Dec. 10, 2014
On December 10, the American Institute of Architects’ Board of Directors awarded the 2015 AIA Architecture Firm Award to Ehrlich Architects, the Southern California firm that fluidly melds classic California Modernist style with vernacular design elements by including marginalized design languages and traditions. The AIA Architecture Firm Award, given annually, is the highest honor the AIA bestows on an architecture firm, and recognizes a practice that has consistently produced distinguished architecture for at least 10 years. Ehrlich Architects will be honored at the AIA Convention 2015 in Atlanta.
AIA President Helene Combs Dreiling, FAIA, notified Ehrlich Architects by telephone immediately after the Board made its decision. “We are proud and honored,” said Takashi Yanai, AIA. “We are thrilled beyond words to have been nominated by our colleagues from around the country. We look forward to representing the AIA in this way.”
Before he founded his Los Angeles–based firm in 1979, Steven Ehrlich, FAIA, was a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa for two years, staying on for several years after his term ended to design, teach, and build. There, he learned an appreciation for simple, natural materials and vernacular solutions to energy, sustainability, and building-performance challenges. Back in Southern California, Ehrlich found opportunities to renovate properties designed by architects high up in the California Modernist canon (including Richard Neutra and Rudolph Schindler), which helped him to develop a confident, loose-limbed, but still traditional Modernist aesthetic. But his experiences in Africa with building traditions created eons before Modernism demanded a total rupture with the past and pushed him to develop an architecture that was more inclusive, responsible, and responsive than pure Modernism.
Hence, “Multicultural Modernism,” the firm’s name for their deep-seated design philosophy. Ehrlich and his firm define four elements to this manifesto:
- A populist approach to design that prizes sensing place and listening to people
- Inserting quasi-public space in many building types with courtyards, which act as an antidote to density and stress
- An openness to change and technical innovation
- Cross-cultural fusion that simultaneously embraces the global and the local
To fulfill these goals, Ehrlich sees himself as an “architectural anthropologist”—exploring ancient developing-world building traditions and situating them in contemporary buildings to solve contemporary problems. Japanese-style courtyards, Middle Eastern lattice screens, and vernacular mud construction have all been ways Ehrlich enriches contemporary architecture with age-old multicultural building elements.
In his recommendation letter, John Ruble, FAIA, whose California firm Moore Ruble Yudell received the 2006 AIA Firm Award, praised Ehrlich’s work for its cultural flexibility. “His profoundly ‘anthropological’ sense of buildings and settlements has given an added dimension of humanity and complexity to their work, while enhancing the firm’s ability to bend their elegant Modernist vision toward increasingly varied programs.”
Ehrlich Architects’ projects are frequently noted for their sustainability. The firm certainly isn’t averse to taking advantage of the latest technology in active energy generation features, but the spirit of their approach to sustainability is similarly grounded in passive ancestral methods. This includes covered courtyards that create shaded microclimates, using local native materials, and finding each building’s ideal solar orientation.
Widening the audience
Ehrlich Architects’ work covers a wide variety of program types—residential, commercial, institutional, educational—and uses a much richer palette of materials and textures than the typical California Modernist–influenced firm. However, they’re most distinguished by the subtle and complex way they blend Modernist and multicultural design elements. With Ehrlich, none of these elements are discrete and self-contained. It’s difficult to say where a Modernist element ends and an ancestral vernacular element begins. A few of the firm’s most notable projects include:
The Ahmadu Bello University Theater in Zaria, Nigeria. One of Ehrlich’s most literally vernacular and sustainable buildings, this 500-seat venue is composed of a ring of mud-walled pavilions decorated with traditional bas-relief ornamentation. Local craftsmen helped with its construction, and it can be arragned in both proscenium and theater-in-the-round configurations.
The Helal “New Moon” Residence in Dubai, which combines modern building technology with traditional Islamic culture through an aluminum mashrabiya lattice screen (which casts abstracted Islamic shadow patterns across the house) and its crescent-shaped roof, meant to suggest a Bedouin tent.
The 700 Palms Residence in Los Angeles, which uses Corten steel, copper, and stucco to create a strong masculine approach to California Modernism, dissolving barriers between indoors and outdoors with glass, alternately boxy and brawny, light and open.
The Robertson Branch Library in Los Angeles is bisected by a V-shaped vertical circulation atrium. The library’s greenish-blue, pre-weathered copper cladding and ship’s hull massing establishes a whimsical, otherworldly presence.
The John Roll U.S. Courthouse in Yuma, Ariz., a project that takes the Neo-Classical, symmetrical massing of a typical 19th-century courthouse and flattens it into a Modernist desert sandstone box, adding generous public space with a massive canopy-shaded “front porch” covered in PV panels.
The firm’s largest and latest major commission for the Federal National Council Parliament Building in Abu Dhabi sums up much of what Ehrlich Architects is and does. This national capital building for the United Arab Emirates will place a massive latticed canopy (dubbed the “flower of the desert”) over a cylindrical Modernist assembly hall building. This shading device will create pleasant microclimates beyond the harsh glare of the desert sun and cast an ever-changing parade of shadows on the hall, essentially turning its white marble walls into an ancestral media screen. It combines non-figurative abstraction, vernacular climate control, Modern architectural forms, and high building performance standards in its design. But, in its function, the building will be a beacon of equality in a place where democratic roots struggle for purchase. Design and function reinforce each other, and that holistic approach defines Ehrlich Architects’ oeuvre.