WHEN HE WAS a child, there was plenty of space: Josh Schweitzer's early Midwestern memories include a lush, untouched ravine hard by a babbling brook, rolling rural vistas that met the sky uninterrupted and a rambling wreck of an outsized colonial mansion with too many rooms, too many fireplaces and an abandoned barn out back for him, his brother and sister to play in.
Now the only room to move is in his imagination. Los Angeles is gridlocked on both sides of the curb; motor traffic gets most of the ink, but the city's cheek-by-jowl architecture doesn't allow for much new business. The smart designer has to look at an existing building, go snake-eyed and see something else in its place. Schweitzer is just such a quick-change artist. Inside his head, it's still the wide--and to some eyes, wild--open spaces.
THERE'S SOMETHING heroic about saving a doddering building from the wrecking ball. What Schweitzer likes to do, more than anything, is pry old buildings open--get them some air, let them breathe, light them up. "Old building stock," he says, in an adoring tone, "is wonderful." In the six years since the 37-year-old designer arrived in Los Angeles, he's lifted some of the city's best-known architectural faces and become known for his bold, angular shapes and idiosyncratically earthy palette. He and then-partner David Kellen put the restaurant community on notice with the opening of City restaurant in 1984, a brutal swath of high-tech white with picture windows that opened, in perfect L.A. fashion, onto the parking lot. This past year, on his own, Schweitzer designed two restaurants that were on the list of must-sees before the menu ink was dry--Campanile, a stately, hard-topped version of an open Italian courtyard, and Border Grill 2, whose hectic rainbow-hued interior fairly sways to some existential cha-cha.
The word "tear-down" is not in his vocabulary. Schweitzer has established himself as a nimble fixer of the too-small, the run-down, the not-quite-right. At a time when the real estate market precludes buying up, and empty space is almost non-existent, he is the man who makes staying put possible.
It's all a matter of perception, of whether you see a building as an obstacle or an opportunity. Take this garden, which wraps around a dowager of a house in the Los Feliz Oaks neighborhood above Hollywood: Somebody else might say it's a little overgrown, the concrete walkway's cracked, the tree at the end needs a trim. Schweitzer stands under the tree, smiling dreamily, and sighs at how wonderfully Italian the place seems to him.
The garden nestles behind what is officially known, on the Los Angeles Conservancy list of historical buildings, as the 1928 Lloyd Wright-designed Samuels-Navarro house, named after two of its owners. To Schweitzer, it's "Diane's house"--Keaton, that is, who has hired him to wreak $300,000's worth of redesign on a building that has weathered too many remodels and a measure of neglect.
It is a daunting hodgepodge; as Keaton puts it, "this house has been through hell." The original steel-trimmed windows on the building's lower level, covered by panels of hammered copper, hang next to new windows that approximate Wright's style, but in the upstairs master bedroom, a previous owner installed cheap aluminum sliders that would be more appropriate to a dingbat apartment.
Comparatively speaking, that's an easy fix. The living room fireplace masks the original fireplace and mantel, which nobody bothered to tear out. The lower level is trisected by two poured-in-place concrete walls and then chopped into small storage rooms by a row of intersecting plaster walls. It's all topped off by what Schweitzer calls "a '60s hotel-motel roof" that has nothing to do with the rest of the house.
Armed with Keaton's drawings and photographs of the original house, and his own aesthetic, Schweitzer is two months into a nine-month effort to "bring it up to an equal standard" with Wright's design, in terms both of quality and innovation. There are certain elements, like the steel windows, that he wouldn't presume to alter. But things that don't work, like all those walls downstairs, have to go. His preference for plain shapes and an aversion to finicky detail--born of necessity back in the days when his clients didn't have six figures to spend--dictate what will, and won't, remain.
"I got used to simple dry wall and paint, simple forms, and then I'd work with the light coming in, and different heights, rather than embellishments and detail," he says. So he is willing to settle for cosmetic changes on a small guest bedroom and bath to buy himself the chance to attack the warrened lower level: He's already pulled out the plaster walls and cut through the concrete ones to "open it up and get some movement through it." A little shadow-and-light magic, some "uplighting and downlighting and a series of planes" should turn the space into a combined office, library and guest suite.