The wetlands or as it was referred to, mud flats are where the five acres of land known as Marina del Rey occupied; was the vision of a 19th century real estate speculator which has endured bankruptcy, two world wars and mother nature, to become an unincorporated, relatively quiet residential and commercial area of the county of Los Angeles. The Marina del Rey was developed based on Land Use Plan, which is the specific plan for the area, to address future land use and improvement of existing facilities. The land lease agreements between the county of Los Angeles and private lessee began in 1963 for sixty years agreements and as the renew date was approaching the county ceased the opportunity to ask for the renovation as a condition of the renewal and that’s how we got involved in the project.
Project Name: Waves MDR
Design Architect: Michele Saee, Saee Studio
Executive Architect: Grace Partnership, Inc.
The three story 149 unit apartment building over an open air parking garage needed to be renovated in three phases. As we were getting familiar with the site, zoning and building codes and design review board requirements we were exploring how to increase the building visibility and interaction with its rich surrounding next to the Pacific Ocean.
I met Isaac Hakim, owner’s nephew and representative, through a friend/client. We connected at our first meeting and talked more about our personal lives, our kids, than work which I believe we both appreciated. We both were in our very sensitive phase in our lives dealing with our lost marriages in search of ourselves. Going through the divorce; my family life was not easy during this time. This was my lowest moment; hard to communicate with my wife, my teenage kids 16 and 12 while staying productive and creative. I needed to focus on an interesting project like this for therapeutic and financial reasons. I kept in touch and called Isaac every few weeks to ask what was going on and a few month passed which I thought it meant they have decided to work with someone else.
The location of the project and its scale intrigued me to think about what I would do if I had the opportunity to work on it. I was conflicted if a meaningful architectural piece was even possible considering the budget, scale and the codes or approval process needing to comply with Design Control Board DCB, Coastal Commission, and possible Environmental Impact Report EIR and so on. Also knowing after thirty years of experience how much the invisible (plumbing, electrical, mechanical, water proofing, roofing etc.) cost of remodeling is for a fifty years old building sitting literally on reclaimed wetland and where every single additional dollar per square foot multiplied by the area of the building means hundreds and thousands of dollars. I reached out to my friend Eric Rosen and discussed the project and the idea of collaborating on the project. I met Eric in the early nineties when he came to LA to work with me during my transitional period, for a short time and later started his own firm and we remained good friends.
Isaac finally called one day to have a meeting which me and Eric attended to discuss the scope of the project, fees and time frames. After our meeting he asked us to join him to go to a Beaches and Harbor meeting of the DCB. As we arrived I recognized a few old friend as board member; Peter Phinney architect and Susan Lewin in public relations. They were both surprised to see me there since I was not on the agenda and showed positive reactions to the prospects of me doing a project in Marina which was very effective for Isaac to witness (Presumptuous?)
At the break Isaac asked to speak to me privately and we left the meeting room; my intuition was right and that he has been working with another team who were present at the meeting that night and that was his attempt to introduce us to collaborate on the project. This explained the reaction of a group of attendants earlier when we arrived; they knew about this plan ahead of time but we didn’t. Isaac wanted us to meet that night but I didn’t think it was a good idea because I needed to think about it.
I was very disappointed but tried to mask it that night. I could not imagine working with someone or a team that I didn’t know or selected. I was also putting myself in their shoes and not liking the feeling as I was an intruder. I explained my predicament to Isaac a few days later and told him that it is not in project’s interests to have two designers involved. He was on the contrary convinced that this was the best solution and that the other team, Grace Partnership (GP) supports my involvement to take the lead on design. At this point there was only one thing we had to do. Meet.
The first meeting with Leo, Stephen and their team was conducted by someone who was a consultant to Isaac, and I later found out that she was the one who introduced GP to Isaac and her office was in the GP’s office. At our first meeting it became obvious that she was not in favor of my involvement and her behavior towards me made everyone very uncomfortable including Isaac and tested my patience, integrity and how much I really wanted to do this project. I still don’t understand the logic behind her involvement and the meaning of what she did during those tortures meetings even though not long after she was no longer apart of the team.
Was I being tested? By whom?
