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Conserving Modernism in L.A.

Escher GuneWardena Architecture

Conserving Modernism in L.A.
By Michael Webb -
Samsung has participated in the project

When a modernist house – tailored to the needs and desires of a discerning client – falls vacant it often becomes an orphan, at risk of neglect, abuse, even extinction. The taste for conventional styles predominates, and there is a pervasive delusion that new and bigger are better. The average size of the American house has doubled in past decades, even as families have become smaller. For most people a house is primarily an investment in social status and resale, scaled to the demands of the market and the soaring cost of land. Only an exceptional owner will cherish a modest mid-century house with its compact bathroom and kitchen; and only a few architects and contractors have the skill and sensitivity to give these houses a new life while preserving their integrity.

Los Angeles has the highest concentration of mid-20th-century modern residential architecture anywhere in the world and there is a growing appreciation of this legacy. Many houses from those fruitful decades have been restored or extended with varying degrees of success. The partnership of Frank Escher and Ravi GuneWardena has excelled in the conservation of modernist gems. What distinguishes their work from that of other L.A. practitioners is their fidelity to the original plans and details. As Escher, a graduate of the ETH in Zurich, explains: “Before we touch anything, we will spend several months exploring archival and print material while interviewing experts in the work of the architect and system of construction. We need to absorb all the subtleties, tangible and intangible, of the work we are restoring, and channel the spirit of its designer rather than put ourselves into the equation”.

Some contemporary restoration specialists take a bolder approach, juxtaposing new and old, or imagining what the first architect would have done. Scarred materials are replaced, patina is lost, and restoration becomes wholesale reconstruction...

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