The Los Angeles offices of Platform for Architecture + Research (PAR)—winner of the 2014 Presidential Emerging Practice Award from AIA Los Angeles—claim a portion of the ninth floor of the American Cement Building, designed in 1964 by DMJM (which was subsequently acquired by AECOM), as part of a pilot program for the state of California to investigate new seismic engineering strategies. The deep, X-shaped braces of the building’s concrete exoskeleton frame views of the Hollywood Hills to the northwest, Koreatown directly north, and to the edges of MacArthur Park to the northeast. It’s within this structurally expressive setting that, on the last day of preparations for a submittal to the Guggenheim Helsinki Design Competition, PAR founder Jennifer Marmon, AIA, discusses the possibilities afforded by participation—and measured success—in high-profile architectural competitions.
Marmon sees the competition process as an opportunity to build and demonstrate the firm’s skillsets. By working on competition entries, PAR can build relationships with leading structural engineering firms like Arup and BuroHappold. “Obviously we’re not demonstrating to the same level as we would if we had won,” Marmon says. “However, we’re developing potential architecture to a level that’s taken quite seriously by our collaborators, by ourselves, and now also by prospective clients. For us, when we’re pursuing these competitions, it’s a ‘less is more’ approach. We don’t do every one that comes along. We take them very seriously in terms of the selection and the team building.”
Win some, lose some
PAR didn’t win the competition for a different project in Finland, the Helsinki Central Library—that went to a Finnish firm from a shortlist of Scandinavians. “In the end, it seemed that the competition was quite political even though it was advertised as an open international competition,” Marmon says.
“But for us,” she says, “it was an opportunity to cultivate our skill sets and our relationships with consultants, and to elevate our working methods. We were working with Russell Fortmeyer from Arup on this project, which was set in a master plan that Alvar Aalto had designed. Besides the question of what a 21st century library would be in this context, the competition required a zero-carbon building. We became very interested in how the massing would achieve that mandate.
“Urbanistically, we wanted the building to read as a monolith in the landscape, that would have a crystalline quality and a degree of transparency that we felt would reflect the culture of that place. We were using [Autodesk] Ecotect linked into our initial formal studies, and understood that utilizing a concave geometry on the envelope would allow us to optimize access to daylight for programmatic purposes. We also carried that through to the scale of the skin.”
The skin and its development have caught enough attention within the industry that Marmon and Fortmeyer ended up presenting the proposal, dubbed “Extreme Ocularity,” at the Façades + Innovation conference in 2012, before the competition jury even had announced the shortlist.
Origins of a practice
Marmon says that earning her M.Arch. at the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc) was highly influential to the direction of her practice. “Toward the end of my studies, during my thesis, I was fortunate enough to have two mentors: Jeffrey Inaba, [Assoc. AIA,] a very inspiring, brilliant architect, who was coming from Harvard and had been working as a principal of AMO at the time. So he was bringing a depth of research and analysis to our discussion. And Neil Denari, [AIA, against whom Marmon was competing for the Keelung Harbor Gateway,] who was the director of SCI-Arc at the time, and has since gone to UCLA.
“Both of them had a very strong impact on me, given their sets of interests and their intelligence. I was really interested in developing a design process that would incorporate research and analysis that would be of a depth where I felt we were uncovering information that could add value for a final design product for a client. It’s a design process that probably aligns closely with a Dutch or Danish design process, as a counterpoint to what is maybe more predominant in Los Angeles. For me, I see form as a resultant of analysis.”
For PAR, the work tends to evolve along trajectories informed by three fundamentals that Marmon pursues in every project: The urbanistic response to site conditions, a response to environmental performance, and the programmatic and social performance. “We see the programmatic and the social as being very linked,” Marmon says. “I recognize that most architects practicing address these three fundamentals, but I think the differentiation is in small decisions that are made along the way that make the work unique. Well, we’re not striving to be unique, and we’re not really formally driven with a capital F, but rather really interested in a process of analysis that brings multiple factors or parameters together in a very synthesized response to the problem.”
As Marmon and her team wrap up the final renderings for their Guggenheim Helsinki entry, she mentions a few other commissions that will keep the office busy over the next several months. Up the hill from one of PAR’s completed residences, the M House, a client has purchased an empty lot with which Marmon is already familiar. “Oddly enough,” she says, “I’d already designed a preliminary scheme for this vacant lot for a prospective buyer of the land several years ago, … [and] now this new buyer contacted us. Sometimes in L.A., you kind of have expertise in a certain neighborhood, and people hear about you, and you end up designing multiple projects in the same neighborhood.”
Another long-term project is a ranch in the beach town of José Ignacio, Uruguay, with its own equestrian facilities. And the recent AIA|LA award, in addition to validating the avenues of design and research that the firm pursues, may prove to be good for business as well. “It’s really too soon to say what will come of it,” Marmon says, “but this award is opening channels to a few prospective clients and developers.”