Bestor Architecture, The Community Pool, 2016 [courtesy of Barbara Bestor]

Poolside Chat

This casual chat between architect Barbara Bestor and curator Brooke Hodge begins with the autobiographical and ends with topics such as architectural heroes and forthcoming curatorial aspirations.

Bestor is the founder of Bestor Architecture and executive director of the Julius Shulman Institute at Woodbury University, one of the few institutions with a specific focus on photography that explores the architectural environment. Hodge was recently named the Palm Springs Art Museum’s first Director of Architecture & Design. Here, the two discuss connections between Sao Paulo’s Lina Bo Bardi and Palm Springs’ Albert Frey before delving into the color palette of the Paul Williams-designed Beverly Hills Hotel.

Brooke Hodge: I was thinking about when I first met you, which was right after I moved to Los Angeles and right before you moved to Providence. What I really remember is the house that you built in Echo Park, an early house of yours, and how much I loved that house. After you decided to sell it, I wished I could have bought it. It’s still in my mind. There was something about the openness, and also the intimacy and how you used color and pattern, that just spoke to me. I can still picture myself living in that house … maybe someday!

Then, when I was thinking about that just now, I realized, “Well if that’d … happened, then I’m sure I never would’ve moved to New York because I would’ve been really happy living in that house in Los Angeles.” If I hadn’t moved to New York, I wouldn’t have ended up here in Palm Springs.

Barbara Bestor: You had to go on the helical revolution of coast to coast.

Brooke: Exactly, and going to New York made me realize that I only ever want to live in California.

Barbara: I guess I feel that way too. For architecture and design, this is definitely the only place I could imagine living and working.

Bestor Architecture, “The Big Saguaro,” 2016 [courtesy of Barbara Bestor]

Brooke: I moved to Los Angeles on New Year’s Eve of 2000. So much has changed here since then. When I moved to New York two years ago to work at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, I started to hear so many stories about everybody leaving the East Coast to go to Los Angeles. You were establishing your practice about 15 years ago, and since then LA has become more established. Architects were always drawn to Los Angeles, but I found that a lot of designers, especially product designers, hadn’t considered establishing themselves in Los Angeles until more recently. Probably because New York was still the place to be for design then. Back in the late 90s and early aughts, artists graduating from schools here would gravitate toward New York, where there were more galleries, and more important galleries. Now, to see all of that coming back to find its real home in LA, it’s been really interesting. And inspiring. Shaun [Caley] Regen, another important LA woman, should get a lot of credit for changing the general perception of LA as an art and design hub!

Barbara: I think even in the fashion world, so many fashion designers from Europe now live and work here, even though they’re connected to a fashion house in Milan or Paris or Antwerp.

Brooke: That’s true. It’s interesting because designers like Hedi Slimane, Raf Simons, and Jeremy Scott were coming to Los Angeles right when I was first there. And now, of course, Jeremy Scott has bought Lautner’s Elrod House in Palm Springs.

Barbara: I didn’t know that. John Lautner attracts the best!

Brooke: A lot of those interesting designers felt that they would have more inspiration and freedom in Los Angeles. Do you believe that, with architecture, you have more freedom to experiment or to try new things in LA?

Barbara: I think that’s why most architects have come here. That it is “The West” in the mythic sense that you can reinvent yourself, there are fewer rules and more land. The traditional American notion of Western expansiveness is changing now. For us in Los Angeles, as architects we are looking more at densification and adaptive reuse as opposed to empty land where you can build the experimental fantasy one-off. It is, nonetheless, an excellent, experimental environment that’s very hospitable to different kinds of clients and different kinds of projects.

When you mentioned the artists, it made me think of David Hockney, who has lived here for so many years that we now think of him as “from here.” I think of him because the loose topic of this issue is the swimming pool, and LA as a place of pools.

Brooke: Pools as spectacle.

You think of the pool as a social realm, and not just a leisure and play space.

-Brooke Hodge

Bestor Architecture, California Land of Fruits and NutsHalo, 2016 [courtesy of Barbara Bestor]

Barbara: The body in the pool and even the swimming suit on the body in the pool or near the pool are such activators of the architectural or aesthetic environment. Thinking about Hockney reminds me of the pools at some of the Lautner houses because of the focus on the body and the water as shaped forms. We’re working on Lautner’s Silvertop house, and then there is the pool at LACMA’s Sheats-Goldstein house, that both have pools with glass panel inserts—creating voyeuristic views where it appears that the bodies in the pool swimming are on display, like an aquarium.

