Fab Friday with Michael Lehrer

Was it Winston Churchill who said: “We shape our buildings, therefore they shape us”? (How about we’ll just pretend for now that I came up with that.) It’s fab concept, and it’s why architecture is so close to my heart. And who better to discuss it with than architecture master Michael Lehrer?

Michael’s 30-year-old company, Lehrer Architects, has won over 70 awards in its almost 30 years, and Michael himself has consistently popped up in publications like Architectural Digest, ARCHITECT, Business Week, Metropolitan Homes, and The New York Times. I’m going to quote his website for a moment, because his philosophy is so poetic:

“His work, from the intimate to the monumental, is grounded in the idea that beauty is a rudiment of human dignity. He designs for community with a reverence for light and space. Delight is a matter of extreme gravitas in the work.”

Let’s get chatting!

Robin Baron: Welcome Michael!! Tell me about some of your recent projects.

Michael Lehrer: We just finished the Reseda Park Community Pool for the City of Los Angeles.  Grand opening was last week. It is of very modest scale.

It was low-budget, basically enough to build a new competitive outdoor pool, pave the adjacent area and adjacent parking, and to fence it. Nothing more. My initial response—which became the project–was to turn the fencing and paving into significant emblematic, functional, and joyous architecture.  We did.  Squeezing value out of every dollar is really ALWAYS the work of design; never more so than when you have a tiny budget and a deserving community.

Reseda Project, Photo Credit: Lehrer Architects

It is an exhilarating project, turning chain link and fabric into gauzy, light and light-filled towers and cabanas that celebrate the pool, the park, the boulevard and the community.

Reseda Project, Photo Credit: Lehrer Architects

RB: I always say that inspiration can come from anywhere. Where do you gain inspiration for your projects?

ML: The play of natural light and its shadow.  That is universally present and always exploitable. Also, whatever site I am working on. My gift has to be to find beauty where others don’t or can’t. My job is to mine any place or job I work on for every ounce of beauty possible.

Light and shadow inspiration
Light and shadow inspiration
Light and shadow inspiration
Light and shadow inspiration

RB: I’d love to hear a little bit about your design process. 

ML: Projects last from weeks to years.  We are in construction on several wonderful, inexpensive homes in South LA that we were hired to design about 3 months ago.  We just had a house in Architectural Digest that was a 12 year process and cost many, many, many times the amount of money. Excellent outcomes are the fix under all circumstances.

Photo Credit: Benny Chan, Fotoworks
Photo Credit: Benny Chan, Fotoworks
Photo Credit: Benny Chan, Fotoworks

While an overall solution often appears instantaneously or quickly, solving it fully, assuring design excellence and buildability can take months.  We begin by solving the problems as straightforwardly as possible.  We build lots of models….fast.  Out of foam core, on the computer, every which way we can to quickly and potently cut to the chase.  Our process, at best, is one of ongoing discovery. We are extremely opportunisitic  designers.

RB: My team is such an important part of what I do. Can you tell me about your team?

ML: I work with very bright, very open, very kind and very tough colleagues.  I count on their intelligence and honesty.  If they are not telling me what’s on their minds, they are not fully availing me of their creative capacity. Tough critique, mutual respect and admiration, and rejoicing in the hard creative process are team requirements.

LA Office, Photo Credit: Benny Chan, Fotoworks

RB: You’re all about community. Why do you think it’s so important?

ML: Community is important because ultimately, it’s all we got.  We are part of so many communities at once.  Giving form to community, and to its aspirations, to its vision of its best self—is the foundational act of the architect. I love building community. Love it.

RB: What would you say is the key to your success?

ML: I do what I love. The word “architect” still has magical qualities for me; over 300 buildings, dozens of major design awards, almost 35 years in practice, and 50 years since I decided to be an architect. I still can’t quite believe that I am actually an architect that gets things built…and they can even be a bit beautiful.

RB: How would you describe your own home decor?

ML: Mia and I live in a home in the Los Feliz District of Los Angeles.  It is where I was born and bred.  The home was built in 1926.  It is 3 stories high, with commanding views of greater LA.  When we bought the house, it was sold to us as a one-story, 2,000 sf house with an attic and a basement. It felt that way except the basement was above ground and the attic was a 2,000 square foot space with a peaked roof 20 feet above.  Interventions have been to open it up to light and landscape over the  years. Sensibility is Modernist, but built of 1920’s bones.

My studio was in the top floor “attic” for 20 years before I bought my warehouse building in Silverlake, 7 years ago.  Our 3 children grew up with a design studio—employees and projects—above their head and part of their lives; and I was present for their entire childhood.

RB: I always ask this question, because people in the art and design world tend to have such great answers! What is element of your home that everyone always comments on?

ML: The house, 3 stories of activity and places is like a treehouse. It is fun, full of interesting places, and tied very much to the LA landscape with views of the big mountains to the east, the Hollywood Hills to the north and west, the Pacific to the southwest and Downtown to the South east.

RB: What does fabulous mean to you?

ML: I have several superlatives that are a regular part of my vocabulary.  Fabulous isn’t a stalwart, but it is a great word.  When something is fabulous it probably is approaching flamboyant, but not; it almost is beyond belief, but it is not; and it produces a huge smile of delight and satisfaction.