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Building in flexibility

Architect Steven Ehrlich blends his design sensibilities with clients' needs, whether the job involves an African university or his own house.

May 18, 2003|Irene Lacher | Special to The Times

On a shady corner of Venice, Steven Ehrlich is building a house for a rare client, one with whom he agrees completely: himself.

The Culver City architect is building his own "family compound," as he calls it, and he's turning out to be the sort of client who would normally drive him nuts. Fortunately, when this client turns on a dime, Ehrlich is spinning along with him.

"I always challenge myself," he says. "I go over every decision multiple times, and I'm very passionate about my own house. I get to explore details that are more experimental."

Ehrlich is standing across the quiet street from his home under construction, and although he won't move into the concrete-and-Corten-steel structure until the summer, he already seems like the mayor of the intersection. Ten minutes don't go by without a motorist calling out to him from a passing car. One stops to apologize for missing his daughter's graduation party.

"Oh, you missed a good party," Ehrlich shoots back brightly. "It rocked."

The woman turns out to be the daughter of sculptor Guy Dill, a friend, client, collaborator and prominent figure in Venice's art community. It's a world the 56-year-old Ehrlich knows well, having arrived in Venice in 1977. There he found himself working and playing with some of its brightest art stars, among them Ed Moses and John Okulick. Ehrlich later built a home in the Santa Monica Canyon to raise his young family, but his marriage ended four years ago and now he's ready to build a new house and a new life.

"I wanted to express myself artistically, and I have the will to build," he says. "That's what I do. That's who I am."

All the while, projects designed with and for artists have remained a constant throughout his body of work, from the barn-like studio Ehrlich designed for Moses 15 years ago to their collaboration on the whale-like Shatto Recreation Center that opened in Koreatown in 1990 to the year-old UCLA Kinross Staging Building for studio art and dance. In the fall of 2004, the curtain is scheduled to go up on Ehrlich's Kirk Douglas Theatre, the Center Theatre Group's 360-seat venue in the historic, 1947 Culver Theater building.

"What's great about Steve is he's a really flexible guy," Moses says. "I hate design. Most architects think design and proportion are the thing. What you want to do is flop around like a fool until something comes up that knocks your socks off. Steve is willing to do that."

Such harmonious blends of architecture and clients' needs helped earn Ehrlich Architects the 2003 Firm Achievement Award from the American Institute of Architects California Council. The professional organization gave the 27-person practice the highest honor it bestows on an architectural firm at an awards ceremony in San Diego this month. The award recognizes a sustained pattern of excellent design -- at least 10 years -- as well as programs for mentoring staff.

The group's president, Bob Newsom, says that Ehrlich has made an unusually successful transition from residential design to a practice incorporating institutional work as well.

"Steve has done a good job of bringing his view of the richness of architecture to university campuses and schools around California," Newsom says. "Steve has established a practice of work that is very emotive and evocative. It breaks from some of the more rigid modernist traditions. It's work that's very soulful."

Innovation begins at home

Ehrlich's romance with innovation begins at home, a project he can continue designing long after the structure is finished because he's built in an unusual degree of flexibility. Massive glass doors that slide open take California modernism a step further by eliminating the barrier between indoors and outdoors, not merely suggesting it. One end of a narrow swimming pool abuts the heated concrete floor of the living room, where sun worshippers can work on their tans.

"I'm extending ideas that were pioneered by Neutra and Schindler, but I'm using technologies that are pushing the limits, which were probably not available to them," Ehrlich says.

Bedrooms for his three daughters, ages 16 to 25, who come and go are loft-like "sleeping pods" with built-in "bunk- ettes" on a balcony overlooking the living room. When the kids aren't home, the rooms can be transformed into a library or study. Rust-colored awnings move up, down and across to modulate the light and provide privacy.

"A lot of the house is about transformation," Ehrlich says. "The house can really change its whole mood and the way it feels depending on the time of day, time of year, weather, mood."

It's also about being part of a community. Ehrlich is planning to hold Sunday pool parties for neighborhood kids and to entertain family and friends in the bamboo-lined courtyard dividing the main building from a pavilion -- a garage cum yoga studio and rec room.

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