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Mark Rios on a roll

The architect and his L.A. firm, best known for its landscape design projects, use Southern California as a muse for everything from dishes to government buildings

September 11, 2005|Susan Heeger

On a hot Friday afternoon, when most office workers already have cleared out, Mark Rios heads to downtown L.A. to check on one of his firm's projects: a staff headquarters and education center for the nonprofit California Endowment. Near Olvera Street, on a block edged with chain-link and a few sofa cushions abandoned by transient sleepers, the complex is shiny with promise, its office building awash in shades of the sky. Rios, in a black polo shirt and jeans--his usual dressed-down garb--is jazzed by the progress he sees.

"This is an organization that serves the underserved and promotes health for all Californians," he says. "They wanted a center that represents their mission of health and the diversity of their staff." Squinting through the fence, he warms to his description of how Rios Clementi Hale Studios--known as RCH Studios--translated this mission into glass and steel.

The office building's atrium is topped with clerestory windows that draw the sun and fresh air inside. Blue window slots set at different levels in the facade celebrate that phenomenal California sky and, like jaunty piano keys, evoke a multilayered urban music. When work is finished next year, spilling fountains will invite employees onto cool plazas to enjoy redwoods and sycamores planted in groves inspired by California's natural landscape.

The $62-million project, for which the company did both the architecture and landscape design, contrasts dramatically with the commercial office towers in the distance. The center's low-slung forms are graphically accented in a range of coordinated colors. The atrium area is clad in four different greens, which blend together like graded hues in a fabric. Each precise green, and the reds and golds on the other buildings, were culled from the colors of Chinatown and Olvera Street. The sycamores echo the Los Angeles River tree plantings a short distance away. Even the emphasis on light and fluid indoor-outdoor spaces marks the complex as tailor-made for Angelenos instead of, say, New Yorkers.

Not that RCH Studios doesn't export its West Coast sensibility to the east. Rios and his three partners, Frank Clementi, Julie Smith-Clementi and Bob Hale, are designing New York offices for J Records and RCA as well as a Trump World Tower apartment for TV producer Darren Star. And the firm has taken its made-in-California look international with its zippy housewares line, notNeutral, selling boldly patterned products wholesale, online and through museum gift shops and retail stores such as Bed, Bath and Beyond.

Here at home, the company's designs for houses, gardens, child-care centers and public plazas are influenced by Southern California's culture and landscape: A chess-players' park in Glendale is decked with giant lights shaped like chess pieces that allow people to play on through mild evenings; outdoor courtyards at two Los Angeles Unified School District primary schools use stylized graphics of birds, ladybugs and leaves to distinguish the walls of modular classrooms; plans for private homes often update the simple lines and open plans of California's mid-century architects and garden makers.

"This is a great city to design in," says Rios, 49, who directs the landscape architecture department at USC and has been practicing in L.A. since 1985. His ongoing projects number more than 70, including the redevelopment of a two-mile stretch of 1st Street downtown. And the General Services Administration recently hired the firm to propose strategies for creating secure but accessible public plazas.

"More than Boston or New York, there's a value given to originality and invention here," Rios says. "It's the influence of the entertainment industry. We're less reliant on tradition." Which is why, he adds, his 30-member company of creative generalists has managed to thrive in an era that prizes specialization.

Six years ago, when USC recruited Rios to breathe new life into its landscape program, the diversity of his practice was a selling point. "Mark's inclusiveness and his openness to different philosophies reflect the spirit of the program we want to build," says professor Robert Timme, dean of USC's architecture school. "His approach is the future. His embracing notion of pluralism and interdisciplinary work will one day be much closer to the norm."

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