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Los Angeles As Architectural Study: An Interview With Peter Zellner

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A building is a symbol. It is a body that reflects cultures, lifestyles, and aesthetic movements in addition to housing various communities and ideological practices. A person’s home or office or business is a container of space but also a representation of thoughts past, present, and future.

Los Angeles has a lot of buildings that are symbols of something more than what they are. For example, the new space for art establishment Night Gallery is more than a place for artists to hang work or socialize. It is an experiment in repurposing a non-traditional art space and lacks a prioritization or direct focus in regard to spatial flow. There is no right or wrong way to travel through the space nor is there a right or wrong way to use the space. It is itself a casual, good looking, simple Angeleno.

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Peter Zellner is the architect behind the space. He—along with galleriest Davida Nemeroff and Mieke Marple—came up with the space’s concept after considering their previous space and considering the needs of their new space. Peter frequently revisits the space and is very much involved in the Night Gallery community. He sits at the West end of Night’s “office” table, facing the Yunhee Min colorfully tinted windows.

“I’m curious if some of the informal things happening in this space can be tested in a city,” he says, looking around. The sounds of a saw is heard in the background: Mieke and her father are prepping the space for its latest opening. “Would there be a thesis for taking LA’s informality and start to use it to design new public spaces?” he asks. He knows the answer—and it’s only a matter of time before he can convince the rest of the architectural world of this idea.

Peter is very informed by Los Angeles as a geographic foundation and a ground to stir up new ideological practices in architecture. He’s a very well travelled man but Los Angeles has played a huge role in his life: his parents met here. “My dad was a Romanian painter and designer and my mother is an opera singer from Nicaragua,” he explains. “They met here in the sixties, when my dad was working for Ray and Charles Eames and my mom was studying voice with Bobby McFerrin’s dad, Robert McFerrin, at UCLA.”

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“They moved to New York and had me and I spent my early formative years there while my father worked at the Metropolitan Museum as an exhibition designer and my mom sang with the New York City Opera. We moved out here in 1974 or 1975 when my dad got a job at LACMA, again as an exhibition designer. I was here until the late seventies, early eighties but, when my parents split, I ended up in La Jolla where I graduated from high school.”

Peter then spent a decade in Australia working and in school and then returned to America, to the East coast, for his graduate architecture studies at Harvard. This started initiated years of jumping around to follow where his education and his work and his passions led him.  “I was here for a year after Harvard and then went to New York for three or four years and I’ve been basically here on and off since 2003. I set up my firm after having worked for a couple of large firms in New York and LA. When I was in Harvard, I studied with Rem Koolhaas so I did a stint in Rotterdam at OMA and lived in Paris and London. I’ve been all around.”

“So why Los Angeles?” he asks himself, opening the conversation to his current work and the city’s influence. “It’s funny because this is the one place that for me links up all of these geographic points. It seems to be the place that I keep coming back to (and my mom is here and my daughter is here).”

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“But this Spring? I was in Paris, Mexico City, Chicago, Toronto, Florida, New York: I was bouncing around a lot, teaching in at the University of Florida and at the Ecole Speciale in Paris, in Los Angeles at SCI-Arc and finally I did a workshop in Mexico City. Every time I came back to LA, even though people can claim there’s nothing special here, I was always happy to get off the plane and feel like I’m at home…even though home is this vast, empty, disconnected field. I’m a big fan of this city. I really am.”

Peter considers himself a Los Angeles architect, which is distinctly different in style and attitude from architects of other cities. The tie to this city offers a much more unique, often collaborative, approach to making. Other cities do not have this specific, relaxed air of community to them. “I am a Los Angeles architect. I’m not a New York architect or a Paris architect or San Francisco architect. In a lot of other cities, architects have a much more formalized relationship to their community. They are far less casual, in a way. My work is fundamentally grounded in this groundless place. The degree to which I’m interested in things like the ordinary or the instantaneousness of a space like Night Gallery, which came out of a communal model of bottom up instead of top down organization is important. That can only happen in LA.”