My thoughts were all over the place during this time and these meetings triggered; questioning myself, the profession; questioning if this kind of behavior should be tolerated or is it even professional; wondering if in other professions people had to go through this kind of humiliation to provide a service to others. I was imagining a doctor or a lawyer visit where the client being rude or questioning the professional’s abilities. I remembered my other experiences that got me ready for this kind of meeting. These thoughts helped me to quiet the room and for most parts not hear anything coming out of her mouth. I was surprised being the emotional person I am, not getting up and leaving those meetings. The truth is if you love the vision; you have to love it in its entirety which means, the exciting and creative times and boring and disappointing simultaneously and you can’t pick and choose. The other truth is needing the work.
Both in practice and in my teaching I have always noticed a disconnection in the way “Architecture” is perceived in the society at large or visa versa. In United States architecture (not building) or the practice of architecture doesn’t appear to be integrated in the daily life of the people; it is more like a luxury or element of privilege for a small social group and for most unappreciated and irrelevant; when in fact it should be ingrained in the society and people’s way of life. The awareness of the importance of architecture in the daily life is felt, for example, in Italy or France. When I started my schooling at the University of Florence there were approximately ten thousand registered at school of architecture in 1974; which I later realized was approximately the number of the student of all the schools of architecture in the US. (I am not certain about this figure) And based on the labor statistics a very small percentage of the overall group was registered to become an architect or practicing professional. The majority was studying because their interest in the culture of architecture and saw their involvement as part of a larger image of the society. And that why the environment looks and feels in the way it does. Architecture is buildings, cars, shops, cloth, food etc. etc. Architecture is a part of life like any other and its presence is not announced with pretensions gestures but ingrained in the way things are.
I remember in the late nineties I ran for the directorship position at Sci arc and I remember one of my main criticism of the school was its isolation. This was a very critical time for the architectural education and practice with the introduction of the new technological advancement in digital technology and processes of architectural design and production; this was the beginning of a new era. The Guggenheim Bilbao by Gehry was inaugurated in 1997 which was and in my opinion still is the symbol of this drastic shift. On the other front there were people like Boyer and Mitgang alarming us about disconnect which has been inherently apart of the education and practice of architecture in the US. We could identify with the two concurrent positions.
“… It would be much better, I think, to go into the field, and build hands on. It’s a more positive and optimistic kind of attitude about work. When the artist and sculptors I know work, there’s sort of a free play idea. You try things; you experiment; It’s kind of naive and childish; It’ is like a playpen. Scientists work that way too- for example, genetic scientists that I have been involved with, through a genetic foundation that I work with, seem to work similarly.
It’s kind of like throwing things out, and then following the ideas, rather than predicting where you’re going to go”
From an interview with Frank O. Gehry by B. Diamond Stern
“Architectural community’s long history of failure to connect itself firmly to the larger concerns confronting families, businesses, schools, communities and society…, too many Americans will spend their lives as architectural illiterates unless those connections can be more clearly established in schools and in public discourse, architecture will remain omnipresent yet underappreciated and shrouded in mystery. Even on college campuses where most architectural programs are located, the potential of design education to enrich learning and life has been inadequately explored. We discovered that architecture students and faculty are too often disconnected from other disciplines, and distant from the social and cultural mainstream of campus life” Building community: a new future for architecture education and practice, Boyer, Mitgang (Carnegie Foundation for advancement of teaching 1996)
We know now which school of thought dominated the last two decades and as a result architecture continues to be disconnected and schools less involved in the communities the claim to be a part of. The LA school or Santa Monica School which at one point in its conception was professing to balance the practice and education of architecture teaching a new generation of architects to be involved hands on in the field making and showing by example the need for being involve has ended up imitating the West coast school models like Colombia and have been consumed by generating sophisticated images of an utopian architecture in fictional environment of a certain future. The so called experimental architecture has become a cliché and it is designed by software programmers that made the tools for Hollywood productions originally. These software creates the illusion of authorship and creativity in the way a game does for which it success is measured by who comes with the next cool gadget to produce the most seductive image. The self-indulging practice of the last twenty years has reduced even more the dismal number of the projects that so called “contemporary”, “experimental” “Avant guard” architects were interested to dedicate their lives to.
