Designing lofts in Los Angeles, Giovannini Associates explored the power of paint.
Joseph Giovannini -- Interior Design, 8/1/2011 6:26:00 PM
I've written architecture criticism for so long that no one really remembers I'm trained as an architect, despite my degree. And the U.S. is not Italy, where Renaissance men and women write and design, both, and no one blinks. If I want to build, I have to phone. . .myself.
Opportunity knocked one day near Chinatown in Los Angeles, where my family has owned a commercial building since the 1930's. As I walked up the street to pay a gas bill, I spotted a "for sale" sign on a former telephone-company garage with a deco meets Spanish colonial facade, circa 1935. When the real-estate agent rolled the big garage door open, goose bumps erupted. Herculean bow trusses vaulted 125 feet across the column-free space. The filigreed trusswork looked like the ribs of a compressed Gothic cathedral.
Because I had just converted my family's building into lofts, I already knew what the rental market would bear. Within seconds, I visualized 14 lofts in the garage's seven bays, with a corridor running down the middle. I figured I could mortgage my New York apartment and leverage the whole deal. Lest the project cost me my marriage, however, I immediately called my wife. "Just keep it simple," she said.
Honestly, I did intend to keep it simple. But once I did the as-built drawings, I noticed that the industrial regularity of the 18,500-square-foot building was deceptive. Each wall of the rectangle was different. The middle bays had skylights; the sloping roofs of the end bays didn't. I realized I could, even should, react to all the differences rather than to the similarities, and I started to build on the distinctive features as I made my way from one bay to the next. Each succeeding loft differed from the last.
As the critic who'd coined the term deconstructivism in 1987, I wasn't about to abandon my principles just because I now had to pay for them. My rule was: If I could afford it, I would do it. I kept the construction and materials simple. I exposed the joists, sandblasted the concrete floor, and bought off-the-shelf kitchens. I used mostly wood and very little steel.
The trusses forced me to design each loft as a long, tall shoe box, the only "architecture" being the mezzanines that would serve as bedrooms. Inspired by the arching roof to curve the balustrades in plan, I shaped them as free-floating ribbons or angular planes spanning the length of each box. The vertiginous ceiling height acted as a grow light, encouraging me to play with the height of the balustrades. Some rise more than 10 feet above the mezzanine floor-most leaning. Perhaps I got drunk on the voluminous space, but I did think everything through. I devised a basic structural system, cantilevering balcony joists to support railings overhanging the bottom of the joists, so the railings appear to float.
I was surprised when the no-nonsense bureaucrats at the building department pronounced the plan, which looks a little like a drawing by Wassily Kandinsky, to be "a prize-winner." And I was thrilled when the suits at the bank offered me a construction loan. The general contractor gave me a good bid, because the apparent complexity was actually rational and buildable, all based on a cheap secret: a simple steel angle that connects the cantilevered joists to the balcony studs.
Of course, I'm not really a developer. The point was to test ideas, especially about perception. In most of my designs, I apply Renaissance techniques-forced perspective, anamorphic illusion, axonometric projection-to trick space and draw viewers through constantly shifting architectural vistas. With curving and angled forms seen in contrast, the spaces are relational, not discrete. The experience evolves. Curves, playing off curves, move traffic. The same goes for angles against angles.
Applying drawing techniques that were developed to carve 3-D spaces from 2-D media, I designed hyper-spatialized lofts with zoomy, accelerating lines. Then it occurred to me that, if painting techniques can produce the illusion of dimensionality, I could also reverse the process, recasting spaces as paintings. I could collapse the third dimension back into the second. After construction, I began painting color across multiple planes, so the blocks seem to levitate off the wall and fuse in space. I was inspired by the suprematist Kazimir Malevich, who floated color blocks in what he called "white infinities" in his quest for the mystical fourth dimension. In addition, I looked at his architect student, El Lissitzky, who used axonometric projection to create irrational forms in "impossible" spaces that don't tote up to Renaissance wholes. Think M.C. Escher.
Taking over one of the lofts as the live-work L.A. studio of Giovannini Associates, I floated paintings off walls, so the color blocks seem to occupy space themselves. Then I had furniture built with planes that actually float, deepening the illusion. When I walk through my studio, I feel distinctly like I'm moving through a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma-as Winston Churchill once said about the Soviet Union. Space seems to oscillate between the second and third dimensions, pulsing on its way to the fourth.
My daughter calls the loft awesome. In the 19th century, awe was a criterion by which theorists judged a building. Yes, my goal was nothing less than a sense of wonder.
Photography by Tom Bonner.
evelyn kalka (project architect); aaron paul brakke; rodrigo monsalve: giovannini associates. dimitry vergun: structural engineer. unicon group: general contractor.
IKEA: LAMPS (BEDROOM).
AVEC: OTTOMANS (BEDROOM), CHAISE (LIVING AREA).
NATIONWIDE GLASS & GLAZING CONTRACTORS: CUSTOM WINDOWS.
BENJAMIN MOORE & CO.: PAINT.