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Julie Eizenberg, AIA: Elevating Everyday Architecture

Some budget and material savvy, as well as a keen understanding of program, can transform any architectural experience

By Sara Fernández Cendón

Julie Eizenberg, AIA, is interested in the buildings of everyday life. This includes buildings for grocery shopping to counseling services—activities that, much to her chagrin, often are not the focus of much design attention. Her work focuses on ordinary experiences that can be elevated through imaginative, site-specific, people-oriented design. At the helm of Santa Monica, Calif.–based Koning Eizenberg Architecture, which she founded in 1981 with partner Hank Koning, FAIA, Eizenberg has done just that.

The Children's Institute, Inc. (CII) Otis Booth Campus in Los Angeles, which received a 2012 Institute Honor Award for Interior Architecture, used design to reconceptualize and destigmatize counseling services by folding them into a larger community-oriented program. The project involved the adaptive reuse of three industrial buildings to create the headquarters for a nonprofit that serves children, youth, and families that have been victims of violence.

The Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, a 2006 AIA National Honor Award recipient, repurposed an 1890s post office and an abandoned 1939 planetarium, and linked them through an addition framed in steel and glass. More importantly, the project was conceived to attract children and their families to an area of the city in need of revitalization. The firm’s longstanding involvement with projects at the historic farmers market in Los Angeles has helped shape commerce into a more organic experience, with architecture that supports and guides while mostly staying out of the way. And the Koning Eizenberg office itself is a great example of the smart simplicity that has come to characterize the firm’s work.

Though its portfolio is broad and varied, the firm is known for housing, community, and educational work. What all of its projects have in common, however, is a preoccupation with the way in which space influences and, ideally, enhances human interaction, as Eizenberg explains.

LESSON ONE: Architecture Isn’t Just for Special Occasions
Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh |Historic farmers market

Speaking with a colleague about what I think is important about architecture, I said in passing, “Look, architecture isn’t just for special occasions.” It was a populist idea—that you don’t have to be trained to appreciate architecture; that it’s available to anybody. And I also think it went the other way—that architects had an easy time focusing on important buildings, but there was less emphasis at the time on buildings that served everyday experiences well.

In terms of the elevation of everyday experience, the basis is that an architectural experience doesn’t need to be blatantly obvious. Sometimes, with modest materials, an appreciation of light and air, and natural beauty, you can really give people a sense of well-being. Sometimes it speaks louder, sometimes it speaks quietly.

The Children’s Museum in Pittsburgh, for example, speaks louder. It’s quite a statement as you come up to it. There’s a “wow” factor to it. Buildings directed at children offer the option to elevate the possibilities, and by elevate the possibilities, I mean they can be exuberant spaces that connect on an emotional level, so people feel engaged and curious. On the other hand, from the farmers market we learned how to let architecture or the surroundings be a backdrop for other things to happen. These are almost two contradictory points of view, but different places or experiences require different approaches, and we enjoy creating solutions to that problem.

LESSON TWO: Acceptance of Imperfection Can Fuel Composition
Koning Eizenberg Architecture Office

We started out in affordable housing. And in affordable housing, the budgets were so low that part of the design game was how to get the most you could out of the materials you had. We really had to know the limits of construction and the cost of materials, and we had a predilection for very simple materials. I was very influenced by Frank Gehry’s, [FAIA], early use of off-the-shelf materials. That influenced the way I began framing decisions about how the ordinary could be revelatory.

It’s easy to do things when you have everything. The fun part is trying to work out what to do with more limited resources. We were really interested in the issue of how you could get value from those things you did choose. For example, we love pegboard. We like the improvisation associations—toolsheds and Julia Child’s kitchen wall, to name a few—and the way light moves through it. We used it for shades in the conference room at our office, and the holes refract the light in a magical way. We study and experiment with many things here. We made motorized polycarbonate sunscreens for our northwest exposure, tested [medium-density fiberboard] as a flooring material, and often make life-size mockups of assemblies for projects in process. This experimentation and exploration is key to our process.

Although our practice grew up before there was a mass awareness of sustainability, we already subscribed to the principles—a choice that has informed the composition and character of the work. The office is a good example. It was designed over 10 years ago, but [it was] designed with cross ventilation, passive exterior shading, and onsite water management. We see sustainably as an engagement with the environment, and not a separation; and we encourage staff to open a window before turning on the air conditioning, or to put on a sweater before turning on the heat. What makes life interesting isn’t having everything perfect, but feeling connected and engaged. There’s an acceptance of imperfection, and that creeps into a compositional strategy.

LESSON THREE: All Space is Social Space

Children's Institute Inc. (CII) Otis Booth Campus

What we really enjoy is making great social spaces, whether it’s domestic scale or public-use space. We have a knack for being able to use materials and things that the user group wouldn’t normally think of as appropriate for that use. So early on, CII knew the studio-style environment approach we were discussing would be more cost-effective than a traditional office, but I don’t think they realized how much people would embrace a creative setting. It’s concrete floors, nifty graphics, airy, and spacious. It’s loose. And that community, which isn’t exposed to that stuff at all, loves it.

People have preconceptions about what’s appropriate, and I don’t really think that’s the key. I think it’s the way things are used and organized that’s key. This is not to say you don’t formally think things through, from a craft and spatial point of view. But the organizing principles are really about how you set up opportunities for interaction, and that’s not just bringing people close together. In this particular example, it’s about figuring out what is the right social distance. It’s about setting elastic limits so that you get the right kind of energy.

CII’s core mission is to serve kids and families who have been exposed to violence. They gave us their program by departments, and we worked with them to conceive the place. The program included a clinic with a community center, and an administrative space. We re-characterized the whole thing as a community center that happened to have these other components in it. The minute you reframe the problem from a number of separate services into an umbrella that has the personality of a community center, you’ve normalized a whole lot of things that otherwise are uncomfortable to deal with. So people coming to counseling are coming to a community center, and happen to go off to the side and have a session as they would if they were taking some study help or a similar service. I think reframing opportunity is where the creative process really begins.


Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, designed by Koning Eizenberg Architecture. Image courtesy of Esto.

The historic farmers market at Third and Fairfax in Los Angeles. Image courtesy of Benny Chan.

Koning Eizenberg Architecture offices in Santa Monica, Calif. Image courtesy of Benny Chan.

Children's Institute, Inc. Otis Booth Campus in Los Angeles, designed by Koning Eizenberg Architecture. Image courtesy of Eric Studenmaier.

Julie Eizenberg, AIA. Image courtesy of Koning Eizenberg Architecture.


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Video: 2012 AIA Institute Honor Award Recipient for Interior Architecture—Children's Institute, Inc.


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