“The truth is simple, very simple. Centered. But people crave other nourishment besides the truth. Its privileged distortions, in philosophy and literature. For example.” Susan Sontag, Debriefing”
I guess this explains how I could tolerate the humiliation and abuse during the meetings and to compete for a speculative project having to deal with code restrictions that would restrict me to make airless, lightless boxes deprived of human needs based on autocratic laws generated by insurance companies and banks.
Here I said it. And I feel better and I can continue talking about the good parts.
I know why I went on a tangent like this and I am sure it would lead to meaningful conclusions but let’s not forget that the contemporary architecture is not in demand because it is not understood, appreciated or accepted in our society and for these reasons the less than one percent of the work in the market a large group of architects would do anything to get. The problem is complex and rooted in the overall economic, political and cultural system. Unless we start architectural education in elementary schools and educate the general public about the importance of architecture as part of the daily life we will be contributing to more segregated cities and inhuman living conditions dictated by zoning codes and building codes.
Tahiti Marina project took off fast after the initial hick ups with personal issues and like Isaac said GP and we found it easier than I thought to collaborate smoothly. The pressure was on from the beginning and we needed to submit a concept design to the DCB in a very short period of time and we were on.
As I started sketching I felt I was timid and overly limiting myself because of the size, cost and time schedule and circumstances. On the other hand the site was encouraging and liberating; it’s hard to miss the Pacific Ocean right there. I visited the site frequently during this time. It helped to improve my mood every time; made me calmer and refreshed. The work process calms me generally, I can think, make, create or imagine until the restlessness crawls up on me and suddenly I am worried and miss my son and daughter. This was a historically devastating time all over the world and to some accounts worse than financial crisis of 1933. Banks and large financial institutions were collapsing; corporations were laying off thousands of people every day. I began my days with strong emotional uncertainties so I tried to concentrate on issues at hand; people I need to contact; where do I need to go and what are my priorities. I try to open myself up and be vulnerable and accept my weaknesses with open arms. I ignored my expectations in its source before it entangles in to a web of sorrows. This was the time to identify real friends and those you could count on. This is it; I kept telling myself. I am here and I have what I need with my faults and imperfections; I am… (Feb. 3, 2009)
“Not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves.” H.D. Thoreau
The tiered existing building like many other in the marina was more like a speculative box, disinterested in its amazing site and surprisingly in some of the well positioned units there were windowless closets facing the ocean view instead of a better positioned or larger living room or bedroom. Our hands were tight as to the degree of changes we could make to the main layout of the building. The apartment’s layout and long corridors running the entire length of the building reaching then, unfortunately had to stay. We turned out attention to
The architecture of the new façade shall exert a new character while engaging the existing building to celebrate this unique site on the water. The new design of the building is inspired by the most important elements of the site: boating and the water. A curving horizontal laminated blue color glass surface wraps around the entire building creating new balcony enclosures while changing the dynamic of the static building into a more fluid and organic vessel. The new elements of the façade create a variety of textures and forms, which make the building, seem lighter.
The pool area, club house, toilet facilities, landscaping, lighting, promenade, and bulkhead railing will all be renovated as part of this project. The existing pool area shall be renovated with new glass /metal pool area enclosure, new spa, paving enhancement, water feature, and wood decks with updated landscaping to enhance the quality of the space. The new pool and garden area shall be furnished with high-quality furnishing to improve the quality of the experience. The construction of new gym below the deck on the east side of the building shall be highly improved with new equipments, lockers, showers, and toilet facilities.
The existing concrete curb edge between driveway and waterfront walk will be removed to visually treat the entire perimeter of the building as the Marina Promenade. In lieu of the concrete curb and drains, a portion of the parking stalls will be paved with drivable grass with bio-swale treatment, which will satisfy the project’s storm-water-management requirements and create a park-like promenade. A seamless edge of vehicular parking and waterfront walk is delineated with a line of concrete ball bumper stop and punctuated with flowering trees and benches. Ultimately, the Tahiti Marina Promenade will be an inviting destination for an evening stroll or a quiet place to sit and enjoy the marina.