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“If I look at a lot of the work that I do, a lot of my interests focus around trying to translate this place. I’m not trying to concretize it but I’m trying to make something new out of it. I can’t imagine operating somewhere else as an architect. So much of East coast architecture has an Atlantic and Eurocentric focus. In LA, most of my interests come from the global South (since I’ve been working in Mexico) and half of my identity is from there (since my mother is Nicaraguan). I also look over to Asia as I’ve lived and worked in Tokyo.”

“I’m very interested in a Pacific-centric discussion. I’m much more interested in that circuit,” Peter asserts, alluding to the larger architectural community Los Angeles is a part of. Given that we are on the edge of the Pacific and communicating across to Asia and Australia and beyond, what could Los Angeles possibly provide to these much older and much more celebrated architectural cultures?

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“Two things,” Peter answers. “I feel like there is a long history of ideas transiting back and forth across the Pacific. When Frank Lloyd Wright went to Tokyo to design the Imperial Hotel and came back, it was clear—at least to me– that his protégé Rudolf Schindler was exposed to the Japanese idea of interior spaces opening onto the exterior. This idea later flowed through the architectural work of Ray and Charles and Eames. This is West Coast Modernism as we know it.”

“If you look at European Modernism and how it was interpreted on the East coast, most of the classic examples—Philip Johnson’s house—are sealed off from the environment or placed above it. If you look at West Coast or Asian Modernism, there’s much more of an interest in integrating the building into the landscape, whether it is ideas that came from traditional Japanese architecture that infiltrated West coast 1950s Case Study architecture or the influence of somebody like Mexican architect Luis Barragán, who made massive, thickened, insulated, deep structures that allow interior spaces to remain open even when it’s hot. That is what I call a conversation about a Pacific architecture that goes back and forth between the Americas and Asia.”

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“For instance, I know that Japanese architect Tadao Ando was very influenced by Barragán’s work and that Kenzo Tange’s architectural work in Mexico City influenced architects in Mexico and, I would argue that if you look at Thom Mayne or Neil Denari’s work in LA, you would see an interest in the Japanese Modernism and Metabolist movement of the 1960s. There’s always been this discourse over the Pacific and, and having lived in Australia, it’s not just East/West but North/South too.”

“And not one culture is dominant,” he adds, something that most people in this city can agree with. It’s a unique challenge that we all embrace in this city. “Los Angeles, despite its degradations, allows for you to cross borders. You can engage with it from so many different areas be it cuisine or music or art, which is the space that we are in right now. There’s so much to absorb. It’s interesting because, in reference to what the culture of LA is and the criticism that there is no culture here, I think quite the opposite has occurred: there are so many cultures that it is hard to figure out which one to pick.”

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Turning to Night Gallery as a case study of cultural fluidity, community based practices, and the general relaxed posture of architecture in Los Angeles, all of Peter’s ideologies are very apparent. “One of important  things about Night Gallery is that Mieke and Davida operate a commercial gallery that, for all intents and purposes, is also an artists’ run place. Their programming here—and historically in their Highland Park space—is part social setting, club, art gallery, and part performance venue. What they decided on for the new space was to have no hierarchy. There is no front door or back door: there are three different entry points.”

“Where we are sitting right now—the de facto office—is completely accessible to the public. If you come here during an opening, you’ll find people wandering in and around and through these rooms. The lounge behind is meant to replicate the social space of the original Night Gallery too. One thing I would offer in my understanding of the task I was given was to see if I could translate the collaborative nature of the old space, which is based on adapting a strip mall space, into a new gallery without over formalizing it and without producing a blue chip effect. As a result, I hope the artists who work in here feel liberated because there is no right way to use the space.”

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“The windows, which Yunhee Min painted and Davida refers to as landscape pieces, have this great coloring that produces all these great hues that paint the walls pink, fuschia , blue yellow and green. That was an ad hoc thing that happened and, what I have enjoyed about working with Night Gallery is that it has been highly collaborative. It’s hard to tell where my ideas start and where Davida and Mieke’s ideas end. Then there are all these artists that transform the space. It’s a very different model in terms of how to execute a gallery.”

