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ARCHITECTURE : From a Different Angle : Frank Israel's perspective on design has always been eye-opening, and MOCA's 'Out of Order' show aims to emulate his exuberant elegance.

February 18, 1996|Pilar Viladas | Pilar Viladas is a freelance architecture and design writer and a contributing writer for Architectural Digest

The world of architecture, like those of politics and entertainment, likes to simplify complex issues with sound-bite-length catch phrases. The snappier the label, the better. Frank Israel is, therefore, a trend-spotter's nightmare--difficult to categorize and full of contradictions.

In the freewheeling arena of Los Angeles architecture, where individual expression is virtually a religion, Israel designs buildings and interiors that bear an innovative stamp all his own, while still incorporating references to Los Angeles' modernist tradition, from Frank Lloyd Wright to Frank O. Gehry, with a particular nod to Rudolph Schindler. Israel's work displays many of the same complex geometries, layering of "tough" materials and intellectual rigor that are hallmarks of other stars of the post-Gehry generation, such as Thom Mayne of Morphosis, Mayne's former partner Michael Rotondi, and Eric Owen Moss. Yet somehow Israel's work often seems more livable than that of his peers and is consistently more concerned with its natural surroundings.

From his early days in Los Angeles as a set designer at Paramount, Israel has cultivated a significant number of celebrity clients, from director Robert Altman to the late art collector Frederick Weisman, but he devotes equal energy to the far-less-glamorous task of teaching young architects at UCLA. Israel's bluntness, acerbic wit and fondness for gossip can be off-putting, yet he is famous for his generosity to friends, both in and out of the profession, many of whom he has known since his student days.

As one might imagine, the tall, burly designer, who is the subject of an exhibition opening today at the Museum of Contemporary Art, is nothing if not opinionated: In a recent interview, Israel called the prevalence of neo-traditional, Mediterranean-inspired architecture in Los Angeles "appalling--it signals our not being able to accept the responsibilities of our power and place at this point in our history." And although he is an ardent supporter of Richard Meier's architecture, he finds the hilltop siting of the new Getty Center "unfortunate." Hills erode, Israel argues, and you can't fight Mother Nature, no matter how much money and technology you throw at her.

As is often the case with people like Israel, his supporters and detractors are equally vocal. "A very talented guy . . . who has produced a body of work that's impressive" is how Gehry, a longtime Israel fan, describes him. On the other hand, there's the well-known East Coast architectural historian who recently asked the designer, "Still trying to reinvent the wheel?"

The better to amaze his admirers and confound his critics, Israel's work at mid-career is not only better than ever--displaying a startling new exuberance in addition to its usual elegance--but bigger than ever. While the work of Franklin D. Israel Design Associates is well known in architectural circles, it is only recently that Israel has broken the residential and small-scale commercial design barrier to snag larger jobs, from a recently completed book storage facility at UCLA to a housing project in the Netherlands and a school of the arts at UC Riverside. The latter two, which are still in the project stage, were designed in a new, separate partnership that Israel established last year with three of his former associates--Annie Chu, Barbara Callas and Steven Shortridge--precisely in order to alter what he saw as a public perception of his 13-year-old firm as a one-man, "boutique" operation.

And, as his practice grows, so does Israel's public profile. His work, already the subject of two books, will soon be seen in another monograph: on the Drager house, which Israel completed in the fire-ravaged Oakland hills, with its enormous roof that seems to fold down over the structure. On Feb. 10, UCLA held an Israel symposium that featured luminaries such as Gehry, historian Thomas Hines, and critics Herbert Muschamp and Suzanne Stephens, in honor of the designer's 50th birthday (which was actually last December). And although his work has been featured in numerous exhibitions, including a one-man show at the Walker Art Center in 1989, Israel can now claim a distinction all too rare among L.A. architects: He is being singled out for a major honor in his own backyard.

'Out of Order: Franklin D. Israel," organized by MOCA director Richard Koshalek and curator Elizabeth A.T. Smith, is the first exhibition in MOCA's Focus series to deal with architecture and the first show that MOCA has devoted to an architect in mid-career. "In watching Frank Israel's work," Koshalek says, "we saw that it was the most closely connected to the Southern California tradition. We decided that if we were going to show an architect of Frank's generation, he would be it."

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