The Trusteeship

Member Interview: Brenda Levin

Brenda A. Levin, FAIA President and Principal, Levin & Associates Architects
Born in the New York metropolitan area Brenda A. Levin, FAIA established her architecture and urban planning firm in downtown Los Angeles in 1980. Identified with the urban revitalization pioneers in the 1980s who were able to restore life to parts of the city that nearly everyone had written off, Ms Levin gained worldwide attention for her historic preservation and adaptive re-use work on some of the city’s most beloved icons, including Bradbury and Oviatt buildings, Grand Central Market, Wiltern Theater, City Hall, and Griffith Observatory. Recent projects include the design of new institutional, commercial and multi-family housing facilities, including buildings at Occidental and Scripps Colleges; galleries at the University of California, Santa Barbara and the Huntington; and housing at the Downtown Women’s Center and Adams Congress Apartments. She and her firm have received many awards from the profession, business and government. A 256-page monograph presenting Brenda Levin’s ideas and work and entitled Brenda Levin, Levin & Associates Architects: Los Angeles has been published by Images publishing this spring.

When did you decide to become an architect? I attended Carnegie Tech as an undergraduate (now Carnegie Mellon University) as a Fine Arts major. My first major was in painting, but I moved successively through textile design, printmaking and finely graphic design. At one point when I was searching for the perfect major, I poked my head into the architecture studio. There were only two women in a fairly large class. At the time it was not to be.  Fast forward some 5+ years, after having worked in graphic design for an educational development firm, I wanted a creative career that was more tangible. A friend of mine told me about the Boston Architectural Center, which enabled me to explore my interest in architecture at night, while maintaining my day job. I loved it, and seemed to have some talent, so after two years applied to full time graduate school to pursue a Master’s of Architecture degree, which I received in 1976 for the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

What kind of experiences can you describe, as a woman, in such a traditionally male dominated field; in school, starting out, continuing?
I wish I could say that the glass ceiling has been broken and that there is not a tangible difference between men and women in the profession. But the truth is that although my class at Harvard was 40% women, and the academy remains proportionally equal, the number of women in the profession who are partners in firms, or have firms of their own, beyond domestic architecture, is woefully small.  The AIA (American Institute of Architects, our professional organization, has only 13-14% women members.

Do you find that being a woman in restoration architecture has an advantage? I don’t consider myself a restoration architect.

Who are your heroines/heroes?   Julia Morgan is my hero. She had an active and productive practice, completing over 700 building projects, at a time (over 100 years ago) when women were invisible in the profession. She was the first woman ever admitted to the Ecole de Beaux Arts to receive an architecture degree, which was unavailable to her in the United States. Her patron was the Hearst family.

What was your most “challenging ” project, and why?
Architecture is a very challenging yet romantic profession. Seeing something emerge from nothing but our own vision is a very powerful stimulant. The process is complicated, and at times tedious, trying to balance the aspirations and the budget of the client, working in collaboration with a team of engineers and other consultants, all the while striving with each decision large or small to create buildings that sit well with their neighbors, embrace the user with comfort and functionality, that create spaces and places that add life to the urban environment.

My most challenging project has been the one that did not happen. The expansion of the Autry Museum in Griffith Park got caught up in politics. It was a profound example of a lack of political leadership from the Mayor to the Council member. It was an outrageous loss of a $175M investment in an existing cultural institution, which wanted to expand their ability to present a vision of the convergence of cultures that make up the American West, at a time in the city where construction jobs are few and far between.

Do you have a favorite project?  A least favorite? It is hard to have a favorite, because I have been so fortunate to work on so many significant projects, and by focusing on the LA region, make a meaningful contribution to this amazing city….but that said every night I look up at Griffith Observatory I am exceedingly proud.

