Built for Body and Soul

March 2002

Architect Jeffrey Kalban uses color and form for uplifting ends. To him, it’s his social obligation.

You’ve seen my paintings right? So you know I like color.”

That’s architect Jeffrey Kalban talking, and as any visitor who’s seen his geometric abstract canvases in his West Los Angeles office can attest, Kalban doesn’t simply like color. He adores it. The brighter the better.

Those who haven’t seen Kalban’s paintings will get a chance to check out the wiry 55-year-old architect’s visual flair via two new projects. For the $5 million PATH Regional Homeless Center, he has splashed canary yellow, crisp blue, lavender, orange, red and primary green throughout the corridors of what has to be the world’s most cheerful-looking homeless shelter. Slated for an April 11 grand opening, the Hollywood center incorporates 19 social service agencies, a beauty salon, a 98-bed dormitory, showers and classrooms in a three-story, one-stop service “mall” run by Los Angeles nonprofit organization People Assisting the Homeless.

The Fairfax district’s new $6 million Pan Pacific Park Recreation Center, at 7600 Beverly Blvd., features Kalban’s low-slung burnt-red building adjoined to a taller forest-green gymnasium, both banded by slivers of white, rough-textured concrete bricks. Also set to open in April, the complex houses two gymnasiums, classrooms and offices.

These projects represent the latest in a series of Los Angeles-area efforts that have earned Kalban and his 10-person firm nearly a dozen awards in the last decade. Since his start in 1969 with I.M. Pei in New York, Kalban has applied his contemporary aesthetic to commissions ranging from the Toyota Technical Center in Torrance, the Curtis School in Los Angeles and the Spataru residence in Westwood, all of which were honored by the American Institute of Architects. Kalban’s most prominent assignment: The Getty Center South Building, completed in 1997.

Standing outside the wiggly walls of the Pan Pacific’s west wing, Kalban can hardly contain himself. “Look at this curve going back the other way, the stripes, the green walls, the straight wall, the rhythm. And then you have these palm trees and the shadows working with the undulations of this sidewalk, so this walk through here between the trees and undulating walls-it’s going to be a real California experience. They built it! We drew it and they built it.”

Kalban can be forgiven his giddiness. Creating a public works building of distinction is no easy feat, and the architect has to navigate a tangle of agencies and community groups, each with their own requirements. “They give you a book of specs this thick,” Kalban says, holding his fingers 2 inches apart.

The original Pan Pacific Auditorium, built in 1935, embodied a pared-down Depression-era variation on Art Deco known as Streamline Moderne. Heralded by four iconic, fin-shaped towers, the versatile venue was the site of everything from Ice Capades and boat shows to political conventions and Elvis Presley concerts. The building was shuttered in 1972 and burned down in 1989.
Six year ago, Los Angeles County and the city’s Recreation and Parks Department recruited Kalban to devise a new building. Kalban, who had made the city’s “approved list” on the strength of a striking outdoor stage he’s designed for Warner Park in Woodland Hills, needed to please a varied constituency.

“We had long meetings and many of them, and Jeff was just great the whole time,” says Adinah Solomon, deputy to county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who helped shepherd the project to completion. The city, the county, the lawyers, the neighborhood organizations, the park advisory committee, the soccer players, basketball fans and noise-conscious residents all sounded off. “There were times when you’d want to yell, “What are you talking about?’ But Jeff didn’t-he just listened to whatever they had to say.”

For Kalban, it was simply business as usual. “I’ve been on commercial projects where I’ve seen architects force preconceptions down the throat of clients. What do you learn from that? Nothing. How do you grow from that? So you go to community meetings and even somebody who might be totally negative, there’s a reason for it,” he says. “But if you understand why they’re negative and you can solve that problem, then all of a sudden you’ve got an architecture that is unique, that’s not some preconceived design that’s slammed down on the site.”

