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Retooling form and function

Houses? Apprenticeships with big firms? For a crop of young designers, the way of the future is something more amorphous: fabrication.

March 19, 2006|Scott Timberg | Times Staff Writer

IT'S tempting to call any young company that works on a small scale the "garage band" of its genre -- but in the case of one Echo Park architecture firm, it's almost literally the case. Benjamin Ball and Gaston Nogues -- both scruffy, intellectually driven young designers -- really work out of a garage: In a space filled with electric saws, lathes and sanders and next to a home cantina that pokes out of a neighbor's house, they hack through plywood and dream up concepts as they blast Internet radio.

Unlike most young Los Angeles architects, they are rarely designing houses.

"There's a lot of work out there for innovative design that's not exactly architectural but that's architectural in its preoccupations and architectural in scale," says the blond, vintage-clad Ball. "Exhibition design, installations, events, sets. That's the wave we're riding now."

This kind of work allows them to retain more creative freedom than peers who are drafting shelter projects, says Nogues, a lanky, cap-wearing Argentine who once designed furniture for Frank Gehry. And that's a good thing: "We're both," Nogues says, "obsessive-compulsive control freaks."

Mavericks though they are, Ball, 37, and Nogues, 38, are part of a larger movement of young, tech-savvy designers who have skipped the traditional paths for Southland architects -- a long apprenticeship at a big firm or decades of designing homes, then the slow building of reputation in late middle age -- and moved into an alternative path called fabrication.

This involves designing objects as small, and practical, as the prototype for a watch and as large, and whimsical, as a wide, funnel-shaped canopy of tinted Mylar meant to emulate a black hole that Ball and Nogues put together for an outdoor space in Silver Lake last summer. In the same spirit, there was the groovy bar-reception desk the firm Gnuform designed for a Beverly Hills cable TV station, and the serpentine exhibition design for "Dark Places," the current Santa Monica Museum of Art show, rendered by the globe-trotting architecture collective servo.

Their work, these breakaway architects say, isn't just about making products or museum pieces but defining spaces or designing new ways to construct familiar objects. It's a twilight zone between sculpture and architecture.

There have always been architects interested in breaking through the field's hierarchical structure, whether out of simple restlessness or to realize their own vision. What's new, says Charles Lagreco, associate dean of USC's architecture school, is a new wave of technology that is "transforming the field," and that allows some practitioners to control their work as well as their destiny.

The stars of this movement are mostly New York-educated designers in their middle 30s who came to L.A. and took advantage of the region's concentration of digital technology, Hollywood set facilities and auto and aerospace technology.

Like nonconformists in any field, they sometimes express a disdain for their more conventional peers. Ball, a former set designer, points to fellow SCI-Arc grads who landed jobs with big firms but have "taken about 10 years to design anything that's an expression of their interests ... There are people in our classes who are drafting toilets now."

While they differ in manner -- the stocky, cigar-chomping Hernan Diaz Alonso resembles a mad scientist, servo's David Erdman is cerebral and hip, Gnuform's Heather Roberge is crisply academic and rail thin -- they all talk about creative freedom, about sticking to work that's "research-based," about their fascination with unusual materials. They're also keenly aware of one another's work.

Not surprisingly, they are not all beloved.

"If you ask other architects about these people, they hate 'em," says Greg Lynn, 41, who taught many of the fabricators and remains a kind of older brother. "Hate 'em, hate 'em. 'They're self-promoting, using technology to get famous, have academic affiliations ...' and so on. You hear complaints about them from the country-doctor-type architects. What's encouraging is that they haven't killed each other -- they still remain friends and competitors."

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Quicker out of the chute

ARCHITECTURE may seem increasingly glamorous, even youthfully cool, to the culture at large, but most of the field's really successful practitioners are over 50 -- in some cases well over. The years between graduation and late middle age can be a hard road, and the profession has a history of eating its young.

"There's this horrible thing that happens to an architect," says Jenna Didier, 36, a willowy fountain designer based in Silver Lake. "They have all these wonderful, beautiful ideas. But they get out of school and go through a hazing process: It squelches their creativity and anything that was ever interesting about them."

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