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Architecture Review

An Undulating Vision of the Future

Neil Denari's design work moves at last off the computer screen and onto an L.A. street. It's a sign of things to come.

June 08, 2002|NICOLAI OUROUSSOFF | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the last few years, Los Angeles has seen a slow but steady influx of young new architectural talents, most drawn by the city's reputation as a place of architectural experimentation.

Armed with new computer technologies and a tough, urban sensibility, these architects have been breaking aesthetic ground.

Their designs, mostly theoretical, range from projects that have the faceted, militaristic look of Stealth bombers to a sleek, organic sensuality. Yet the number of clients willing to build such experimental visions has remained remarkably small.

The career of 44-year-old Neil Denari epitomizes that dilemma. Denari moved here from Manhattan in 1996, opening a two-man office in a dilapidated section of Koreatown.

As his reputation grew, he was tapped to head the Southern California Institute for Architecture, one of the country's most progressive architecture schools. During his four-year tenure there, from 1997 to 2001, Denari engineered the school's move from Mar Vista to its current location along the L.A. River in downtown's warehouse district.

Nonetheless, Denari has had particular trouble getting his designs off the computer screen and into the real world. His only built work to date is Gallery MA in Tokyo, a sleek, futuristic art space completed in 1996 and demolished one year later. A more recent design for the Arlington Museum of Art in Texas was abandoned late last year when the museum scaled back its building plans.

So the completion of Denari's design for a $400,000 L.A. Eyeworks store at 7386 Beverly Blvd. at Martel Avenue marks a significant turning point in his career. Eyeworks has been designing frames for the excruciatingly chic since 1979, and the store is a key part of an effort to update its brand image for a younger generation of hipsters.

Denari, meanwhile, has long been obsessed with the notion of architecture's function as a marketing tool. The design's smooth, sinuous forms, which unravel through the space like ribbon candy, embody ideas Denari has been refining for more than a decade. Despite its modest scale, the project should instantly establish him as an important architectural voice in Los Angeles.

The shop occupies an existing two-story building on a corner lot. On the second floor, the building's original curved stucco facade remains intact. Below, Denari replaced the entry with a delicate glass storefront that is set back slightly from the street, as if the facade had been surgically repaired and a series of delicate instruments inserted inside. A concrete bench is set along the base of a large window. Above, a thin beam extends from the top of the door across the facade, its form bending up at one end to support the store logo. An LED screen embedded in the beam's front edge will flash witty aphorisms to passing pedestrians, much like a Jenny Holtzer artwork.

The store is a narrow loft-like space. A low display counter, built at the same level as the bench outdoors, extends toward the back of the room, eventually tilting up at one end to support a sleek full-length mirror. On the opposite wall, the sleek form of a shelf wraps around a wall-mounted display cabinet, dropping down to create a sales counter at the back of the room.

The room's most dramatic architectural flourish is an undulating interior canopy that unfurls from the top of the entrance along the length of the ceiling. Painted a soft china blue, it is pierced by a series of lozenge-shaped openings.

The effect of the forms is to create an almost seamless sense of flow from one part of the room to the other. But the dreamy quality of the spaces also stems from their high degree of abstraction. This is in part the result of the lighting.

To avoid distracting shadows on customers trying on glasses, the owners demanded an even, ambient light.

A diffuse florescent light is reflected off the ceiling above the interior canopy, while a slightly more focused light spills down through a deep skylight, giving the entire space an even, eerie glow.

Other details give the design a more clinical edge. Stools, counters and benches are set on rollers so they can be moved easily around the store. Their bases are made of brushed stainless-steel plates, and hard, medical-green cushions are bolted to their surfaces.

A "dispensing table," where glasses are fitted, has a hard plastic top, with molded indentations for fitting devices and a portable computer.

At times like this, Denari's penchant for sleek, sanitized surfaces can get a little scary, and the design begins to evoke the chill of a dentist's office. What breaks the mood, finally, is a sculpture by artist Jim Isermann, which dominates an entire wall toward the back of the space.

A series of vertical, gently undulating panels, the wall is conceived as an optical game, its forms seeming to drift in and out of shadow, as if its surface were softly breathing. (The work fits snugly into its context and marks a rare successful collaboration between architect and artist.)

In the end, whether Denari's high-tech fetishism is your cup of tea is a matter of taste.

What is certain, however, is that as a generation of architects becomes more fluent with computer technologies and more companies begin to see architecture as a convenient way to shape their public images, such slick aesthetic experiments will become more common.

The L.A. Eyeworks store is a well-crafted lens into that future. And Denari is emerging as one of its most articulate advocates.

His work is not for the funky or touchy-feely. But you may want to borrow the glasses of the voyeur and take a peek.

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