildings, primarily located in Culver City have been described by others as interesting in the same way that torture is interesting. Many of Zellner's contemporary colleagues who are architects by training, are not building, and are increasingly working like artists, making installations, and tailoring their work to this out of touch academic audience, that Hawthorne and Betsky are highly critical of for not be being relevant.

Zellner's work is a refreshing counterpoint to this criticism. Casa Anaya is in service to its domestic program which is derived by a series of 5x5 meter modules that are first stacked, then angled, then shifted. These three moves generate multiple complex intentional interior and exterior spaces. 

The living quarters are divided into spaces for children and parents. Connecting the two wings is an area that works like a generational bridge. This idea is worked out spatially and is a natural place in the house to meet and talk. The thinking is practical and optimistic, as the couple that commissioned the house are newlyweds and don't have children yet. 

Casa Anaya is elemental in the way that good houses are. There is water on both sides of the stairs as you approach a huge door that announces: You are entering a space that wasn't built by people who buy their building parts at Home Depot. The door is so large that when opened it exposes the bulk of the house to the outside, allowing occupants to experience natural circulation of air and wind. The main living space is enclosed by a large hearth. The thick concrete and CMU walls are protective and cavelike. The house is passively ventilated, the back wall opens up connecting the interior to the exterior.

Alfonso Medina of Taller 38 acted as collaborating architect with Zellner, as well as developer and builder. Medina's architectural ambitions and willingness to interject urban ideas into his developments makes us ask an obvious question which is why isn't this the standard for all development? Specifically, when it comes to the built environment, why is the plumber licensed, the electrician licensed, the contractor, architect, and engineer licensed but the developer, the one who decides how the project is ultimately determined not required to be licensed?

Why shouldn't developers be required to have a base knowledge of art, architecture and aesthetics? Perhaps if they were required to have this knowledge our built environment wouldn't resemble the crime scene that it does. When you see what Medina is doing, you are reassured that there is another way to build that should be encouraged as it is no longer debatable that design matters and sells. 

Building in Tijuana costs approximately 1/7th what it costs to build in LA and there is not the constrictive regulatory framework that makes it hard to pull off small works of architecture that Zellner ran into when he built the Matthew Marks gallery, a minimalist box. The building was a challenge to West Hollywood's community design guide lines even though the exterior supports an Ellsworth Kelly work, making the entire facade a public work of art. This was frustrating to Zellner who thinks "minimalism is an acceptable precedent in LA and is a historical style at this point."

Zellner uses the same black and white color palette in the Tijuana house as he does in his West Hollywood building. I couldn't help thinking that this was intentional and that painting the garage door black was a way to sublimate the relationship between artist and architect back to the architect and also in part a reaction to a New York Times article about the gallery, that neglected to appropriately credit Zellner as the architect. 

There is of course  another question which  is: Is it even possible to do creative work in the local context today as it was in the past? This question is answered in part by the fact that Zellner was commissioned to build his first private residence in Tijuana and not his hometown of Los Angeles. True both land costs and building costs have gone up, but things are being built here.  If my daily walks in Venice are a clue, then a lot of things are being built. But it seems that people in LA are more risk adverse than ever before, and are more comfortable with a "Dwell Style" than with commissioning works from young architects. In Tijuana the clients are more adventurous than their American counterparts.

Casa Anaya will have a positive daily effect on the people who live in it. Nothing more. Nothing less. Answering in Tijuana the question that was asked in LA which is what is value, meaning and relevancy of architecture?

Casa Anaya Photos