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The new neighbor is a bit confused

September 05, 2007|Christopher Hawthorne | Times Staff Writer

At 47, Lorcan O'Herlihy is among the most talented midcareer architects in Los Angeles. But he took on a nearly impossible task four years ago when he agreed to design a condominium complex on Kings Road in West Hollywood, next to the famed Schindler House.

Richard Loring, the developer who hired O'Herlihy, promised that the condo project would be deferential to the single-story Modernist landmark, which the Austrian émigré Rudolf Schindler designed in 1922 for himself and his wife and another couple. Loring agreed to build 19 units instead of the 23 that were legally allowed. He and O'Herlihy vowed to keep the building relatively low on the side facing the Schindler House and its gardens.

Opponents of the complex -- including several connected to the MAK Center for Art and Architecture, which operates the Schindler House -- didn't think much of those concessions. Because the house is already hemmed in on the north side by a banal stucco box that went up in the early 1980s, they worried that a sizable building on the other side would complete what they called a "canyon effect."

They pointed out that views of and from the garden and even the assumption of a protective ring of privacy are fundamental elements of Schindler's design. The debate that followed raised a number of tricky questions about preservation, including how to protect L.A.'s landmark single-family houses in an age of rising density and the range of responsibilities new buildings owe their neighbors.

The condo building, called Habitat 825, for its address at 825 N. Kings Road, was finished late last month. It has all the crisp geometry and rich, inventive use of materials that O'Herlihy, in his attractive neomodern private houses and apartment blocks, has become known for. Its carved-out courtyard spaces represent a new level of formal complexity in his work.

But in trying to be deferential and confidently self-possessed at the same time, the building manages to be neither. And it reflects little of Schindler's interest in architecture's role as a critical art, either as a commentary on how we live in this city or as a model for how we might.

In that sense the project has to count as a missed opportunity, because what L.A. needs right now is precisely some inspiration along those lines. Habitat 825 is a handsome and thoughtful piece of architecture that is also largely conventional -- particularly in the condo interiors, with their sense of sleek, prepackaged luxury. Given the importance of the site, and the potential inherent in O'Herlihy's earlier designs, we had reason to expect more.

The building is arranged as a pair of L-shaped wings. The taller wing, pushed away from the Schindler House to the southern edge of its site, is covered in redwood slats stained black. It is flanked to the north by a horizontal section -- kept low to reduce the shadows it will cast next door -- colored white and a bright, almost fluorescent shade of green.

The complex is pushed back from the sidewalk along Kings Road and, per West Hollywood regulations, includes one unit with an entrance directly on the street. This creates a lively, generous and essentially public front yard, with landscaping (as in the rest of the complex) by Katherine Spitz. Parking is sunk below grade.

Inside, the two wings come together around a multilevel central courtyard. This is the heart of the design and its most convincing architectural composition. Every walkway leading to a unit is open to the sky. Where the building comes closest to the Schindler House, O'Herlihy has created an extra open-air space, extending the main courtyard through a large section of the northern wing. The units running above this space are propped up by several thin green columns, set askew rather than perpendicular to the ground.

This portion of the design acknowledges the powerful presence of the Schindler House, giving it substantial breathing room. But it also turns empty space -- and the idea of deference -- into an amenity, and a dramatic amenity at that.

It is the one part of O'Herlihy's scheme that seems fully animated by ideas as well as space-making. It argues that meaningful, even forceful architecture can be produced by the act of giving ground, and that the relationship between new building and aging icon can amount to something more complex than a simple choice between respect and aggression.

The units themselves, with dark-stained wood floors, Italian appliances and oversize windows, are attractive and airy, if a bit predictable in a high-end, Dwell-magazine-circa-2003 sort of way. Some condos on the upper level have patios on the roof ringed by short white fences. They look a bit stark and washed out by the sunlight but may improve once some greenery grows in.

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