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There was nothing virtual about Yu's talent

July 13, 2007|Christopher Hawthorne | Times Staff Writer

George Yu, who died last weekend at age 43 of a rare form of lung cancer that afflicts nonsmokers, was a refreshing anomaly among Los Angeles architects. In a field of relentless self-promoters, Yu was quietly but forcefully candid, even about the limitations of his own work. He was fully versed in computer-aided design but careful -- even eager -- to test the limits of the digital technology against physics and the demands of clients.

With a deep interest in digital design tempered by an obsession with the act of making, Yu emerged in the last five years or so as an important link between the city's leading firms and architects in their 20s and 30s, many of whom Yu taught at the Southern California Institute of Architecture and elsewhere.

His work had expanded in recent years to fill the wide range between the minute and the urban -- between the detail of a door handle in a new backyard studio for his home in Culver City, where he lived with his wife and two daughters, and the future of whole city districts. His recent competition entries -- notably one with landscape architect Calvin Abe for the Singapore waterfront -- suggested it was, in part, a keen and developing interest in urbanism that would keep him near the forefront of young L.A. designers.

Yu, who was born in Hong Kong in 1964 and grew up in British Columbia, earned a graduate degree from UCLA and worked early in his career for Morphosis, the Santa Monica firm led by Thom Mayne. He struck out on his own in 1992, when he was 28 -- in the middle of an economic downturn. He paid the bills with teaching jobs and briefly moved his office to Vancouver.

By the end of the 1990s, by which time he had founded a firm called Design Office with Jason King and was back in L.A., he had work from a growing group of commercial clients that would eventually include Sony, Max Studio and IBM. He won a Rome Prize fellowship from the Canadian government in 2000 and reestablished his own firm, George Yu Architects, soon after.

He therefore brought to his refined, elegant work a range of personal and architectural experience well suited to polyglot L.A., a cutting-edge Pacific Rim city whose old-fashioned architectural taste still needs shaking up. He was "a Chinese-Canadian-American," as his friend Howard Davies put it, "who could step lightly across subjects as seemingly diverse as shopping malls and surf music." He was a globally minded, techno-savvy family man equally obsessed with hockey and the history of Italian architecture.

If there is one bit of solace in his early death, it is that he had already completed so much work on his own -- certainly enough to shape a recognizable, if evolving, sensibility. And it is all the more revealing about Yu that even as he was landing those commissions in his 30s he somehow never acquired, or at least never took advantage of, the wunderkind label. His personality and his work with students gave him a different reputation: as a wise young man of L.A. architecture.

"He was able to exploit the latest software and fabrication techniques," An Te Liu, a friend who is now associate professor at the University of Toronto, wrote in an e-mail. But he was also "a very thoughtful -- and sober -- operator [who] kept a very maturely nuanced stance on the possibilities, limitations and pitfalls of the digital."

Yu's candor was on full display the first time he and I spoke at length. We met in Old Town Pasadena for a tour of the freshly completed Honda Advanced Design Center, which holds desk space for 10 of the carmaker's top designers inside what Yu dubbed "the cocoon" -- a series of undulating, translucent walls made of acrylic panels.

Yu explained that he'd shaped the panels with digital design software and then fabricated them with the same milling machines that Honda uses to churn out doors for its concept cars. His idea was simple: To use a digital process not just to design but also to make the actual stuff of architecture.

That is departure from the way older architects, such as Mayne or Frank Gehry, use computer-aided design -- mostly to make their highly expressionistic work buildable at a big scale. It is also distinct from the work of many younger designers, who are either not ready or not interested in leaving behind the security of the screen. Yu was happy to move out into a no-man's-land between those extremes, a place where there were no obvious crutches, technological or ideological. He was lucky in this case, he added, to have a client willing to pay for what was essentially an architectural version of research and development.

The Honda project hadn't turned out the way he'd planned, he told me during the tour. The panels weren't as precise as he'd imagined. For a studio that was supposed to be a curvy paean to the digital, he said, it had required a lot of tinkering with manual tools to get right. The punch list was a mile long.

But the project is undeniably beautiful, and it exploits in remarkable ways those qualities -- light and space especially -- that are squarely in architecture's domain. Though it looks relatively modest, it is a sophisticated essay on the interplay between public display and private enclosure, between showing off and hiding out, between branding and creativity.

And in the end Yu's pessimism was a sign of success -- perhaps even his version of boasting. He was bumping up against the limits of digital architecture in a way that suggested progress, not failure. And he understood that. His eyes glinted as he listed all the ways the project had come up short.

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