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Larry Scarpa: Earnestness and Irreverence Meet in Southern California
“Common sense” sustainability and why buildings have to be loved
By Zach Mortice, Associate Editor
The architecture of Larry Scarpa, FAIA, exists somewhere between the dour, yet progressive arm chair ethics of the old Bauhaus masters and the irreverent, guerilla inventiveness of a bunch of film school grads shooting their first picture for less than $10,000.
He and his 19-year-old Santa Monica, Calif.-based firm practice architecture with an ethical commitment to sustainability that he’s merged with the social justice conviction that all people have the right to quality designed homes and cities. Talking point number one: The poor spend a disproportionately large amount of their income on utility bills, and thus stand to benefit most from sustainable, efficient buildings.
But unlike some of the High Modernists that mentored him, Scarpa understands enough about architecture’s limits to not take it too seriously. Architecture is both a laboratory and a playground for Scarpa. His inventive use of everyday objects as non-traditional building materials borders on play, but is born of rigorous, free-form research. “There’s no end game to this,” he warns. He regularly convinces clients to use shrink wrap as a building material, to use Dixie cups as light fixtures, and (at his Broadway affordable housing project in Santa Monica) to use recycled aluminum cans as compressed structural bricks. “I’m going to go out on a limb and say this is the only affordable housing project in the country that has Schlitz Malt Liquor cans built into the building,” he says.
This enticing balance earned his firm Pugh + Scarpa the 2010 AIA Architecture Firm Award, and an invitation to present his work at the National Building Museum for a Spotlight on Design Lecture.
AIArchitect: You’ve been talking about sustainability in buildings for a long time, long before we hit this critical mass of public consciousness that we seem to be at now.
Scarpa: I was doing it in school. I didn’t even know the term ‘sustainability’ existed. My mother would just refer to it as Jewish common sense. It’s an architect’s responsibility now, but I don’t want to seem all high and mighty, because I will sometimes make judgments that make a building better, but reduce its sustainable features, because ultimately a building has to be loved. I would argue that a building that is an energy hog that everyone loves is more sustainable than a zero-energy building that nobody likes.
AIArchitect: So from a mother’s wisdom to all the attention sustainability garners today, how has the way designers talk about sustainability evolved?
Scarpa: Most people that aren’t doing it want to be involved. We would have mechanical engineers and consultants that would say, “We don’t do green stuff.” That was five years ago. Now those people are experts, but there’s a lot of BS that goes with it too. A lot of people who say they’re doing it are not doing it, and there are a lot of people who are doing it who say nothing about it.
AIArchitect: I’ve noticed that some of the most sustainable projects in the world seem to come from diametrically opposed aesthetic standpoints. Net-zero energy buildings like the kinds that strive for Living Building Challenge certification can often look like simple, wood-clad cabins, but other architects known for sustainability like Nicholas Grimshaw, Norman Foster, Hon. FAIA, and Stefan Behnisch, Hon. FAIA, have developed a sort of crystal palace design language in steel and glass. What do you think of this contradiction? How else can sustainability be expressed? Your own firm’s work doesn’t seem to fit into either of these categories.
Scarpa: I don’t think there is a contradiction at all. There are different ways to do it, different regions, different ideas. Sustainability is not a concept for design. It’s a set of technical issues, just like making a choice of a mechanical system in a building.
AIArchitect: So a good architect can always make sustainability fit within their own design language?
AIArchitect: You use scrims and screens a lot as solar shading devices. Is this mostly a regional response to doing most of your work in Southern California?
Scarpa: Americans are learning more [about sustainable building]. We want to do everything in a piece of half-inch glass, but if you look at the Europeans who’ve been doing this for a really long time; they do it over space, so dual skins are a proven method for making buildings more efficient. [Scrims] are a low-tech tool that is easy to do, but I also think they make buildings more interesting. It gives them depth, especially in housing projects that tend to be super flat.
AIArchitect: Many projects your firm has done come from affordable housing clients that have very restrictive budgets. The Colorado Court affordable housing development had a budget of less than $6 million. How do you manage to turn these budgets into such fully realized and expressive pieces of architecture?
Scarpa: In terms of affordable housing, we put what I like to say is 80 percent of the budget in 20 percent of the space. You make it structurally and mechanically super simple. That saves a lot of resources so you can deal with how you shade the building and the façade. Once you do that, it’s really easy to quantify the architecture that you’re putting in the building. We’ve been able to say to our clients, “The building is $8.7 million dollars. The architecture is $300,000. You can take it away and you have a stucco box. Or you can have a beautiful building.” We’re pretty upfront about the cost to do that. That’s a lot easier for them to quantify.
AIArchitect: You worked for Paul Rudolph early in your career. What was the most important lesson you learned from him?
Scarpa: There was a house in Florida that I really loved—[his] Milam House in Ponte Vedra Beach. When I first started working for him, I went to the shop where he kept all his drawings and I pulled them out. I was shocked—his first sketch for that house was just. . .bad. That masterpiece came from a really bad initial drawing. For me, it was the first time I realized there was a chance I could be a good architect if I worked hard at it. It was a work ethic.
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