“Where are you from?” she said.
“My name is Rick. I am from Long Beach, California.
“What do you do?”
“I am an architect and an urban designer.”
“But your accent…where does your accent comes from?”
“Guess,” I said. Few people hit the mark within three guesses.
“I grew up in Argentina and lived many years in Israel, Italy and Los Angeles. My accent is a mix of all those places.” I thought my answers would be enough to pacify her questioning, but she kept on digging.
“Do you have a specialty?” she said. Now I was in real trouble. I tried to cut it short.
“I have designed and built senior housing, residential, institutions, urban design. Now I’m doing something new in trying to change the world one-block-at-a-time,” I said and unloaded my pitch on Architecture Awareness.
I have divided my story into “Nine Lives.” What follows is what is relevant for your understanding of my background in relation to Architecture Awareness. Note that when I use the pronoun “we” it implies “with my wife Ruth,” also an architect. A creative and supportive companion, Ruth is also the partner with whom I share most of our architectural work.
I was born in Buenos Aires. I was lucky. My father provided for well-being and wisdom, my mother conveyed to me high standards and rigorous discipline. I also had an extended loving family, good friends, great teachers and a fabulous city that could support any aspiration.
I related to Argentina’s wide horizons and generous people since early childhood. I also had the opportunity to travel with my parents to Europe, the Americas and Israel. The exposure to different cultures expanded my horizons and opened my appetite for more. When I was seventeen I mixed my aspiration to become an architect with rebellion, egalitarian idealism and adventure. I left home, headed towards Israel.
In Haifa I met Ruth. She had immigrated from Romania to study at the Technion’s Faculty of Architecture. We both loved good cinema and architecture.
Haifa: in the Beginning
At 8:00 AM Ruth was entering school, I was leaving. We were supposed to go to a class.
“Let’s go to visit Nazareth,” I said.
“What about the class?” Ruth said.
“It can wait,” I said.
It all started in Nazareth.
We got married in Jerusalem, at the Hebrew University’s Givat Ram Synagogue, the country’s most modern one at the time.
By the end of the second year of architecture we felt that we needed to expand our learning.
“Let’s continue our studies in Italy,” I said.
“Where in Italy?” Ruth said.
“In Rome. Where else?” I said.
It was one of our best life-decisions!
In Rome: great city, great teachers
Rome had it all: the thickness of history, good climate, endless sources of culture, nice people and great teachers of architecture. Professor Bruno Zevi“adopted us.” He raised the bar of our quest for knowledge.
During this period we traveled throughout Europe to see and photograph architectural masterpieces, historic and contemporary. We visited most of Alvar Aalto and Le Corbusier’s masterpieces. On one of our visits to my parents in Argentina, we also traveled to Rio, Sao Paulo and Brasilia, which was still under construction. Brasilia’s main buildings’ architect, Oscar Niemeyer, received us in his Copacabana studio. It was on a Sunday, just the three of us.
When the time came to start working on our theses, we approached Professor Zevi and asked him to be our tutor.
“Fine,” said Zevi, “but you also need to choose a co-tutor from the world of practice.”
“Who?” Ruth asked.
“Any architect in Rome.”
That was a puzzling proposal. After several weeks of research we narrowed our list to two architects.
Maurizio Sacripanti and Luigi Pellegrin,” Ruth said.
“Fine. One of you goes with Sacripanti and the other one goes with Pellegrin,” Zevi said.
“We both want Pellegrin,” I said. “After calling him for three weeks he received us, after midnight. We talked until 4:00 AM. He accepted both of us.”
Luigi Pellegrin was a master architect and a visionary well ahead of his time. We started to work for him long hours on challenging projects: schools, housing, a resort in Senegal, design competitions. Our life changed: work became sacred, organic architecture and complexity became part of who we are.
This was an “in-between” period. After graduation in Rome we settled in Tel Aviv. Each of us had to find a job.
“Let’s start from the top: Ram Karmi.”
He was one of the country’s leading architects.
