After Mike the Poet finished his set Thursday night, I found Benjamin Ball of Ball-Nogues Studio still in the crowd. He had been the second to last presenter, mostly talking about the firm’s work, and he was now taking compliments from admirers and shooting the breeze with friends. I, never not working, asked about the teepee in Woodstock he’d mentioned, though Ben was more interested in chatting me up about the paper, Venice, and my bowtie. Soon enough, a group of us found ourselves in the lobby, but the drinks being overpriced, we hit the street.
The five of us–Ben, three of his artist friends, and myself–deliberated on one of LA’s countless quiet street corners. The establishment across the street, Library Bar, was deemed “too USC” and abandoned. Where to go? A loud, hipstery joint, Bar 107 was settled on some blocks away. This being LA, everyone split up, with two headed for a car, another to her bike, and Ben and I on foot.
As we make our we across town, I begin to interrogate Ben, especially about his adopted home, a place, during my brief stay, I find to be incredibly fascinating. Not very far into the conversation, we pass through Pershing Square, a park in downtown LA redesigned in the ’90s by Ricardo Legorreta and Laurie Olin, a place Ben is not exactly fond of. “God,” he says, as we cross the street and enter the park, “they need to bulldoze this shit. It’s a perfect example of how stale thinking was in the 90s.”
Still, this hasn’t hindered the development of downtown, a movement Ben is very much a strong believer in, having moved his and partner Gaston Nogues’ studio into a loft building in the area. “The rent is still dirt cheap,” Ben said. “You can get a place for less than a dollar a square foot, which the developers are happy to do because they know you’ll pave the wave.” When I pointed out that the streets were dead and devoid of many necessary amenities, he conceded that this was true, but as with all gentrification, bound to change–if you build it, they will come.
When we arrived at 107 it was seemingly swamped with teenagers, so we opted for the adjacent Pete’s Bar & Cafe, a neighborhood institution that seems like it’s been there forever, with its lush interior and old black-and-white prints of the downtown of yesteryear, even if it opened less than a decade ago. I stepped out to find an ATM, something that took 20 minutes of wandering around desolate downtown blocks–like I was saying about those amenities–that, despite the postindustrial charms of the area, had me longing for a New York City bodega.
By the time I returned, we had been joined by Ben’s artist friend Beverly, who had arrived on her bike. Like Ball-Nogues, Beverly uses the computer to create much of her art, and the two got into a long conversation about the various design and rendering programs out there. As we shared Pete’s delicious cheese fries, I sat back to revel in the excitement these two shared. My eyes glazed over due to jet lag, but it was mistaken for disinterest. Trying to bring the discussion back around, Ben expressed his frustration that all the SCI-Arc kids who only conceive of computers as a means to an end–usually some overly slick building–and not just another tool to realize a clever building.
“It’s why, in the end, we try and build everything by hand, to do all the fabrication ourselves,” Ben insisted. “Architecture always has been, and always will be, a craft.” Salut!