Pugh + Scarpa AIA Firm Award 2010
"I was looking for someone to really help me out and to elevate the level of design that was happening, and I put an ad in the paper," Pugh recalled in a 2008 documentary film made by Interior Design for the occasion of Pugh + Scarpa's lifetime achievement award from the magazine.
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Scarpa had been living in San Francisco and working for Holt Hinshaw Pfau Jones as lead designer. But, the architect recalls, "I realized I was no longer interested in working for someone. I wanted a much more substantial role in creating my own work."
Trained in architecture at the University of Florida, Scarpa spent two years studying classical architecture in Italy, becoming an expert on Palladio along the way, and also worked in New York under prominent architect Paul Rudolph. He says he had wanted to be an architect for as long as he could remember.
"My father is an Italian immigrant," Scarpa explains. "He was basically a mailman and did side construction jobs to feed his four children. We were a family of limited means, so he'd pick me up from school and drag me to the construction sites. I thought my dad was an architect and I wanted to be like him."
In the early days of Pugh + Scarpa, the firm survived on small, relatively unglamorous projects. "We built the practice from zero," Scarpa recalls. "I remember at one time, we went through a period of two or three years where we got zero built, but we remained a viable practice. We actually built some furniture at the time just so we could have something built."
When they did find work, the architects applied serious rigor no matter what the job, and regardless of whether the client asked for it, which sometimes caused friction between the partners — Pugh being more of a pragmatist and Scarpa an idealist.
"Our clients were getting way more than they bargained for in terms of design," says Scarpa. "Some people were just not prepared for it. I don't want to sound inflexible, but my personality is that I'm not going to do something bad just because a client doesn't get it. When things would go bad, my tendency was to walk away. Gwynne tended to work it out."
"It causes pain in a practice that's changing and evolving," he continues. "We're still working through that. We weren't drawn together because we were soul mates."
If Pugh was the quiet backbone of the firm, focused on engineering, Scarpa imbued the firm's designs with artful energy.
In its first two decades, the pair developed a reputation for playful, inventive commercial interiors. Many of those were for creative-minded clients, including a number of film editing and production studios. It was a time when independent film was crossing over into mainstream multiplexes, and many actors and directors were establishing their own production companies.
In the Santa Monica offices for Reactor Films (1998), the architects fashioned a conference room from an industrial shipping container. At Davie-Brown Entertainment (2001) in Los Angeles, a shrink-wrapped steel frame forms a sculptural dressing room. For the Hollywood marketing company Creative Domain, the architects studded a wall with backlit Dixie cups (2004), and at the Jigsaw film editing offices (2005) in L.A., they filled windows with ping-pong balls and acrylic beads to form translucent privacy screens.
"Larry would design wild forms and Gwynne would draw from his experience as an engineer to help make it happen with the contractors," explains Daniel Safarik, Pugh + Scarpa's marketing director. "For Hollywood, you're given a boatload of money and no time to get it done. It didn't faze them that construction would begin right away."
Such a time-constrained process echoes the rush of cinematic set design, notes Safarik. "There's a certain 'stagey' quality to working in a raw space that's going that quickly."
For another project, the CoOP Editorial post-production facility, the architects created soundproof video-editing bays, offices, and meeting areas inside a 1963 building by Frank Gehry in downtown Santa Monica. With the building fabric partly concealed, vertical surfaces were brought to life with translucent acrylic panels and a 100-foot- (30-meter-) long wall of CNC-sculpted glu-lam beams. The 4,700-square-foot (436-square-meter) tenant improvement project earned the firm an AIA National Honor Award in 2004.
Yet despite such success, the architects, particularly Scarpa, had begun to feel restless. They sought new types of work, and in 1999 had brought on a third principal, Angela Brooks — Scarpa's wife — to help facilitate what soon became core strengths of the firm: sustainable design and affordable housing.
"Every sector we've broken into, from early on with commercial interiors, we could have done that for the rest of our careers and developed a system," Scarpa says. "But I get bored with doing the same thing over and over. We've always battled to get new project types."
"I practically begged a client to let us do affordable housing," he recalls, "and now we're known for it. I believe you do your best work when you haven't done thousands of them. It's always been surprising to me that clients don't get that."
Housing Green and Affordable
Indeed, Pugh + Scarpa has designed a succession of multifamily affordable housing projects in Santa Monica, some with considerable sustainable credentials.
One such project, Colorado Court (2002), a 44-unit single-room-occupancy housing development, is LEED Gold-certified. It is also one of two Pugh + Scarpa projects named to the prestigious annual Top Ten Green Projects list by the AIA Committee on the Environment (COTE), in 2003. (The other such listee is the Solar Umbrella, a 2005 addition to Brooks and Scarpa's home.)
In a collaborative venture with San Francisco-based Kodama Diseño Architects, Pugh + Scarpa carved a bold visual identity born of function: the architects treated solar panels as art objects. It started with the choice of polycrystalline photovoltaic panels, which are vivid blue in color. Instead of being mounted on the roof, the panels were mounted vertically on the outer walls, contrasting with the sage-green stucco of the building.
Brooks emphasizes that much of sustainable design is elementary, simply taking advantage of topography, climate, wind patterns, and solar orientation. "We don't use a lot of high-tech software, and part of that's because I feel a lot of it is common sense," she explains.
"We never used to really market ourselves as sustainable," continues Brooks, who studied architecture at the University of Florida and the Southern California Institute of Architecture. "At the University of Florida, we used to call it regionalism. Everybody knew these old cracker houses were way cooler in the summer [than newer buildings], with air circulating under the house and big shading. It annoys me when architects say that's a new aspect of design."
After Colorado Court, Pugh + Scarpa designed Broadway Court (2007) for the same client, the Community Corporation of Santa Monica, and a third project, called Pico Place, is currently in the works.
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