How did you get involved with “visionary” developer Wayne Ratkovitch, and describe that history a bit. Serendipity.  I was working for John Lautner (a legendary architect) and after two years building models of Bob Hope’s house in Palm Springs, I was laid off. I started doing the kitchen and bathroom remodels that all architects seem to do in the early stages of one’s career, when my husband asked me to do a space plan for the Coro Foundation’s new offices in the Oviatt Building. I did, which led to my working for Group Arcon, the firm Wayne hired to do the renovation of the Oviatt. It could be that I was assigned the project because I was from Boston and my employer thought I might know something about existing buildings, or that I was a woman and this “interior” work was appropriate…I’ll never know, but the net result was that I worked closely with Wayne, and when I started my own practice in 1980, he asked if I would continue working with him on the Oviatt.  The Oviatt led to the Wiltern Theater, Fine Arts Building and Chapman Markets. Because renovation was not common in LA, he became a hero and he happily attached my wagon to his star.

Talk about the design/political process in restoration, versus the process of “building from scratch”? Each project is different, and one of the best aspects of architecture is that you have to become a bit of an expert for each building type…so for example, I had no real astronomy experience before working on the Observatory; we have designed several theaters and now have an expertise; academic institutions all have their own cultures and require that you understand the place before you design a new facility or renovate an existing one. The politics of a campus can be just as challenging as a city. In all cases the ability to articulate a vision that reflects the goals of the client is most important as well as bringing them along in the process. Architecture is iterative, not linear, and the longer I practice, the more I realize that I am in awe when the spaces that emerge from our drawings lift spirits, foster interaction and encourage a sense of community and civic pride.

How do you spend your time; how many people/agencies do you typically interface with on a project? I am the lead designer of my firm, but I spend way too much time on contracts, administrative functions, and being the public face of our projects. We most often appear before design review committees, neighborhood councils, city commissions, and occasionally the City Council. Each of those is coupled with the Client’s team meetings, which are often weekly.  There have been times when an individual at a public meeting becomes obstreperous and it is unpleasant, and hard not to take personally.

Can you describe the process of significant “collaboration”? Example? I am currently working on the master plan for Wilshire Boulevard Temple and the renovation of the existing historic Sanctuary building. The Master Plan encompasses a full city block, which includes 3 existing historic structures, and four new proposed buildings, including: a Nursery School, K-6 Elementary School, a parking structure for 500 cars and an Administration and Event space building. The plan organizes the new buildings around a series of courtyards connected by an internal pedestrian street. I have been the architect for the project for 4 years and it is still in the entitlement phase, meaning it is being reviewed by the city’s planning department.

Concurrently we are in the Construction document phase for the renovation of the historic Sanctuary. The project has a large team of professionals, including consulting engineers, for structural, mechanical, electrical plumbing and civil engineering, acoustician, theatrical and lighting consultants, security and IT, hardware, an organ consultant and a myriad of materials conservators each with a specific expertise in concrete, marble, plaster, decorative painting, mural restoration, metals etc. It is our role to co-ordinate all the consultants and integrate their work into the architectural scope.
It is a very complicated project that requires significant collaboration among the professionals. Because we are working within an existing building, space is limited. Seismic structural improvements must be inserted into walls that have historic materials on both sides, the mechanical engineer and acoustician often have conflicting views on the noise Impacts of equipment, and the exterior envelope of the building has 10 different materials to be restored, as examples.

As architects we integrate the needs of our client, from the inspirational, maintaining a sacred space while improving its functionality and comfort, to enhancing the experience of the congregant, to the mundane: ensuring that the lighting controls are properly located for the building engineer’s operations.

What aspect of architecture gives you the most gratification?
I love the challenges of the design process..when you understand all the programmatic and functional requirements and begin to explore their integration into an idea. It’s a three dimensional puzzle, that hopefully translates into an elegant form with inspiring spaces,
that at it’s best is exhilarating.

And, after years of designing, drawing, and providing construction observation on a project, on the day of dedication when the building is no longer yours, it is exciting to watch your client own it and make it theirs.


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