One of LA’s iconic firms, Kanner Architects, has officially closed its doors. The company’s principal and driving force, Stephen Kanner, passed away in July 2010 at the young age of 54, severely compromising the firm’s direction. Last fall, the office closed its doors, and in December, Kanner’s widow Cynthia began shipping the firm’s archives to the Art, Design & Architecture Museum of the University of California, Santa Barbara.
“He really was the rainmaker,” explained Cynthia Kanner, who took over the firm after her husband’s death. “We could keep going in his style, but it was his vision and passion that really drove the firm,” she said.
Kanner Architects, originally founded by Kanner’s grandfather, Herman, in 1946, contributed significantly to Los Angeles’ built legacy. The firm made a name for itself with its sleek modernist commercial buildings, and really came into its own with Stephen Kanner’s mixture of elegant restraint and compelling whimsy.
Led by its talented senior designers, the firm was able to procure work after Kanner’s death, said his widow. But the firm lost what Winston Chappell, Kanner’s brother-in-law, who managed the firm after Kanner’s death, called its late principal’s “matrix of leadership abilities,” from marketing to connections, to the sheer will and charisma to push projects through.
The company flirted with a handful of purchase offers from other architecture firms. The most recent, from New York architect Ronette Riley, collapsed this past summer. Many of the firm’s designers have taken projects with them to other offices or to their own practices.
“It’s a weird asset, an architecture firm,” said Chappell, the owner of his own residential architecture practice. “The firm was so linked to Stephen’s aesthetic, and his personality.”
In the end, Cynthia Kanner said, she preferred to “preserve the legacy rather than having it subsumed into another person's vision.”
UCSB’s architecture and design Collection, begun by curator and historian David Gebhard in the 1960s, contains many of Southern California’s most esteemed architects’ archives. Included are the work and documentation of Charles and Ray Eames, Irving Gill, Bruce Goff, Harwell Hamilton Harris, Edward Kllingsworth, Paul Laszlo, Wallace Neff, Rudolph Schindler, and Paul Williams.
“We’re so excited,” commented UCSB Architecture and Design curator Jocelyn Gibbs about the procurement of Kanner Architects’ archives. She pointed not only to the firm’s celebrated modernist architecture and to its three generations of leadership, but to the fact that the firm’s work extends into the 21st century, a rarity in the collection thus far.
The Kanner archive, Gibbs estimated, includes about eight models, 60 to 80 boxes of documents, more than 200 slat files, and several rolls of drawings and blueprints. It should be available to researchers within about six months.
“You can see a lot of Stephen in the archive,” added Gibbs, pointing to the architect’s many informal drawings, sketches, and other artworks sprinkled throughout. “He drew everything, and you can really get a feel for his design process and get into his head.”
“We wanted the Kanner work to be accessible to students and researchers,” added Cynthia Kanner. “That was far more moving to me than making a bit of money on selling the practice.”
The part that Chappell says he appreciates most when he steps back and looks at the work is “the element of pure joy of making a building that was so apparent in Stephen’s work.”