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Keeping it clean and simple

Zoltan Pali's spare and award-winning designs exemplify an unwavering commitment to Modernism. His passion comes through in 'every line, every material and everything he does,' says one client.

January 05, 2006|Janet Eastman | Times Staff Writer

ZOLTAN E. PALI'S architectural firm will be credited as executive architects when the Roman-inspired Getty Villa in Malibu reopens as a museum later this month. But the historic preservation work on this elaborate showcase of European finery involves a design sensibility far different than the unadorned, functional lines of SPF:a's award-winning projects.

For two decades, Pali, principal and founder of the Culver City firm, has been pushing a message of simplicity that is masterfully reflected -- and recognized -- in his new construction projects. A steel-framed horse barn with fresh hay bale walls earned awards in 2005 from the national and California council of the American Institute of Architects. The design of a "super-transparent" house in West Hollywood received the state's AIA Council's Merit Award for Design.

"The jury looked at his work and respected his refined and restrained Modernism with a strong sensitivity for materials," says state AIA judge Deborah Weintraub, who is also the deputy city engineer for the city of Los Angeles and an architect. "On a personal note, I think there is a sensuousness in his use of materials that even with the minimalism, they are used very effectively."

Pali, a self-confessed "hard-ass modernist," isn't breaking new ground with his Miesian approach to clean planes and breezy expanses of glass. But he has become a master of the genre by outsmarting topography. In densely packed Los Angeles, he dreams up dwellings that fit on steep or otherwise difficult lots. The mega-engineered rectangles are softened by teak cladding, tongue-and-groove cedar planks and architectural cement-fiber panels.

"We don't get up every morning thinking that we are going to reinvent the face of architecture," says Pali, 45, a Los Angeles native who earned a design degree at UCLA and became a licensed architect 20 years ago.

Although his designs are elegant, he says his team solves the practical issues first: structure, safety, sustainability, natural lighting, screening, ventilation and water preservation. Technical solutions have to be efficient, says Pali, but that doesn't exclude them from being "poetic."

"There is poetry in a good set of technical documents," he says. "The documents are like the instruction book. If you can create not only a beautifully designed building, but a beautiful set of instructions for how to build it, then you've mastered the profession."

In these fast-paced times of boggling technology, the home, Pali says, should be a haven that has what we really need and not necessarily everything we want. "I don't make space for a lot of crap," he says with a smile.

He doesn't see homes as art pieces. He doesn't think moving into a certain house will make you the person you want to be. He even predicts that many people who settled uneasily into a pared-down modern home because it's fashionable will soon pack up their gewgaws and gadgets and go back to houses that can accommodate an accumulation of stuff.

"When people are able to afford building their home, they tend to have visions of grandeur," says Pali. "The trick as a modernist is to pull back. The solution should be natural and never deliberately complex to make a statement about how complex the world is or show how complex we are or 'intellectual' we are."

For one client, he created the award-winning horse barn in Somis, 40 minutes north of Los Angeles, using the barest of materials. A graphite steel frame supports a floating galvanized steel roof. Exterior walls are made up of 230 stacked hay bales. This invention of Pali's has triple effect: It insulates the pavilion, stores fresh hay and is accessible to the horses to snack on.

For another client, he dreamed up a steel-and-glass house in West Hollywood. Two levels have mesmerizing city views. One section has a window that extends from the master suite to three bedrooms. There are also two levels below ground level to make the best use of the site's 45-degree slope.

Another residence in Bel-Air, which received Architecture Magazine's Home of the Year award in 2003, uses limestone louvers to shield the interior from the sun while allowing light to bounce into the space.

The owner of the home, Scott Oshry, has worked with Pali on two other projects, Oshry's office for his Los Angeles design company, Zorbit, and a condominium project in West Hollywood.

"Zoltan is an incredibly passionate architect," says Oshry, shaking his head while remembering a time when the architect refused to work on a project he thought would be compromised. "His passion is almost to the point of being overbearing. Every line, every material, everything he does is purposeful. It is really important to him that the world embrace great architecture. I feel it's a great battle of his. Bad architecture drives him crazy."

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