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Design 2002

A Market-Fresh Look

Architectural team faced the challenge of updating a beloved L.A. landmark.

January 03, 2002|CAROLYN RAMSAY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Not long ago, architects Hank Koning and Julie Eizenberg won two national design competitions within four months for bold, edgy buildings that defy classification. Their expansion of the Pittsburgh Children's Museum connects two beloved old stone buildings with a structure whose pleated white plastic exterior is lit from within, like a nightlight. Their Chicago elementary school design uses glass to make kids inside feel like they're playing outdoors. These two projects, Koning Eizenberg Architecture's first outside the Los Angeles area, illustrate how this married Australian-born couple has used an outsider's ability to question convention in order to create innovative design. Koning, 48, and Eizenberg, 47, share a subversive sense of humor, an easy confidence and a penchant for black clothing. Despite the fact that their work has been mostly on their home turf, their 20-year-old firm has established a national reputation for designing affordable projects with a social conscience.

"They're especially attuned to how air and light move through a structure," said L.A. Architect editor Laura Hull. "They use a lot of really large sliding doors that act as walls, and transform a space from inside to outside."

Considering the firm's reputation for unusual design and sliding glass, it might seem an odd choice for restoring and expanding L.A.'s historic Farmers Market at the corner of Fairfax Avenue and 3rd Street, the funky, wood-sided structure that sells everything from produce and meats to doughnuts and fine French cafe fare, toys, candles and stationery. It is a landmark meeting place, founded in 1934, that has always been beloved by locals and has become a magnet for tourists.

The market's $45-million, 170,000-square-foot expansion, scheduled for a March 14 unveiling, marks the firm's largest commission to date, with four new buildings that will extend the existing retail space and prevent it from being visually overshadowed by the Grove, a huge retail mall being built next door and scheduled to open the same day. Koning Eizenberg also designed a second clock tower for the complex to anchor a new pedestrian plaza connecting the old and the new shopping areas.

The firm's work on the Farmers Market is the outgrowth of a series of small mending and restoration projects that Koning and Eizenberg have done at the market during the last two decades, many of them the kind of forgettable but crucial paying work that can keep an architecture firm afloat during lean years. "We did tons of little things that our architect friends would think were crazy, because there was no architecture in it," said Eizenberg. "It was fabulous, because we could never have sustained a practice without that kind of regular patronage."

Hank Hilty, great-grandson of Farmers Market founder A.F. Gilmore and president and chief executive of the A.F. Gilmore Co., which owns the market, makes no claims of being an architecture critic or patron, but he says he quickly trusted the couple when he met them, just after they'd completed their graduate work in architecture at UCLA. He liked the fact that his family's market reminded them of the Victoria Market in their native Melbourne.

"They have a very keen awareness and affinity for the style and the manner of the market," says Hilty, who has sandy hair and glasses. "From very early on, we used them as a firm that we would take plans to and use them as a touchstone, the owner's architectural consultant."

The architects liked that the market represents the smaller, intimate scale of regular people's everyday lives. It is the kind of scale that appeals to them. "We do schools, we do gymnasiums, we do community centers and we do children's museums. We do retail. It's not to become an expert in a building type, because I'm always leery of experts, but to provide for living on a daily basis," Eizenberg said. Along these lines, they have designed PS No. 1 Elementary School in Santa Monica, the Sepulveda Recreation Center in the San Fernando Valley and the Signal Hill Golf Center, each of which is distinguished by a playful use of strong colors in simple, straight-forward designs.

Couple Felt Like Outsiders

in Their Own Culture

Koning and Eizenberg met when they both were 18, on their first day of architecture school at the university in Melbourne. She was raised in an Orthodox Jewish family, and he was the son of Dutch immigrants; both felt like outsiders in their own culture. When they were accepted to UCLA in 1979, they married and moved to America. Their first commission after graduation fell through, but, with a characteristically avid jump-in-feet-first enthusiasm, they started their own firm anyway.

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