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An Architect's Steely Resolve

After pondering the interaction of humankind and nature, Barton Myers answers with statements in metal. Some are practical, some aesthetic, as seen in '3 Steel Houses.'

January 20, 2002|DIANE HAITHMAN | Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles architect Barton Myers is better known for designing large public buildings than private houses. He is the brain behind the award-winning Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, completed in 1993--a flexible facility with movable floors and seats, which allows for multiple uses, and reconfiguration from a flat exhibition hall into a 1,850-seat arena or theater with 900, 1,450 or 1,963 seats. The work of Barton Myers Associates can also be seen in Beverly Hills, where the firm was responsible for major renovations at 9350 Center Drive and the nearby Ice House office building.

On the other side of the country, Myers designed Newark, N.J.'s $180-million New Jersey Performing Arts Center, which opened its doors in 1997 and serves as home for the New Jersey Symphony.

In 1997, New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp gave the arts center, across the street from Military Park and a block from the Passaic River, a mixed review. He praised the center's 2,750-seat Prudential Hall, the largest of its two theaters, as "breathtakingly glamorous," and the 514-seat Victoria Theatre as a "smoky amethyst of a room." But he trashed the lobby areas, calling their eclectic mix of patterned carpet, glass, wood and copper "a mess."

Because he's known primarily for public buildings, Myers, 67, is particularly excited by the opportunity to show a more intimate side of his work in "3 Steel Houses," an exhibition of drawings, models and photos showcasing three of Myers' steel-framed residences. Organized by the University Art Museum of UC Santa Barbara to mark the recent donation of the Myers archive to the museum's Architecture and Design Collection, the show at UCLA's Perloff Gallery runs through Feb. 8. The exhibition includes his own home and studio in Toro Canyon, Montecito, near Santa Barbara. Myers and his wife, Vicki, moved into the house in 1998. The compound is made up of three pavilions built on a slope, with Myers' studio at the top, the main residence in the middle, and a guest house and garage at the bottom.

The house is notable for retractable window-walls that can open the rooms to the idyllic Santa Barbara climate, as well as for its equally practical metal panels that can roll down to secure the buildings from the ever-present threat of brush fires.

Also included in the exhibition are two homes in Canada, including another Myers family residence in Yorkville, Toronto--this one not on 40 rustic acres, but with its ultra-contemporary facade sandwiched between square homes of sedate, traditional brick.

A few days before the exhibition was to open, Myers, a professor in UCLA's department of architecture and urban design, reflected on the reasons a member of the general public might join campus architecture students in discovering a modest display detailing the birth of three houses.

"I think there is no show more interesting to people than houses," Myers says during a conversation in the firm's new Westwood Village offices--another recent renovation at 1025 Westwood Blvd., all concrete, glass and steel, with an enormous curved ceiling made of wood, reminiscent of an airplane hangar. "You can see the earliest sketches to the working drawings to how it is actually built."

In November, the firm moved into the space, which doesn't look lived-in yet. Before the interview, Myers' archivist, Kelly Robinson, mentions that to give the ceiling its stressed look, the wood was blasted with walnut shells. Tiny bits of shell continue to surprise the staff by raining down into the cavernous communal working space--most recently, into Robinson's coffee.

"All of us have a pretty emotional and passionate feeling about the way we want to live," says Myers, seated at a glass table in the rear of the space; for the moment, no nutshells appear to be falling. "That's why there are so many shelter magazines. Here is another idea about shelter, another lifestyle that might be different from yours, another way of living.

"In my house [in Montecito], it's about the way one begins to engage nature," he continues. "The ability to be able to open and close houses, move in and out, is the California dream, and obviously inspired by the Japanese--but you also have to deal with the question of fire. In the Canadian climate, you live in a more introverted way; you bring light inside and try to think about a way to get through those long, gray months without the California sun.

"And then, I think, it's also about seeing new technologies, the promise of new technologies in housing. Luckily, when I got started I was doing a lot of very large projects, when a lot of my American contemporaries were doing houses--so I haven't done a lot of them. I've always done them as interesting experiments."

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