Victor Gruen’s Shopping Town USA sits on the conference table at Zago Architecture in L.A.’s Atwater Village. Andrew Zago purports kinship with Gruen, even if the 1960 book on the planning of shopping centers might seem incongruous among the chromatic elevation studies and experimental models displayed around the studio. “He’s the only other architect I know who had a firm in Detroit and Los Angeles,” Zago noted.
Detroit plays large in Zago Architecture’s work past and present. A Michigan native, Zago founded the firm there in 1991. Together with partner Laura Bouwman, who joined the practice in 2003, he realized several projects in the city, including a striking steel- and glass-tube pavilion for the non-profit Greening of Detroit. The firm is one of twelve teams participating in The Architectural Imagination, the Detroit-minded U.S. Pavilion exhibition at the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale.
For the upcoming U.S. Pavilion, the firm was tasked with designing a speculative project on a site near the Detroit’s Dequindre Cut. It’s a familiar location for Zago and Bouwman. In 2008 they created XYT: Detroit Streets, a series of panoramic digital videos that document the frayed urban fabric of the post-industrial landscape. (The films were screened at the Art Institute of Chicago last year.)
Deep into R&D for Venice, Zago is hesitant to reveal too many details. Gruen’s book, however, hints at possible strategies. “Detroit is empty site next to empty site next to empty site; we’re looking for ways to bring lots of people together,” he said, citing local conditions like the nearby Eastern Market produce exchange and global ones such as mass migrations in the Middle East. In early October, Detroit mayor Mike Duggan offered to host Syrian refugees.
But don’t expect the firm to embrace a solely pragmatic social mission. Zago is optimistic that a formal agenda, even if esoteric, can shape cultural values. As he explained, “Architecture is in service to the public imagination.”
Capitol Park Apartments
Capitol Park dates back to Augustus Woodward’s 1805 urban plan for Detroit. More recently, the triangular-shaped park attracted investors ready to retrofit the masonry buildings around its perimeter, but few have ventured into new construction. The architects’ designs for two urban infill development properties on Griswold Street and a third on Washington Boulevard demonstrate that sensitivity to context does not mean mimicking ornamental facade details. These three market-rate apartment buildings illustrate a contemporary vernacular for Detroit in their play of opacity and transparency. The tallest building appears to twist as balconies jut out over the sidewalk, a move made possible by reinterpreting the city’s vintage cornice laws.
North Broadway Apartments
Commissioned by developer Tom Gilmore, this apartment building in the valley between Radio Hill and Elysian Park is a strategic exercise in retrofitting L.A.’s deadpan building stock. Zago and Bouwman reworked individual unit interiors and updated the overall exterior circulation of the motel-like structure. Drawing on in-studio elevation studies, including some paint and expanded metal mock-ups, they added a new stair on the street facade. In models, the addition seems to oscillate between sculpture and camouflage.
Arup Downtown Los Angeles
Zago’s interest in color and orthographic projection merges with workplace strategy in the design for the engineering company’s satellite office located in a Victor Gruen building in Downtown Los Angeles. Arup needed a flexible office that could accommodate different ways of working—from private one-on-one meetings to informal collaborations. In lieu of traditional desks and workstations, the firm used sculptural built-in furniture that functions as tables and seating. As the gray surfaces angle and converge, they create visual privacy and auxiliary uses.
Warhol-bright collages line the walls of Zago Architecture. Made out of cardboard cereal and other supermarket product boxes that are cut into strips and then pieced together, the works are integral to the firm’s design research. Each chromatic piece might suggest a possible pattern, elevation, skin system, or something less tangible, such as a mood or atmosphere. “Local color,” said Zago about a more subtle set of explorations now underway in the studio.