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A Lasting Imprint : A father and son rub their sense of humor off on buildings all over L.A. The Kanners' : designs are never dull.


Stephen Kanner has the polite edginess of a wedding photographer anticipating a drunken reception. He doesn't really want to drive to Koreatown for fear that the two apartment buildings he and his father designed three years ago have, through no fault of theirs, fallen into neglect.

He worries about graffiti. He knows the recession has hit the buildings' owner, so he worries about the paint job and the thousand shocks a building is heir to in a rough neighborhood where people have things besides architectural design on their minds .

The Harvard Apartments won Kanner Associates two awards in 1992 and looked good in the company brochure--four austere white shapes, like the letter E stood backward, filled and flanked by yellow structures embedded with circles, and reddish structures embedded with odd-angled squares, like windows caught dancing (they used the same motif for a face lift of the St. Andrews Apartments around the corner). But the buildings were out of the brochure now and into the hurly-burly of natural and human elements.

Chuck Kanner, 65, listens to his youthful 40-year-old son all the way on the drive from their Westwood office. Finally, like a laconic Clint Eastwood squinting hard into the future, he says, "I think it'll be all right."

The apartments are the first stop on a one-day retrospective tour of some of the work that has elevated the small firm of Kanner Associates into L.A.'s architectural elite. "Evocatecture," Stephen likes to call it. "Modernism out of the Internationalist school," Chuck likes to call it--though in fact the Kanners make a point of being good listeners who can deliver virtually any style on demand.

Architecture magazine has complimented them as Neo-Expressionists whose private and public projects "combine solidly functional design with visual wit." And in numerous interviews the Kanners like to talk about recapturing the optimism of the '50s and '60s, where Googie coffee shop and Disney Tomorrowland designs were tangible proof of a local future brimming with pizazz.

Still, Stephen's worry, as overstated as it may seem, is part of a general alarm the Kanners are beginning to feel about the future of Los Angeles.

Is the city, once the sun-drenched cynosure of American freedom and youthful self-invention, spilling into entropy? Unquestionably one of the world's media and entertainment capitals, is it nonetheless missing its chance--as a livable place with more in it than Hollywood glitterati--to join New York, London, Paris and Rome in a company of equals?

"A lot of people run L.A. down, but I can't imagine living anywhere else," Chuck says. "You don't have to travel to see the world; it's here in a population of Anglos, Asians, Latinos, African Americans, all these nodes of cultural diversity. You have the tradition of the Spanish missions and you have the deconstructivism of Frank Geary--though"--he adds humorously--"I see deconstructivism as a metaphor for the shaky ground we live on.

"You have the mid-Wilshire single-family stucco houses, the Spanish bungalow style on South Olympic, and the elegant Hancock Park. You have Century City, Warner Ranch and Ventura Boulevard. What you have in L.A. is sprawl. It's all over the place."

To Chuck, what was once exuberant expansion may be changing into sclerotic middle-aged spread. The main ingredient in Los Angeles' urban diet, the automobile, may now be its inescapable impediment to civic health.

"A city cannot be great without pedestrians, and Los Angeles is not a pedestrian place," he says. "We could make the Wilshire corridor, for example, our version of the Champs Elysees. Instead, we've created some really oppressive streets: Lincoln Boulevard, Pico, Santa Monica Boulevard, places to get through to get somewhere else. People don't interact here as much as they do in London and New York. They retreat to their boxes, their apartments, isolated from each other. Think of how much square footage out there is given to the automobile. Think of what it means when you're afraid to leave your neighborhood to go to a restaurant in someplace like East L.A."

Stephen wonders if L.A.'s postwar love of the impromptu, so colorful and breezily iconoclastic that it has often led the nation in tone and style, isn't--as far as its architecture is concerned--beginning to suffer from paralysis of the imagination.

"There's this incredible sameness," he says. "Clients don't want to invent. They want to see that you've done something the same way five times before, particularly government and business people. Very few seem to realize there's a first time for everything. You get these vanilla firms where profits are everything. They ask, 'Why you?' You answer, 'Because we'll love this project, it'll be meaningful, it'll be the best building we can make.' That's not what they want to hear. What they want you to talk about in a three-piece suit is budget and time. I told Dad I'm going to stop wearing ties."

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