Kalban’s ability to incorporate community feedback made converts out of some neighborhood skeptics, Solomon says. “One of the neighbors who was adamantly against the park, started crying when she saw the designs; she says, ‘This is what the park should look like.’” Yaroslavsky, who has lived in the Fairfax neighborhood since he was 8, added, “More than 100 people who has been involved in the input process were there when we broke ground on the park, which is something you don’t see very often. That facility really bears the fingerprints of that neighborhood in a serious way.”

Kalban may have been receptive to suggestions, but he was no pushover, fighting when necessary to bring his ideas to fruition. “There were a lot of people second-guessing us as we got closer and closer to painting the thing: ‘Don’t you want to make it tan?’ No, we don’t want to make it tan, no way!’ That would have been safe and easy.”

Not to mention less costly. Because he wanted the colors to complement each other perfectly, Kalban went through more than a half dozen “brushings,” driving to the site on his own dime to inspect the colors. “If you have things that are a little bit out of the ordinary, it costs you money,” he says. “But we said…it’s gonna be a green building and a red building that have the stripes on ‘em and the gray for the accents. Nobody’s criticizing it anymore.”

Driving east down Beverly Boulevard to the PATH project, Kalban acknowledges that Los Angeles has not always demonstrated much reverence for its past. In the case of the rec center, he wanted to pay homage to the Pan Pacific legacy, most notably by fronting the new complex with a tower that mimics the original building’s trademark “icons.”

“It was such a great building,” Kalban says. “You couldn’t possibly want to do something new here without honoring it.”

“There are buildings that are worth keeping, magical places like this place,” he says, pointing to the Insomnia Café. Then again, a few moments later, he passes a mundane wall. “Unfortunately thinks like this pop up, these strip malls that have absolutely so sense of restraint and how the community works.”

The PATH Center, shoehorned between a pest control company and the 101 Freeway, bears little resemblance to the dilapidated warehouse building the nonprofit group purchased in 1999. Kalban reinforced the columns and wall structure for seismic support, then painted the columns red and punched holes in the support walls, more or less for the heck of it.

“We wanted to add a little bit of design, a little bit of whimsy to the severity of that wall,” he says. “The holes don’t compromise the structural integrity at all, but they help make it look like when people walk by, there’s something playful happening there.”

The primary color palette continues in the center’s reception area and throughout the 40,000-square-foot headquarters. “You’d be surprised how much positive energy flows through this building because of the colors, says Janet Ganaway, the nonprofit group’s associate director. “That’s the first thing people see when they walk in the door. It’s very uplifting.”

The clinic has been processing nearly 100 people a day since opening for partial service in January. “Word of mouth spreads really fast,” Ganaway says. “They’re not going to something that’s dirty, that’s dingy, that’s plain, and it really sparks them and kind of like uplifts their self-esteem when they come here.”

The group’s executive director, Joel John Roberts, says he gave Kalban “a lot of constraints and wishes-everything from the shape of the building to the color, to the flow, security, different entrances (for male and female residents), the campus feeling within one big building. He came up with some amazing solutions.”

One example of Kalban’s resourcefulness: Roberts wanted to promote his organization to the 250,000 motorists who pass by on the 101 every day. The problem: State regulations prohibit new billboards overlooking freeways. Adhering to code, Kalban solved the problem by integrating a can’t miss-it logo into the fabric of the building.

“They’ve built the Staples Center for sports, the Disney for culture, the cathedral for religion,” Roberts says. “So we told Jeff, we’re right off the freeway too; we also want to make a statement about our city, that we’ve created a center for compassion.”

Kalban’s rejection of the institutional look in favor of more welcoming visual clues is helping to accomplish the PATH mission, Roberts says. “This building is about encouraging homeless doors for the first time. You know, they’re afraid, they don’t know what’s going to happen when they walk into some institutional building. Here, anyone is willing to walk in because it’s very open and bright, and like a mall.”

Results have been striking. Officials at the city Department of Mental Health Services report that they’ve served more people in one week at their office in the PATH center than they did the previous three months with their old program.

