Beyond Buildings


Max Palevsky: At Home in Architecture

Submit A Comment | View Comments

After my recent obituaries for John Carl Warnecke and Bruce Graham, among others, I could not let the passing of Max Palevsky go unnoticed in the world of architecture.

One of the original pioneers of computing, Palevsky was a professor of mathematics with a specialty in symbolic logic at UCLA who saw the potential of the new gadgets. In 1962, he founded Scientific Data Systems (SDS), which he sold in 1971, investing part of the proceeds into a then-start-up called Intel. Palevsky used his wealth to support philanthrophic and political causes, but also to collect art—and architecture.  Early in his career, he was exposed to modern art and architecture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and remained fascinated by both. He commissioned Craig Elwood to design the SDS Headquarters in 1966 and was involved with the founding of the Museum of Contemporary Art in L.A. (and split with them over Arata Isozaki’s design for their building). He also commissioned a string of notable architects to create or renovate homes for himself: Craig Elwood in Palm Springs (1970), Etorre Sottsass in Malibu (1984), Coy Howard in Beverly Hills (1988).

Palm Springs House
Photo: Richard Barnes


In 2000, Palevsky commissioned me to write a book about the three houses and how they responded to their site, the art collection, and his life. The incomparable Richard Barnes photographed the buildings. Palevsky showed me around the houses and told me about his love for them and everything in them. What I remember most is wandering through the Malibu house and stopping in front of an absolutely perfect Giorgio Morandi still life. Palevsky claimed that a painting by that same artist had hung in that place for twenty years, but that each time he found a better one, he sold the one he owned and bought the replacement.

My favorite house was the Palm Springs retreat, where he once cavorted with the Rolling Stones Magazine crew (he rescued the magazine with a financial injection, and told me that what he regretted most about his life was that his doctors forbade him, after three heart operations, to drop any more acid), and which is an oasis of white walls carved out from the desert boulders. The house seemed to consist of little more than parallel white walls supporting floating roofs, leaving the space between open to flow from interiors to courtyards and patios.


PS House
Photo: Richard Barnes

In contrast, the Beverly Hills house was an attempt by Coy Howard to carve coherence out of a rambling, Spanish Revival villa. Over almost a decade, the architect sliced away at the white stucco walls, inserting marble slabs to create local symmetries. He added wooden slabs to extend the order and create relationships between the walls and the collection of Arts & Crafts furniture within the space. Everywhere you turned, your eye or your hand would find a moment of coherence etched into the walls, the ceilings, or the floors.


BH House
Photo: Richard Barnes

Unlike some of his architects, Palevsky did not have a grand vision, nor were his tastes defined. He loved to argue with his architects, but he also gave them great latitude to experiment and to push their ideas to extremes. He loved well-made things, he loved sensuality, but he also seemed to love the framing of such qualities in the abstractions of modernism. He was the kind of client who responded to clever ideas, clear order, and beautiful composition. He seemed to me above all else a Californian (despite his working class Chicago roots) who lived in the fragmented, joyful, but also tentative remains of a utopia that drives the physical, economic, and cultural development of that state of mind. He leaves us with a few, but gorgeous, contributions to that collage of the American dream.


Comments (1 Total)

  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 7:40 PM Sunday, August 01, 2010

    Yes Aaron, When we visited Max at his Malibu home my wife Alison melted when she saw the Morandi still life. Max said Morandi was his favorite artist and we spent a wonderful evening talking art. We miss him. eric chavkin alison pinsler

    Report this as offensive

Comment on this Post

Post your comment below. If you wish, enter a username and password though they are not required. Please read our Content Guidelines before posting.


Enter the code shown in the image

Username is optional


Enter a password if you want a username


About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.