Leader of 2015’s AIA Award-winning studio, Steven Ehrlich has literally helped put Culver City on the map

By Michael  Aushenker

Steven Ehrlich inside his self-designed Venice home.  Photo by Jonathan Alcorn

Steven Ehrlich inside his self-designed Venice home.
Photo by Jonathan Alcorn

Two summers ago, Gungxi Normal University Press published the Taschen-esque tome “Ehrlich Architects: Learning, Working, Living,” showcasing the greatest hits, so to speak, of Steven Ehrlich.

Among the Culver City-based architect’s creations detailed: the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and the School of Earth and Space Exploration buildings, both at Arizona State University; the John M. Roll United States Courthouse in Yuma, Arizona; UC Irvine Contemporary Arts Center and student housing at Pomona College; the Zeidler residence in Aptos; and four condo towers in Taipei.

In between those out-of-town and out-of-state projects are the meat-and-potato projects on which Ehrlich built his firm’s name: the Mews, an eight-unit loft complex; the Race Through the Clouds and Ace Marketplace buildings enclosing Windward Circle; and Ehrlich’s own decade-and-counting residence on Palms Boulevard — all located right here in Venice.

Ehrlich Architects has also created the mixed-use 9919 Jefferson complex; Sony Music headquarters in Santa Monica’s corporate corridor near Colorado and 26th; residences in Santa Monica Canyon; and the nautical-themed Robertson Branch Library in West Los Angeles’ Pico-Robertson area.

Most notably, Ehrlich’s interior transformation of the old Culver Theatre into the Kirk Douglas Theatre helped propel downtown Culver City’s renaissance.

“I have great respect for Steve’s architectural designs, which are widely scattered from Africa to the U.S.,” said Venice-based artist Ed Moses, Ehrlich’s past client and collaborator, and a decades-long friend.

Ehrlich’s Early Years

The seeds of Ehrlich’s architectural philosophy were, in fact, planted during a six-year work and travel sojourn in the 1970s. Serving in the Peace Corps in Morocco from 1969 to 1972 and working in urban planning in Marrakesh, Ehrlich learned loads during his foundation years in Africa, picking up on the indigenous “sustainable wisdom vernacular to always tread lightly on the land,” he said. “Do not utilize a lot of energy. I learned early on that culture and environment architecture are all intertwined.

“The funny thing is it was forward thinking but also looking at things going on for centuries. It was something I wanted to learn in a fundamental way.”

While in North Africa, Ehrlich traversed the Sahara and taught at Amadubel University in Nigeria, where he studied “architecture without architects,” edifices formed by site and climate limitations.

Undoubtedly, Ehlich loves the Modernist masters (Schindler, Neutra, Soriano, Kappe, Koenig, Frey) but, he said, “I’ve also been influenced by the sheer exuberance of Frank Gehry’s work.”

In fact, his first ground-up residential commission in 1980 was a tricky one: adding a painting studio to Neutra’s 1959 Loring Avenue residence in the Hollywood Hills.

“Sure, I was nervous about it,” Ehrlich said. “But that helped put me on the map.” (Especially after architectural photographer Julius Shulman captured it on film.)

Today, Ehrlich’s workforce—40 strong—operates out of a resourcefully designed, repurposed vintage building that originated as a dancehall clubhouse in 1917.

“When we bought the building 17 years ago, it was a defunct mortuary,” Ehrlich said.

The entire staff works in a maximized, single open-plan studio with adjacent loft level and adjoining converted garage space serving as a model shop.

Of course, Ehrlich Architects’ home base is not its most famous Culver City overhaul. In the early 2000s, after Gordon Davidson —then executive director of Center Theatre Group (parent entity of downtown’s Ahmanson Theatre, Mark Taper Theatre and Dorothy Chandler Pavilion)—decided on a Westside annex, Ehrlich won the assignment, revamping the 1947 Culver Theatre into the 317-seat, state-of-the-art Kirk Douglas Theatre, replete with retro-modern lobby and chic red seating.

Moreover, 2004’s Kirk Douglas became a facilitator of downtown Culver City’s renaissance, soon anchored by the proliferation of hip eateries, art galleries, and the 2008 refurbishment of the 1924-dating Culver Hotel. Suddenly, downtown Culver became a true destination.

If much of Ehrlich’s core work lies in the heart of L.A.’s Westside, it’s because this is where Ehrlich’s firm, home and heart remain. Honored with the prestigious AIA National Firm Award this year, Ehrlich Architects—including partners Takashi Yanai, Mathew Chaney, Patricia Rhee—also handles projects as far as Dubai.

Yet roll back 36 years ago and we find young Steven Ehrlich burning the midnight oil out of a humble studio tucked within Ehrlich’s Venice garage near California and Oakwood. Supporting a family, “I was an urban pioneer back in the day,” Ehrlich recalled.

He soon “graduated out of my garage,” moving to 74 Market Street, where his firm remained from 1985 to ’90; one wall away from 72 Market Street, the restaurant co-owned by actor Dudley Moore and producer Tony Bill.