It was our first interview. We showed him our portfolio. It was thin but good. He said nothing but spent four hours with us. At the end, he said “Come to work next Monday.”
“Which of us?” I said.
“Both of you,” he said.
We worked for Karmi for about eight months. Yet we still wanted to see Frank Lloyd Wright’s organic architecture before becoming too engaged in work. We planned an itinerary across the United States: over one hundred buildings throughout the northeast, the southeast and the southwest. We bought an old Pontiac Grand Prix that rattled like a motorcycle and we drove, almost daily, for over three months. We took photographs of Wright’s masterpieces and of other architects’ works that were along the way by the thousands. We also had some extraordinary encounters: with Edgar Kaufmann Jr. at his home, with John Johansen at his studio, with James Stirling at Ada Karmi-Melamede‘s apartment, with Malcolm Wells at his home, with Bruce Goff at Joe Price’s home in Batlesville, Oklahoma, with Paolo Soleri in Arizona and with Lloyd Wright at his studio in Los Angeles. Then we flew from Los Angeles to Mexico City’s colorful mix of cultures.
On our way back to Tel Aviv, we stopped in Rome, to visit Zevi and Pellegrin.
“Why don’t you stay for a few months to help me?” Pellegrin said. “I have plenty of work.”
We remained in Rome for another two years.
First steps in the White City
In September of 1973 we opened our first studio in Tel Aviv. We were working on an important conceptual competition for the design of 5,000 dwelling units when, on October 6, the Yom Kippur Warstarted. The competition’s deadline was postponed for one year. We switched from design to becoming drivers for a hospital, on call 24/7. When the war came to a halt, we started to build our first home, a 75 square-meter apartment on the 10th floor of a new building in the outskirts of Tel Aviv.
One year later, while I was in the shower, the telephone rang. Ruth picked it up.
“You won the competition’s First Prize for High Density,” the Chair of the jury said. “Congratulations!”
“We won!” Ruth said.
“We are on the map!”I said.
We were commissioned by the Ministry of Housing to design a prefab 200-dwelling unit affordable housing project. Other projects followed it. We got busy for a couple of years. But one day we got a phone call from Buenos Aires: my mother was in critical condition. We flew to Argentina within six hours. She died three days after our arrival.
A severe recession had started in Israel. All work stopped. “What now?” we asked ourselves. We had to make some decisions. Going for a master’s degree was a good excuse to get an experience of life in the United States while the recession lasted. We sent five applications. After being accepted for master programs by Columbia, Yale, Michigan, Rice University and U.C.L.A., we chose Los Angeles. We couldn’t resist the weather, the palm trees along its streets, the openness and variety of Southern California. We didn’t know then that our next life in L.A. would last for fifteen years.
Architecture, parenthood and sideways in LA
Our two years at U.C.L.A. where a mix of urban design studies and practice. Together with Helmut Schulitz, we prepared an urban renewal project for the City of El Centro. Two blocks of the city’s main street got renewed. When Ruth got pregnant with our daughter Gabby we bought an old house in Westwood. We started to remodel it. Our design goals were:
1. SUSTAINABILITY, before the word was coined and became part of popular consciousness; 2. URBAN FARMING, the subject of Ruth’s thesis; and 3. SPACE AWARENESS, the subject of my thesis. When the work was completed it was published in the front page of the Los Angeles Times Magazine. But more importantly, we had created a place where we could divide our time between parenthood and professional practice.
Westwood, Los Angeles
Our fifteen-year period in Los Angeles had ups and downs. We produced a mix of built and un-built projects. For a decade we were deeply involved in real estate. We made multiple transactions and were also involved in construction and development. We had relationships of trust with our clients, but some projects were abandoned because of the early 1980s recession. The Bundy Residence was our best built one; the “The Hollywood Cinema Center” and “Places for People in the Year 2010” competitions were the most daring ones.
Along the main path in architecture, we took sideways into other areas. Ruth explored painting and sculptural pottery. I got involved in poetry writing. Some of my poems were published on six issues of ONTHEBUS.I also self-published six chapbooks of selected poems. We discovered aspects of ourselves that we were unaware we had.