Brooke: That’s exactly the pool I was thinking of. It is the pool and the occupation of the pool as spectacle. It is making sense that you think of the pool as a social realm, and not just a leisure and play space. There’s also Kulapat Yantrasast’s “cinematic window” onto the pool at his house in Venice. The famous photograph by Slim Aarons of Neutra’s Kaufmann house is so focused on the pool and the house—and, of course, on the glamorous women who sit poolside. But the pool has almost as much weight and importance as the house in that photograph.

When you were talking about the pool as a social space, I was thinking that of course the model for me, growing up on the East Coast, was the TV show Melrose Place. The setting was a small apartment complex with a pool, and the cast was always gathered around the pool, and their stories played out around the pool.

Barbara: In Raymond Chandler’s LA noir stories, too, that courtyard-bungalow-complex typology was really the way that people who moved to LA met other people. You actually had neighbors and communal space. I think that kind of communal space is what we’re interested in at my office these days, how to create moments of community in a densifying city. I think the pool is an interesting way to do it. We’re doing a project in Palm Springs now where we actually have pools on the roof, which is a very extravagant thing to do.

Brooke: I was going to ask you about that. Because, of course, here we are out in the desert and it’s very dry here, except Palm Springs sits on a major aquifer. The idea of pools here, because it is a resort town ultimately, is really important to its identity as a leisure community. Introducing water into a desert landscape and into a state that’s severely water-challenged presents its own conundrums. Did that come into play when thinking about your project?

Barbara: Our pools are going to be very small, but it’s the lawns that are the horrible water wasters. Pools are fairly static and don’t constantly add new water. I think our most progressive ideas here have to do with carbon footprint reduction through increased density. Rather than spread out single-level ranch-style houses on a half-acre, we are proposing to take all the elements of a classic Palm Springs hacienda and stack them. The bungalows are three stories with a pool on the roof, essentially urbanizing the Palm Springs house. People rent these for a couple of days or a week, and it takes the Airbnb rentals out of the single-family residential neighborhoods and puts them in the walkable downtown. But they still have amenities of renting a whole house as opposed to the higher prices and smaller rooms at hotels. It’s interesting typologically. It verticalizes the “too-flat” ideal of midcentury Palm Springs. Plus it’s a good Instagram, getting in a pool on a roof right in front of the mountains.

Pools are great in terms of the boundless shape and form possibilities, too; I am enamored with a Jayne Mansfield heart-shaped pool from the 60s. But the pool allows you to give shape to your thematic ideal or minimalist modern ideal, too.

Barbara: Speaking of midcentury modern ideals, I’m trying to do this Paul Williams show next year …

Brooke: You are?

Barbara: Yeah, I’m working with the artist Janna Ireland. She’s a young artist with a unique take on photography. She’s a photographer from the fine art realm but she’s interested in architecture.

Bestor Architecture, Floating Bungalow, 2016 [courtesy of Barbara Bestor]

Brooke: Is it going to be at the Julius Shulman Institute?

Barbara: Yes. Paul Williams is terribly undervalued among the ranks of California form givers. His experimentation in architecture isn’t in the official history of the avant-garde but is nonetheless experimental and open. His range spread across all kinds of typologically different projects. His work is often so beautiful and graphically distinct. I love, for instance, the graphics and color elements of the Beverly Hills Hotel, especially the café.

Brooke: The color palette for the Beverly Hills Hotel—that pink is a pink that I remember because, when Kelly Lynch and Mitch Glazer bought the Lautner house in Los Feliz, the Harvey Residence, the pink of the Beverly Hills Hotel was what Kelly was looking to match. The other thing that’s really interesting is that Paul Williams created these amazingly glamorous, important projects at a time when he was probably one of the only, if not the only, African-American architects practicing in the United States. It’s still really mind blowing.

Barbara: I feel like we don’t really know enough about his work yet. That’s why I want to do this show. I hope it will encourage larger museums and galleries to get it together and do a bigger show, as well as archive the work!