If Kalban’s design has helped make the homeless feel at home, it’s in part because he and his staff interviewed dozens of PATH personnel before conceiving the plan. “These PATH people get in the vans and go out and pick up the people on the streets and bring them back-they’re passionate about helping the homeless. SO how can you not take it to heart? They have this incredible focus and dedication; we wanted to respond to that. Yeah, maybe there’s one or two places where I question the color, where the yellow’s too bright, but basically it works.

”Growing up on Long Island, N.Y., Kalban decided to be an architect at age7. A couple of years later, he began pouring through architecture magazines, admiring works by Le Corbusier and Brazilian Oscar Niemeyer. “It was the poetry in their buildings that I liked,” he says, “their sheer romantic approach to architecture, but in a very Modernist way.”

Kalban graduated in 1969 with a bachelor of architecture degree from Ohio State University and went to work for Modernist master I.M. Pei in New York. He took a year off to do sculpture, then joined his soon-to-be-wife, Maria Pavlou, in Los Angeles in 1972. Three years later, he joined Pereira & Associates.

“It was just the opposite of I.M. Pei in how they approached design,” Kalban recalls. “In Pei’s office, this huge architectural firm, you learn from the point of view of architecture as fine art. There was no compromise at all, whereas Bill Pereira was very pragmatic. He encouraged me to learn to design from the inside out: You learn the problems of your clients, solve them and then design the building.”

Kalban started Kalban & Associates in 1982. Early on, he parlayed small-scale commissions from Toyota-a suggestion box, a clock, a fountain-into an ongoing relationship that has produced 14 buildings around the country, including the $45 million Toyota Technical Center in Torrance.

Managing partner Susan Oakley, a former teacher, joined in 1993 and helped forge a niche in the private school arena. Curtis School, St. Matthew’s Parish School in Pacific Palisades, Marlborough School in Los Angeles, Harvard-Westlake School in North Hollywood and the Viewpoint School in Calabasas are among Kalban’s clients.

In 1993, Kalban received his most prestigious commission to date: The Getty Center’s South Building. Steve Roundtree, executive vice president for the Getty Trust, hired Kalban to design the five-level structure to house parking, administrative offices and maintenance facilities. Roundtree recalls, “We had Richard Meier already in place, but he was essentially buried by the work and deadlines to get in place at the Getty Center at the top of the hill. So I made a decision to bring in a different architect because essentially this was entirely separate problem to resolve.”

“We made the decision right from the start we didn’t feel compelled to come up with a design that looked like Richard Meier-just the opposite,” he continued. “We didn’t want there to be any confusion; everything about the building, including the landscaping on the hill behind it, we gave that over to Jeff.”

The assignment was challenging. Museum officials had to figure out how to put up a fairly significant building, nestle it into t little niche hard up against the hill, get parking underneath it and be able to move cars and equipment in and out, Roundtree said.

Kalban also had to appease the high-powered homeowner groups from Bel-Air and Brentwood. “We broke it into two halves, so that the footprints of the buildings were comparable to the house size,” he says. “When we presented that to the homeowners’ association, they were very supportive.”

Roundtree, while serving as chairman of the board for the Curtis School, later asked Kalban to design that school’s campus. “I think Jeff has a clean aesthetic with a humanistic scale,” he says. “He like to break buildings down to a human level so that as you approach a building, you feel comfortable with the structure rather than being overwhelmed by it.”

Kalban lives in Sherman Oaks with his wife, a fashion designer with her own company, Tailfeathers, and their teenage daughter. He’s content with living in a non-trendy neighborhood in the Valley and also willing to work for relatively modest fees if he finds the project exciting.

“We don’t get the budgets that an I.M. Pei gets,” Kalban says. “We don’t have any commercial partners, so we don’t have to worry about making money for the firm, other than staying alive. It’s just Susan and myself and our desire to do the architecture.”

Which leaves room for clients like People Assisting the Homeless. “If you can’t do something like that at least some of the time, then why get up in the morning?” Kalban says. “I believe very strongly that every building has a social obligation. I don’t care if it’s a private house or a corporation; you face the public every point in its process, and you have an obligation to work in an uplifting way.”

- Hugh Hart

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