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Former author and Architecture Critic
Writer for Progressive Architecture, Architecture, and the Los Angeles Times
Teacher of the History of Modern Architecture and Urban Design, Art Center College of Design, Pasadena
In a famous passage in his classic work, Towards A New Architecture, Le Corbusier defined the essence of architecture as a capacity to touch the heart. "By the use of inert materials and starting from conditions more or less utilitarian, you have established certain relationships which have aroused my emotions..." These subtle "certain relationships"--between form and purpose, the practical and the symbolic, the personal and the public--distinguish Brenda Levin's achievement as a designer.
Levin's architecture is marked by a quality that is simultaneously deeply emotional and profoundly concerned with the quality of life of Los Angeles, the city that has been her home for the past quarter century. Her warm yet shrewd intelligence is revealed in every aspect of her work, balancing a sophisticated understanding of the social realities of a modern metropolis as complex as Los Angeles with a very personal involvement in striving to improve the often threatened urban environment. She made an early name for herself in the restoration and renovation of several of the city's major historic buildings and she has created intensely moving places, such as the Downtown Women's Center. In all of Levin's work there is a common theme: a desire to enhance urban memory and place.
Coincidentally, Levin's first employment was at the office of architect John Lautner, a transplanted Midwesterner who first disliked Los Angeles, then came to appreciate its expansive architectural possibilities. Levin admired Lautner's bold yet refined style and was intrigued with his ability to impose his design ideas on his clients. In her own work, however, Levin was more inclined to collaborate with clients to find an expression that, while springing from her sensibility, was yet sensitive to their aspirations. When she opened her own firm, Levin & Associates, in 1980, the evolution of this process of interaction between Levin's vision and her clients' agendas soon came to distinguish her designs.
The opportunity to practice and hone her particular approach to design came in the early 1980s through Levin's association with visionary developer Wayne Ratkovich. Seeing the commercial possibilities inherent in some of Los Angeles's neglected historic buildings, Ratkovich engaged Levin to renovate, restore and adapt several culturally-valuable properties, including downtown's Oviatt and Fine Arts buildings, and the Pellessier Building on Wilshire Boulevard's famed Miracle Mile. In the process, Levin & Associates shaped the unformed landscape of historic restoration and renovation in Los Angeles. In these projects, and those for developer Ira Yellin, including the Bradbury Building and Grand Central Market, Levin & Associates has consistently been concerned with renewing the civic texture of a city whose physical and social cohesion is all too often tenuous and vulnerable to fragmentation.
Renovation and adaptive re-use require an architect to slip into the skin of an existing structure and energize it from within. Levin's gift for this kind of architectural empathy reached a deeper social dimension in her design for the Downtown Women's Center, a facility offering permanent housing to some of Skid Row's mentally-ill homeless women. In lengthy consultations with director Jill Halverson, and in many talks with the women who would live there, Levin and her associate Alison Wright were able to define those basic elements that would make the Center feel most like home. The Center was subsequently recognized by the Urban Land Institute as a model project of its kind. Levin did not lose her connection with the Center after it was completed; she now serves as its board chair.
The Downtown Women's Center was a pivotal experience in Levin's career, extending her awareness of and concern with the social impact of her work. Over the past two decades she has participated in a wide variety of groups and organizations, civic and professional, involved with enhancing the urban and architectural character of Los Angeles, including the American Institute of Architects, Los Angeles Community Design Center, Los Angeles Conservancy and the Urban Design Advisory Coalition.
Like many Angelenos, Levin was shocked by the damage done to Los Angeles's urban fabric in the notorious 1992 riots. To help restore and repair the devastation, Levin collaborated with an African-American pastor, Korean contractor, and her husband, David Abel, in the design and construction of the Adams-Congress affordable housing complex. Forty-six families, including some sixty children, now occupy what was once a burned-out site. In designing the Adams-Congress Apartments, Levin created a domestic environment with a strong sense of community. Architecturally, the project relates to the scale and craftsman vernacular of the single family homes which surround the commercial Adams Boulevard.
Levin's personal partnership with her energetic, politically-active husband has made them an effective team. Together, they have been involved in a variety of public projects in housing, education and civic enhancement. However, their first and most intimate collaboration has been the design of their family home in 1980. In this early work, Levin defined the aesthetic that informs her architecture. Fusing her Harvard-based Miesian training with Lautner-like expressionism, the house elaborates a geometric plan with eccentric wall and roof planes constructed of utilitarian materials, plywood, concrete block and sheet metal. The plan fans out to embrace the hillside that rises above the back yard. This feeling of opening out expresses her sense of the "long view" that epitomizes Los Angeles and, for Levin, her house is emblematic of her adopted city.
Over the past two decades of professional practice, Levin & Associates has refined its design vocabulary and its method of developing a project through a process of thorough consultation with clients and people who will use the buildings. Today, at the dawn of a new century, the firm has matured within the focus of its strengths, refining its suppleness of response to a variety of challenges and opportunities. Imbued with her particular character as a designer and as a woman, Levin's architecture touches the heart and mind in a special way, creating "certain relationships" which arouse emotions of serious delight.
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