“That was a great time,” Ehrlich said of the Venice when artists Robert Graham, Jonathan Borofsky and Duane Valentine hit their creative peak. “It was very much about feeling the bohemian energy.”

In the early 1990s, Ehrlich’s first public buildings included downtown L.A.’s Shatto Recreation Center, included in its model form in the Getty Center exhibit “Overdrive”; and the ship façade-echoing  Robertson Branch Library. (Other Ehrlich-designed branches include Westwood and Encino-Tarzana.) The Sony Music headquarters on Colorado and 20th, completed in 1991 for Lowe Enterprises, was Ehrlich’s first significantly sized commercial project. In this epoch, Erhlich also created the 75,000-square-foot UCLA complex he says remains an anomaly in academia: the flexible-use Kinross Staging Building.

“It’s gone through a lot of interesting incarnations,” Ehrlich said. “The first entity to use it was the Graduate School of Fine Arts. They used it for four years as an artist studios environment” (including theatre director Peter Sellars and performance artist Chris Burden, who died
May 10).

When developing Shatto, Ehrlich invited Moses for a collaboration.

“I wanted to make walls that could be graffiti’d on and therefore incorporated with the nature of the area. The Building Department rejected that idea,” Moses recalled.

In 1984 and 2004, the friends collaborated on Moses’ twin art studios, located on the property of Moses’ longtime Venice abode. Years after Ehrlich designed new gallery space at UC Irvine, a painting retrospective for Moses hung there last fall. With Irvine’s arts center (a LEED platinum building), Team Ehrlich embraced a naturally ventilating green strategy for the theater and gallery.

“To do that in a public building is quite amazing. It saves them money and we’re being good stewards of the environment,” he said.

But it’s Shatto which still holds particular eminence for Ehrlich.

“It was important in terms of the development of the practice,” he said.

That includes a trio of buildings at Windward Circle deriving inspiration from community founder Abbot Kinney’s original “Venice of America” vision.

“They were experimenting with the reflection of the bygone lagoon,” Ehrlich explained of Ace Marketplace, an edifice boasting appendages echoing “those big armatures that were symbolic of the cranes.”

Facing southeast off Windward, the curvatures and crossing beams of Race to the Clouds echo the sweep of its namesake (Kinney’s rollercoaster of yesteryear) as well as its upside reflection off the Ballona Wetlands.

“Our designs are influenced by history but they’re not doing pastiche,” Ehrlich said.

Outside of California, Ehrlich Architects has designed the lab building at 675 W. Kendall in Cambridge for a private genetic research company: severely vertical, several-story agoras with transparent staircases meant to encourage chance encounters.

“Not all science can be done behind a computer screen or in a lab. It’s when people run into each other and start talking that the magic happens,” Ehrlich said.

Ehrlich also designed the earliest version of DreamWorks SKG Studios in Glendale; the 9378 Wilshire office complex in Beverly Hills; Orange County’s OCC Art Center, OCC Arts Pavilion and CSUF Grand Central Arts Building; and, in 2012 in the lower income neighborhood of Huntington Park, Linda Marquez School.

“It’s become a strong gathering place [for 2,000 kids],” he said.

On the Horizon

Back in Venice, where Ehrlich resides with wife Nancy Griffin (his three grown daughters have left the nest), his current 700 Palms address is a far cry from the modest Craftsman home he started in.

“My current house is a new house I built 10 years ago,” he said. “It embraces natural vegetation, courtyards with glass naturally ventilated and a multicultural Modernism. I’ve always been interested in influences from other cultures.”

Of course, today’s Venice is quite different from the one he started in.

“Change is embedded. We are the incubator of change,” he said, of Los Angeles at large. “The people are open-minded. It has incredible diversity, the ocean, the desert, the flats. Just think of all the writing that Jonathan Gold does about food. That energy influences our architecture.”

Ironically, Ehrlich is one of L.A.’s architects of change, especially in Venice and Culver City.

“I don’t like that the rents on Abbot Kinney are chasing out the local establishments that have been there for many years. There’s a sadness to that,” Ehrlich said. “But as an architect, I embrace change. I embrace new ideas.”

Currently in El Segundo, Ehrlich is creating Elevon Creative Campus and another creative office space within former aerospace buildings. And as Culver City barrels toward its 2017 centennial celebration, Ehrlich has two mixed-use retail/creative office space projects in development: the ambitious Parcel B, and Washington/National TOD with Lowe.

Ehrlich’s firm enjoys the mix of commercial, residential and civic area projects.

“It’s a great community. We love that diversity,” he said.

With significant contributions to Culver City’s progress behind him and several more on the horizon, Ehrlich derives much pride from their accomplishments.

“I feel blessed,” Ehrlich said. “Part of architecture is giving back and helping create community. There’s all kinds of layers of good feelings that came with the [success of the] Kirk Douglas Theatre.”