“Our houses influence our other projects and vice-versa,” says Steven Ehrlich, FAIA, founding partner of Los Angeles–based Ehrlich Architects. “There is definitely a cross-fertilization of thinking, materiality, and details.”
Established in 1979 as a small residential studio, Ehrlich Architects now boasts 40 employees and a diverse portfolio of courthouses, libraries, university centers, and corporate work. But the firm’s growth hasn’t much changed its philosophy, says Mathew Chaney, AIA. “The detailing is very focused, and the relationship that you form with the client is also very intimate and personal,” he says of the firm’s residential work. But, he adds, “We bring that same approach regardless of the scale.”
In 2013, Chaney was named a partner at the firm, along with two other long-time employees, Takashi Yanai, AIA, and Patricia Rhee, AIA. Yanai oversees residential work, and Chaney and Rhee manage commercial and large institutional work, as well as design/build projects. “In the last decade there has been a big change—identifying new partners and mentoring them,” Ehrlich says.
Many of the Ehrlich’s lessons remain rooted in his formative experiences right out of college in the 1970s, when he spent six years in North and West Africa traveling, teaching, and studying indigenous vernacular architecture. The moniker for Ehrlich Architects—“Multicultural Modernism”—calls for an open-minded perspective to understanding the particular culture, climate, and environment associated with each project. “The person and the place is very much an equal collaborator in the design process,” says Ehrlich. “We want that dialogue, that flow.”
Though the firm has expanded its geographic reach well beyond Los Angeles, a review of projects around its home city reveal this sensitive approach to the genius loci: an aesthetic and environmental sensibility that is deeply rooted in Southern California Modernism.
Addition to Neutra Beach House, Santa Monica. Calif., 1998
This “adaptive re-imagination” project, as Ehrlich calls it, was centered around the Albert Lewin House, built in 1938 by the grandfather of California Modernism, Richard Neutra. The owners asked Ehrlich to restore the historic house. But they also purchased the adjacent lot and asked for an addition. The architects used industrial materials such as concrete, stainless steel, and glass to convey lightness and transparency. And, mimicking the curved living room of the original house, they designed a cycloidal arch atop the outdoor pavilion that connects the main house to the new addition. For Yanai, the addition becomes a way to “understand the historical part of the house in a whole new perspective.”
William J Clinton Middle School, Los Angeles, Calif, 2003
Westwood Branch Library, Los Angeles, 2005
Ehrlich brought “a more residential-type scale” to its commission for the Westwood Branch Library, says Chaney. “We couldn’t help but make it cozy.” The 14,000-square-foot library serves as a bridge between the surrounding residential and commercial zones. An open plaza encourages visitors and passersby to linger in the California sun, creating a kind of public living room. Architecturally this is reinforced by the manipulation of scale and materials. Copper, burnished concrete block, channel glass, and Parklex (resin-impregnated wood) help establish a dialogue between the commercial and residential sections of Westwood.
331 Foothill Retail and Office Building, Beverly Hills, Calif., 2010
“We like to unlock the potential of a site,” Ehrlich says. That’s certainly true of this four-story building, which houses a local television network as well as leasable office space. The overall form, a classic modern glass box on pilotis, is punctuated with projecting volumes of earth-toned masonry that harken back to an earlier California vernacular. Steel louvers on the façades of both the office block and its parking garage hint at a broader set of sustainability strategies, as the architects have designed 331 Foothill to meet LEED Silver certification requirements.
9378 Wilshire Retail + Office Building, Beverly Hills, Calif., 2010
Contemporary Arts Center at the University of California, Irvine, 2011
This project, a five-story, 60,000-square-foot complex, was realized through a design/build competition. A large experimental theater and an art gallery dominate the core of the building, which is surrounded by naturally ventilated studios, classrooms, and offices. “The architecture is a very transparent diagram of what’s going on inside the building,” says Rhee. “Based on the massing of the solids and voids,” she says, it’s easy to figure out which “spaces are naturally ventilated, versus not.” The end result is a very porous building with multiple terraces, landscaped courtyards, balconies, and a colonnade that reinforces the interdisciplinary nature of the school.