Los Angeles is a city whose spirit lies in reinvention. It’s always been a place where people have come to shed their history and begin anew. And that has made preservation in the city a sometimes quixotic mission. Still, It is here that Brenda Levin, fresh from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, chose to stake her claim as a preservationist more than thirty years ago. Since then, Levin has become a leading proponent of the preservation movement in Los Angeles, restoring such landmarks as the Oviatt Building, the Wiltern, the Griffith Observatory, and the Bradbury Building, and along the way shaping the way Angelenos experience their city. Last fall the LA chapter of the American Institute of Architects honored Levin with its Gold Medal Presidential Award, the highest honor it gives to an individual. AN’s Carren Jao talked to Levin about her recent award, the projects on her plate and the state of preservation in the city.
The Architect’s Newspaper: How did you respond to the news that you were the recipient of AIA/LA Gold Medal?
Brenda Levin: Obviously I was pleased and honored, but I was also struck by a certain amount of symmetry, because the first recipient of the gold medal from the AIA/LA chapter was John Lautner, who actually provided me with my first employment out of graduate school. I thought, “John would probably be pretty pleased—and surprised!”
How did you get your start in Los Angeles and establish your reputation for preservation?
I came to LA in 1976. My first job was with Lautner for about two years. Then, I came to work for a firm called Group Arcon. One day Wayne Ratkovitch, who was a renowned developer in LA, came into the firm. He had just bought the Oviatt building, a 1926 Art Deco building on Olive Street. He wanted to renovate it and re-conceptualize it. The firm gave me that project as project architect. I worked on it from 1978 to 1980. In 1980, I started my own firm. Ratkovich offered to have me work on the Rex restaurant on the ground floor of the Oviatt. It had been a high-end men’s haberdashery that sat vacant for many years. Traditional commercial real estate would have told you to put a bank on the ground floor of that building as opposed a high-end restaurant. It was before the resurgence there, so there wasn’t a lot of street traffic or pedestrian traffic. Clearly, to put a high end restaurant in that space was a great risk for him, but that’s exactly what he did. That’s the project that started Levin & Associates.
I continued to work on the Oviatt building. Then Wayne went on to buy the Wiltern Theater, the Chapman Market, and the Fine Arts Building, so I just subsequently tracked with him. He was a very generous developer who allowed me to hitch my wagon to his star. In a sense, we became the experts in preservation solely by doing it. Not because there was a great body of history in Los Angeles of preservation.
You came to LA rather halfheartedly, but now the city is the epicenter for your practice. How do you feel now about the decision you made to move out West three decades ago?
I was not terribly enthusiastic to come to LA when I first moved because I was so much an East Coast person. My whole concept of cities was New York and Boston. Clearly LA didn’t fit into that pattern or mold, but what I found in the city was openness.
It didn’t even matter where you went to school or who you knew, it was much more “what can you do” and “if you do it well, we’ll give you something else to do,” or they’ll take you to the next step, like my early relationships with Wayne Ratkovitch and Ira Yellin when we did the Bradbury building and Grand Central Market. They were both people who just saw someone who was talented and passionate and let her go. That was an extraordinary opportunity.
I do not believe had I stayed in Boston or New York that [I would have the career I have now]. When I went back for my 10-year reunion at the GSD, I was the only one who had my own firm, and I was the only one who moved to LA. There you go.
When you moved out to the West Coast, it wasn’t really with the intention to make a name in preservation, right?
How then do you feel about being so connected to the preservation movement?
You’re right, I didn’t intend for preservation or adaptive re-use to become a considerable part of my work, but what I would say about it is that it has allowed me, in the new construction work that we do, to take some of those skills that I’ve learned over the years in dealing with existing buildings and translate that into an architecture that I think speaks to the most successful components of these older buildings.
I’ve also learned a lot about technical building construction. There is a quality of construction in the older buildings that I deal with that is often difficult to replicate in new construction.
What do you think were the biggest factors that contributed to the city’s growing support for preservation?
I’d say the single biggest change in policy was Downtown’s Adaptive Reuse Ordinance, which allowed you to convert commercial buildings to residential. That’s when you saw the emergence of the Old Bank District on Spring Street, all these buildings that had once been the financial center of Los Angeles. That all moved up to Bunker Hill in the 60’s. Those buildings remained vacant until the late 90s when the adaptive ordinance came into effect. Then, all of a sudden they had another life.
Before that, Broadway particularly was surviving on ground floor retail rent. It would support the entire building. The rest of the building could be vacant. With the Adaptive Reuse Ordinance, the codes were modified to allow conversion without bringing the entire building up to code as a commercial structure and all of a sudden you saw this incredible resurgence in downtown Los Angeles, where the population went from the tens of thousands to close to 50,000. With that comes all the things we know and love about the city, which is the retail on the ground floor, the restaurants, the bars, the cleaners, all the support services that there was never enough of before. Now, it’s truly fantastic.
Levin & Associates is tasked with designing the master plan for the Ford Ampitheatre, which will be unveiled later this year. What is the progress of that plan?
We are well on our way. The way we describe the master plan is that we’re improving the Ford. In other words, improving the resource that’s there—the 1,200-seat amphitheatre—with infrastructure, and then we’re reimagining the Ford. [We are considering] what other facilities might be included to augment the resources the Ford has to produce artistic programming for the county of Los Angeles. That might actually include new structures and new buildings that accommodate additional theater space or rehearsal space.
In improving and reimagining the Ford, were there any imperatives for your firm?
We’ve done many workshops, and two things have come out. One, retain the historic resource. Two, retain the natural character of the site. There was a lot of discussion on the contrast between the two county resources there—the Hollywood Bowl and the Ford Amphitheatre. In the Hollywood Bowl, your back is to natural environment and your focus is to the built form of the stage. But at the Ford, the actual historic resource is behind you and what you’re looking at is the canyon. Universally, the feedback that we’ve gotten is to preserve that view—preserve the integrity of the canyon.
Your firm is also responsible for the development of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple, the oldest Jewish congregation in Los Angeles. Could you share any updates on that project?
Our master plan looks at the long-range use of the site and proposes new structures. It divides the site into districts. Working from Wilshire and Sixth, the front district is the spiritual, administration and event district. The middle district is the school district. The last district is the parking and play district.… It’s a very urban site yet the FAR is 6 to 1, so we could build a lot denser and taller, but chose not to. The entire site is organized around an internal pedestrian street. Off this pedestrian spine are varying size courtyards that take you ultimately to the spiritual heart of the complex. That’s probably a ten-year phase development. A long time. Architecture really is a delayed gratification profession.
A lot of work has already been done in preservation for the city. What kinds of conversations do you see happening around that in the future?
Now the challenge to the preservation community is the buildings that are turning 50 years old, because 50 years is the threshold for historic. How do we treat this new body of work that came during a period of extraordinary expansion in Los Angeles? All of a sudden we have a new body of building typology from a period of time that is taking on historic significance. That’s going to be the real challenge in leading that conversation. I believe that the Los Angeles Conservancy is clearly already involved in that.
Your firm has already shaped so many of the city’s iconic structures. Is there any project that you want to work on?
My role model is Julia Morgan. The reason I mention her is because there’s one more historic building, one more that I really want to do, which is the Herald Examiner Building, which is her building. I have worked on it for the Hearst Company, and hopefully when the economy improves that it will also come back. That to me is just a little bit of personal symmetry.