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Design 2002

Building a Name for Herself

For architect Barbara Bestor, experimentation and success have gone hand in hand.

March 14, 2002|EMILY YOUNG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

At 10 a.m. on a brisk winter morning, an hour after packing her two kids off to preschool and the baby-sitter, architect Barbara Bestor is on an Echo Park job site, multi-tasking with a vengeance. She inspects a painter's touch-ups. She fields questions from a reporter. She juggles phone calls with the finesse of a Hollywood producer. One client wants to discuss her ideas for his Los Angeles sneaker store. Another wants to fly her to Northern California where she's designing his weekend retreat.

Pretty heady stuff for someone who's been in town all of one week. "It's weird," says Bestor, who has returned to L.A. after living in Rhode Island for eight months. "It's like you go away, and people want you more."

At 35, Bestor is in the small vanguard of female architects striving to succeed on their own terms. The old stereotype that put men in charge of architecture and relegated women to interior design is dead. Yet the vast majority of Bestor's female peers still labor in obscurity at male-dominated practices, stake their claims in academia or forsake the profession altogether. "There are very few women with their own practices, the reason being that many choose not to deal with the incredible demands," says architect Robert Mangurian of Studio Works, who was director of the graduate program when Bestor attended the Southern California Institute of Architecture. "In grad school, the ratio of men to women is about 60-40, where women do as good as men, sometimes better. But out in the field, it's hard. Architects don't bill like lawyers. And some people opt to have families." He added that there's enormous discrimination on the part of clients, who tend to hire older men.

As head of her own architectural firm, Bestor is a rare exception. Less than 10 years out of school, she already has seen two single-family houses built, not to mention about 60 home renovations/additions and commercial projects, including the trendy clothing stores Union on La Brea Avenue and X-Large in New York City and Tokyo.

Now that she's reestablishing her L.A. office, she's eager to resume work as a California Modernist, following in the tradition of the 1950s Case Study architects but pushing the envelope in terms of a building's transparency and the use of mass-produced materials.

"I like to build out of things that aren't pretending to be something else," she explains. "I like to let the rawness of how things are built hang out, to show traces of all the different tradesmen who worked on them. To me, building is a collaborative process, not just a piece of real estate for sale at the end."

Bestor's clients share her enthusiasm for experimentation, but most are involved in the arts and can't afford elaborate, price-is-no-object architecture. "Right now, the aesthetics and budgets of my projects are pretty much conjoined," she says, chuckling. "But I don't know that I'd want to clad a whole building in marble anyway."

Her knack for producing what she calls high design at low cost may be her strength.

"Sure, when you look at Frank Gehry, who works on a large scope on projects with multimillion-dollar budgets, things are probably going to turn out great," says architect Dagmar Richter, an associate professor of architecture and urban design at UCLA. "But Barbara is capable of taking a limited budget and getting a lot more out of it for the money."

As Bestor conducts an on-site tour, it's easy to imagine her as the bookish Cambridge, Mass., girl who decided to become an architect. She prowls around in a black zip-front jacket, black cropped pants and black woven Nike slip-ons, but shaggy blond bangs undermine the tidy ensemble. When her hair falls into her eyes, she could easily pass for a student at least a decade younger.

"When I was 12, I used to baby-sit for a lot of architects, and I remember their homes and libraries being different," says Bestor, the first of two daughters born to an anthropologist father and college administrator mother with a taste for Danish Modern. "It was the first time I realized you could control your environment and that your environment could be a form of self-expression."

Following that epiphany, Bestor changed her bedroom to reflect her preference for Marimekko linens and Joe Colombo stacking storage units. In high school, she signed up for drafting classes and interned at Cambridge Seven Associates, a prominent architectural firm. As a student at Harvard University, she took lots of art and film classes because the school has no undergraduate architecture program. She continued to indulge her architectural curiosity whenever she could, but finding inspiration wasn't easy. "It was the '80s, and there were no architects that I liked," she says. "I hated the postmodernists because of their conservatism. I wasn't interested in neoclassicism." She soon became a fan of Toyo Ito and other avant-garde Japanese architects.

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