In Los Angeles: the Architecture of Four Ecologies, Reyner Banham describes Freewayland: the swaths of flat acreage by the I-10 and former ranchos heading out towards Irvine and Pomona. He drolly titled the chapter on these suburban territories “The Plains of Id.” But really, architecture is a landscape of ego. In LA, the icons of modern architecture take to the hills. Houses and apartment buildings climbing up foothills and canyons, climbing higher as economy permits and striving for ridge tops, Freewayland famously appears as backdrop in photographs of these home — a twinkling grid of lights in the distance.
Sitting in that distant grid, on a street south of the Miracle Mile where an early developer skimped on trees, are the Mackey Apartments, designed in 1939 by Rudolph Schindler. Pearl Mackey’s commission was limited: three units and a two-level penthouse for herself. The white stucco box, broken up by the architect’s signature slippage of volumes, is one of Schindler’s few forays into Freewayland. With two exceptions — the Buck House and the iconic Chase House, located on Kings Road in fairly-flat West Hollywood — his residences tend to perch atop or cascade down hillsides.
At the Mackey Apartments, with little topography to work with, Schindler turned his attention to the domestic landscape. Little is known about Pearl Mackey’s motivations for constructing the apartment building. A pragmatic home for a widow with additional income property, it would seem. Schindler expert Judith Sheine points to the architect’s notebook of the time, located in the archives at UC Santa Barbara, that documents a contentious relationship between the client and designer. The interior, endlessly idiomatic, reflects the architect’s fascination with compact, complex spaces. Built-in cabinetry and seating fills the corners of the rooms. Schindler composes natural light and wood detailing in careful striations. No apartment is alike; each takes on an integral logic of its own. Even the outdoor spaces are tightly controlled. Box hedges frame a ground floor garden, which extends the interior to the outside, but also reiterates the architectural internalization.
In 1995, the Republic of Austria purchased the Mackey Apartments and the MAK Center (with LA headquarters in the Chase House) currently uses the building to house participants in their Artists and Architects in Residence Program. Los Angeles-based Central Office of Architecture first undertook renovations in the mid-90s and local firm Space International picked up the restoration a few years later as funding allowed. Slowly, Michael Ferguson, Space International founder and principal architect, and his partner upgraded interiors, the structural system, and the roof weatherproofing and drainage.
With each patient renovation, in 2001 and 2004, Ferguson developed an intimacy with the apartment building. Each time funds were scraped together for upkeep, Schindler’s deliberate attention to materials and details became his own; and understood the modern architect’s affection for using, or misusing, industrial materials in the domestic setting. As part of the phased renovations, the MAK Center asked Ferguson and Space International’s project manager Kirby Smith to retrofit the garages that were crumbling at the rear of the property. The commission included a new gallery and event hall. Although thoroughly versed in Schindler’s language, Ferguson avoided the obvious homage and chose to honor the existing architecture through contrast.
Space International’s 75-square metre counterpoint to Schindler’s building cantilevers above the garages — a black box coated in a wetsuit-like weatherproof membrane. The project is both pragmatic and sublime. The sublime: the texture and tone of the material juxtaposes Schindler’s white plaster and Space International’s dark, singular form holds it’s own against the earlier cubist composition. The pragmatic: the design takes advantage of the airspace above the garages. Too small for cars, the small garages were updated to serve as studio spaces for the residents. “We increased site density with a modest set of means,” explains Ferguson. “Nothing was demolished and there was no need to max out the lot.”
However, the gallery accomplishes an ambitious feat, no matter how modest the means. Combined, the gallery programing and the new addition flip focus of that enigmatic locale in Freewayland from residential micro-drama to civic display. The MAK Center’s mission includes an interdisciplinary exchange of ideas between the MAK fellows — an annual group of architects, artists, and designers — and the public. This need to dialogue with the city manifests in the architecture as an oversized door that slides open to reveal a nearly monochrome interior: white walls, gray floor, indirect lighting. The room blankness leaves it flexible enough to accommodate simple dinners, film screenings, or elaborate exhibition installations.
And the dialogue goes two ways. Because the gallery is raised to the second floor, when the sliding door is open to the elements, visitors look out over the rooftop, backyards, and rear windows. While the view never reaches the spectacle of the panoramas Schindler captured in his hillside abodes, the architecture of the Mackey garage gallery reframes the neighborhood, offering alternate perspectives of the residential landscape. For Ferguson the city’s history is built upon the humble detournement; “LA is the quintessential city for turning the quotidian into an icon.” The id is the ego.