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Less=More: Architect Leo Marmol Shares his Thoughtful Optimism on Density, Modernism and Green Design.

Vienna Way. Photo: Joe Fletcher

Leo Marmol, FAIA, is Managing Principal of Marmol Radziner. Since establishing the Los Angeles-based design firm in 1989 with Ron Radziner, FAIA, they have designed and built some of the most elegant and coveted modern homes in Los Angeles. Celebrity clients are naturally among those discerning individuals drawn to the ‘less is more’ aesthetic of Marmol Radziner’s residential projects, which are lauded for innovatively redefining the quintessential indoor-outdoor lifestyle most possible in California. The firm also encompasses considerable range as a leader in meticulous restorations of historic homes designed by many of the mid-century masters.

In 1998, the firm completed restoration of the Kaufman House in Palm Springs, which was originally designed by Richard Neutra in 1946. In 2000, the firm completed restoration of two other Neutra houses, the Lew and the Brown house, and restored the Elliot House, which was originally designed by R.M. Schindler in 1930. Recently, Marmol Radziner finished restoration of two Cliff May houses as well as John Lautner’s Garcia House.

If in broad strokes, sustainability refers to a system’s capacity to endure, over time efficiency takes on significant dimension. Enough perhaps to become of material consideration for a firm whose well-deserved reputation for inventive yet rigorous design, sustainable architecture and prolific restoration work informs every challenge and opportunity they are presented with.

Whether or not such efficiency is the foremost concern of their clients, Marmol Radziner, as one of the few design/build firms led by architects, chooses to directly address inefficiency within the building process by minimizing waste through their pioneering integration of building installation, construction and fabrication into a seamless design process which ultimately ensures a precise continuity between their original designs and the final built results.

To further their vision of building as sustainably as possible, Marmol Radziner Prefab launched in 2005, as an organic extension of their firm emphasis on ‘clarity of design’ and ‘integrity of construction.’ Their most recent project is perhaps also their most exciting as it unites green with affordability, an aspect, noted by many admirers of their high-end modular homes, lacking in their other prefab projects. Partnering with Golden West Homes and the City of Santa Monica, Marmol Radziner installed 20 new homes in Mountain View Mobile Home Park as part of the city’s affordable housing program.

Fabrik Magazine is thrilled to have been able to query Leo Marmol.

Fabrik: How did architecture first find you?

Leo Marmol (LM): In high school, I visited the home of a friend whose father was an architect. Their house was nestled into a hillside in Marin County—it was beautifully crafted, with huge windows connecting you to the trees outside. I’d never seen anything like it. I became curious about architecture, and I started taking drawing classes and studying architecture in school.

Fabrik: What do you do to relax?

LM: Saltwater fly-fishing. I get on a boat with friends, go out to Catalina, and fish around the island with a fly. It’s quite an adventure.

Fabrik: What is your relationship to nature, personally and professionally?

LM: I don’t see a separation between “Nature” and our work. Our work lives within the environment, and our goal is to connect the interior experience with the natural rhythms surrounding the building.

Fabrik: What would Los Angeles residents gain from more conscious urban development?

LM: In our built environment, we are in many ways alienated from the rhythms and cycles of the planet around us. I think we all yearn for a reconnection to the natural world. Whatever we can do to facilitate that reconnection will make our urban experience more fulfilling.

Fabrik: Can you speak to the necessity for density in Los Angeles?

LM: Density is often perceived as something negative when it comes to the urban experience. I see it differently: density is what brings human beings into contact with each other. To live in a city is to live with other people. With that experience come some practical complications of living in close proximity, but also the deep cultural and spiritual benefits of living in a group.

In Los Angeles, we have a great diversity of experience, a rich tapestry of opportunities made possible and amplified by a certain degree of density. When we fight to limit development, we limit our opportunities to make that experience affordable and accessible. »

The city’s need for density can only be answered with a serious and conscientious evaluation of the city’s infrastructure. There’s no question that our transportation systems are a mess. We need to stop pandering to the automobile and take public transportation seriously. In New York, public transportation is not an issue of class—people of all economic classes use public transportation because of its ease and availability.

Gridlock would be fantastic for our city. This will force us to look at other modes of transportation and invest in them in such a way that “normal” Angelenos would consider using them. Trains, subways, and buses must be easy, inexpensive and available everywhere.

Fabrik: How or why is modernism still relevant?

LM: I don’t think of Modernism as a historical style. Modernism is an approach toward living, an approach that tries to simplify the great chaos that surrounds us. By simplifying, we are forced to make choices about what we truly want and need. Abundance of choice can be incredibly oppressive; Modernism allows us to reduce the cacophony of choices down to our true needs.

This reduction of excess resonates with the ideals of sustainability. While the priority and understanding of sustainability has fluctuated in the public sphere, a Modernist understanding of sustainability is rooted in a general concern for sensitivity—the recognition that our actions have consequences to which we must bear witness—and this concern doesn’t change with the times. Needs, challenges, and technology may change, but the principles regarding sensitivity and sustainability that govern a Modernist response are always the same: use less and we will all have more.

Fabrik: Have you encountered local developers that are concerned about sustainability and open to prefab housing?

LM: We recently completed a project in response to an RFP released by the City of Santa Monica to design and manufacture twenty affordable, modern, green homes for a mobile home park. While the manufactured homes are built to different standards than stand-alone prefab buildings, the idea is the same: utilizing prefabrication technology to produce homes whose materials, production, and performance are as environmentally responsible as possible. In this project, we were given the added charge to keep costs below $100 per square foot, as the homes were to serve as a part of the City’s low-income housing initiatives. This project, in my opinion, is the ultimate application of prefab: creating homes at an affordable price point and with green features. It is a credit to the City of Santa Monica for making sustainability a priority for this “affordable” project.

Active in his profession, Leo Marmol lectures widely on the topic of architecture and restoration, and has participated in conferences, symposia and panel discussions. He has also organized numerous architectural tours in Southern California for The Museum of Contemporary Art LA, UCLA Extension, and the California State University Long Beach Art Museum. Marmol is a Board Member of Street Poets. He received his Bachelor of Architecture with a Minor in Philosophy from California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, California. Soon after completing this degree, Marmol became licensed as an architect and a contractor in California.

Marmol Radziner offers a full range of design services, including architectural design, master planning, historic restoration, landscape design, interior design, furniture design, handcrafted jewelry ‘born of buildings’ and prefab. As a design/build practice specializing in residential, restoration, multifamily, commercial, retail, hospitality, educational and community projects, Marmol Radziner has received numerous local, regional and national awards, including the AIA National Honor Award, for consistently infusing its multifaceted projects with a signature modernist sensibility of exquisite discretion.

Words: Aparna Bakhle-Ellis
Images Courtesy: Marmol Radziner

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About Aparna Bakhle

Aparna Bakhle-Ellis is a writer enthralled by the consonance and dissonance of ‘being’ in Los Angeles. L'écriture féminine, outsider art, and altered states of consciousness rank high among her myriad interests. She is also Fabrik’s Managing Editor. 

View all posts by Aparna Bakhle →

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