This brings up another question: how does one traditionally execute a gallery space? Peter looks to a previous project in Los Angeles that fulfilled the more traditional role of a gallery. “If you look at West Hollywood’s Matthew Marks—which is my first building—it’s a very beautiful and well executed project (if I don’t say so myself). It engages the public in the ways that you’d expect. You enter and there is a small reception area, to the left there’s a small project room, and—once you’ve gone through either of those zones—you get to the main space, which is the big ticket experience. The front of house is like a filter and most galleries operate that way: you have to go through a series of checkpoints before you can engage the art. Normally you go to the front desk, you look at the catalogue, you may ask a question about the art, and you wander into a gallery and experience art and you leave.”

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“At Night Gallery, you don’t have a clear idea of when you enter or where to leave. We actually have plans to do a sculpture garden outside to help extend the gallery into the parking lot. A few weeks ago we built a shaded area for a series of simple benches we designed. Night Gallery also represents an approach to creativity that is messier and more unpredictable than the established models of showing art. I think it is a generational thing too. This for me is in a way Night Gallery model of how the rest of culture is starting to operate, bottom up, collective and open ended.”

The culture of a city as the starting point for architectural design is an idea that Peter is fascinated with. He feels that what we are doing here as a city in response to the city’s oddity in pre-existing architecture, communities, and cultures can be valuable to other cities. He’s trying to apply and spread this thought as much as he can: he wants Los Angeles to end its habit of making monstrous, huge, unruly structures and focus on the smaller and more little by little developments. “A theory that I wrote for the Architect’s Newspaper regarding the Grand Avenue Project (which is effectively cancelled now) is that by default when it comes to doing urban space, LA always wants to do mega-projects. Whether it is a football stadium or a mall, it’s these top down, massively risky and heavily leveraged projects that in today’s economy are incredibly hard to move forward with. The article I wrote asked the question of whether or not we could work with the DNA of Los Angeles, which is piecemeal and made up of a variety of spaces and full of segmented communities. How could we develop parts of the city that we want to move forward without having a giant football stadium placed on top of it?”

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Adopting Los Angeles’ architectural problems and seeking practical solutions is a priority for Peter because Los Angeles as a city is a priority to him: this is his city. He doesn’t have any plans to leave it—but he has lots of plans to improve it. “I’m not leaving Los Angeles. I’m certainly committed to this place,” he says. “I’ve been teaching at SCI-Arc for ten years and something I would like to do, which is obviously projection, is work on larger scale issues.”

“Is there is a way to think about divvying up large chunks of space worth redeveloping, and spreading the burden of risk to fifty instead of one developer, who could all work with small groups of designers and communities so that you could implement a project with less burden and would produce, not as an edifice but actually a community of competing and rich environments? You could produce a more diverse city. What does that look like? It’s like making a city out of confetti and not a giant cakes. That’s what I’d like to see.”

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Peter also wants to enact a few new ideas that will bring the city together a little more, getting all sorts of Angelenos involved in creating the city. “I’ve been thinking of setting up something called FAACCT, The Foundation for Art, Architecture, Communities, Cities, and Transit. I’d like to see if we can take the everydayness of Los Angeles and translate it into something with political leverage.”

He laughs, aware of how lofty the idea is. “That’s a fantasy! But, at some point, it would be nice to get out of working in the private world and start pushing around a public discourse. Old development models assume something is wrong with Los Angeles. I don’t. There are many things that could be improved but there are plenty of indicators that we what are working on, things like our transit network, will eventually integrate the city and make it better.”

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“Then there’s the argument that Los Angeles is ugly,” he tosses into the conversation of LA architectural aesthetics. “Well, it’s ugly if you look at it with the wrong lenses. It’s also incredibly diverse and beautiful and ad hoc and everyday and beautifully ordinary in ways that other cities are not. If you could advocate for a future that isn’t a brand new utopian vision and realistically working with what we have, that would be an interesting way of making spaces that would impact people’s lives in a more immediate fashion. It would be smaller scale and would be like this gallery: it wouldn’t fit a known model. It would allow people—like the artists at Night Gallery—to make this their own places. It wouldn’t privilege singular interests but would opportunize new public interests.”

Peter laughs again. “That’s very pie in the sky,” he says. “In the meantime, I’d like to do more projects in LA, specifically some houses. And maybe some collaborative art projects.”

For more on Peter, be sure to check out his firm’s website and blog and follow him on Twitter. The shows featured in the opening photos at Night Gallery is CULM. It is on view through September 28.

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