Brooke: I am also interested in mining some of the many layers of Palm Springs history through exhibitions and other curatorial projects at the Palm Springs Art Museum. Palm Springs has such a fascinating history composed of many cultural and historic layers: Native American, Spanish, the early homesteaders, the “desert modernists,” Hollywood, artists, and an early bohemian hippie culture of “nature seekers.” I find that so interesting because that is why so many of us—and I put myself in that camp—have come out here to the desert, to have more of a connection to nature and the majesty of the mountain landscape while also being part of a sophisticated, inspiring community. I’m imagining a series of exhibitions or investigations that will start to link together all of these important moments in the cultural and architectural history of Palm Springs, the high desert, and the Coachella Valley.

I was thinking about how we all have architectural heroes. In grad school I did some work on Julia Morgan and, at that point, I thought about doing my thesis on her as well. I’ve always been interested in her as a woman architect, one of the very first to have her own practice. I wondered who are some of the people who have inspired you.

Barbara: I’ve had a long love affair with Lina Bo Bardi’s work. And then, literally yesterday, I saw this new project by Amanda Levete in Lisbon, and the Zaha Hadid project in the Port of Antwerp. I’m getting excited; this is a really good week for amazing women architects. I’m also inspired by architects who transgress disciplinary boundaries, like Gio Ponti, Eileen Gray, and Alvar Aalto. I used to obsess about Aalto, believe it or not, maybe not so much for color but really for texture, form, and shape.

Brooke: We are doing an exhibition here at the Palm Springs Art Museum Architecture and Design Center on a connection between Lina Bo Bardi and Albert Frey. It’s part of the Getty’s next series of Pacific Standard Time exhibitions set to open fall 2017. It focuses on two projects by each of them, and will look at them as European architects who set up shop in places that, at the time, were considered “the new frontier”: Frey here in Palm Springs, and Bo Bardi in Sao Paulo, Brazil. We haven’t been able to ascertain yet that they ever met, but Bo Bardi, when she was working for Ponti at Domus, published Frey’s “In Search of a Living Architecture” essay. She translated it into Italian with images she found. Unfortunately, she didn’t credit Frey, but it shows their shared interest in connecting architecture and nature through building.

Barbara: I think there’s a lot of interesting and unique voices out there and that is a happy alternative to what seemed like a growing globalism of neo-techno form-making. In the realm of practice, there is lot of different work being made. Sometimes I feel like, in our schools, we get singular voices that dominate here and there, but in practice, even in LA, there’s a bunch of interesting small and medium offices in addition to our superstars like Gehry and Thom Mayne. It is a good scene here, but it’s not concentrated around any single focal point. I feel like most of us LA architects have a lot of freedom to do our thing. I have my little eastside office, and I work all over the place, but it’s almost like a grassroots form of production. LA allows us to have a particular voice and test it out in our neighborhoods before we go live with it.

Brooke: It’s interesting for me to see how practices like yours and Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee’s, and Michael Maltzan’s and others in LA that I’ve been watching for some time now, have really been able to grow from doing single- family houses into these more large-scale projects that are about densification in the city (or other important projects outside of the city, in the case of Sharon and Mark with the Menil Drawing Institute), and how all of that work has turned the lens back onto Los Angeles as a city that continues to support really innovative architecture practices.

Barbara: I think the city supports people as content producers: you can come out of school and go into user interface, or you can go into architecture or film design; there are all these different paths to do creative design work. I think Michael and Sharon and Mark and I share a generational commitment to getting experimental building projects built. And it is tough, but perhaps easier in Los Angeles than in more conservative cities in the US.

Brooke: I’ve been super happy to see designers like Commune, you, and Michael Maltzan doing work here in Palm Springs. Andrea Lenardin Madden has a project out here, as do Michael Sylvester and Clive Wilkinson. I always think of the desert modernists as being forward thinkers, and I am optimistic that we will see new architecture here in Palm Springs that pushes things forward the way these predecessors were able to. There are several younger local architecture firms that are trying to do that … mostly in the realm of residential work. Give it another 10 to 15 years, hopefully less, and I think we will … see some of the changes that have taken root in LA start to ripple down to the desert. Change, like the good coffee you can find out here so easily now, is in the air.