The recession of the 1990s brought architectural practice in California to a total halt. However, bad times can become good times for new opportunities. There was a boom in Israel because of massive immigration from the former Soviet Union. I flew there to explore possibilities. Within ten days I was involved in the design of 1,500 dwelling units in Be’er Sheva. Starting from schematics, it had to get built within six months. We moved once again.
Normality in Tel Aviv
Turning the page proved to be right. What followed was a highly productive decade. The Senior Housing project in Jaffa, commissioned by the Ministry of Housing, was at the pick of our production. When completed, it led to a new government’s commission: the design of a master plan for a 3,000 dwelling-unit neighborhood in Be’er Sheva. We also built a small but relevant project for a client on a wheelchair, the Romano House. Another commissioned and fully-designed but not built project was The Teachers’ House, for Israel’s Teachers Union. It had one floor above the ground, two floors underground and its roof was a sculpture garden.
In parallel to our practice I was hired by the Technion’s Faculty of Architecture and Town Planning to coordinate research on artificial islands with Professor Michael Burt, and to teach urban design. Every year, for almost a decade, I tutored about ten students on their last year of studies’ project and, as the school’s Graduating Projects Coordinator, I supervised over 100 graduating projects.
Reaching out from Long Beach
Living at the University of California, Irvine campus for over one year served as a transition between the highly charged life of Israel and California’s lifestyle. After graduating in psychology and physiology, our daughter moved to Budapest to study medicine at the Semmelweis University. We became empty-nesters. We decided to settle in Long Beach, at the center of a vast urban territory that included Los Angeles and Orange counties. We designed our live-work loft at the remodeled Walker Building, originally designed by Meyer & Hollerin 1929. It was perfect for our needs: a great space in Downtown Long Beach, with people on the streets and at walking distance from the ocean.
In 2003 Mayor Beverly O’Neill appointed me as Board Member of the Long Beach’s Redevelopment Agency for the 2003-2007 term. The position provided me with an insight into a government’s decision-making process. It gave me the opportunity to be in touch with people from all walks of life and also to bring architecture awareness to many.
This was a period of high involvement with local communities in one of the U.S.’s most multi-ethnic cities. Together with three scholars and a journalist, we co-founded Rethinking Greater Long Beach, a community-based think tank. In parallel I also co-directed The Architectural Foundation of Orange County to foster architecture awareness in schools and colleges.
HQ in Long Beach
Our professional life was busy with several projects, ranging from urban design to public art, such as the design of a master plan for the Queen Mary development area and the World Trade Center Memorial Competition. We also designed a matrix for mixed-use transit development based on urban sustainability.
However, as a consequence of the 2008 crisis, several of our commissioned and completed projects, including the design for a Killing Fields Memorial commemorating the Cambodian tragedy of the 1970s, were stopped. Realizing that the economic recovery was going to take a long time, we decided that it was time to reinvent ourselves.
This life started with a course-changing decision. The goal was to develop a method that may help as many people as possible to help themselves by learning how to understand architecture’s meaning and value. By so doing, they would become healthier and better equipped to bring their contribution into the bettering of the world. In parallel I also regained my real estate broker license.
Starting in 2012, I “reinvented myself,” first as a as a filmmaker of architecture documentaries. In less than two years I produced and directed over thirty documentaries. I also returned to real estate in the Westside, this time based at Coldwell Banker in Brentwood. I see the combination of disciplines as more than the sum of its parts. They feed into each other.
- From Global Awareness towards Architecture Awareness
My gut feeling tells me that the best is yet to come. The times we live are extraordinary. Global awareness is a reality. The world is ripe to produce changes of a scale never imagined. The “China syndrome” of development is just the tip of the iceberg; a new generation of educated young entrepreneurs will transform the planet into a place where a new human habitat will emerge and self-actualization opportunities will be available to anyone.
My role is to help people to become aware of the power of architecture. By becoming aware of “Spaces for People,” they may become active participants in the world’s transformation.