Architectural designer thrills to a Venice vibe
By Bridgette M. Redman
When Tima Bell’s stepmother, the swimmer and actress Esther Williams, learned that he’d completed a degree in architecture, her response was, “Ah, you can finally fix my cabinets.”
It was just one example of how people misunderstand and minimize the work that architectural designers do. Everyone, it seems, who has any sort of do-it-yourself sense thinks they know what architects do, but they are often blissfully unaware of the many skills and details that go into the work.
Bell, the co-founder of Venice-based Relativity Architects, is a lifelong Venice resident. There were times he resided elsewhere, but the beaches and culture of Venice always called him back. It is for this reason he carries a deep resonance with the city, its architecture and the types of projects that fit in with its character and people.
One of his most recent projects was the Venice V Hotel, a boutique property with rooms that reflect the culture and history of Venice.
He and his partner, architect Scott Sullivan, met in graduate school and immediately realized they had similar outlooks on architecture.
While they practiced separately for a while, they rejoined forces in 2013 to create Relativity Architects where they pursue culturally relevant architecture.
Other projects have included the “Dancing with the Stars” studio, Capture Studios, Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, Imagine Village Apartments, The Gables Restaurant, and Hal’s Bar and Grill.
Bell stressed that they are not a stylistic firm and they don’t have a specific typology.
“What we design is always contextual,” Bell said.
“We are spread against all different kinds of buildings from motion picture studios to housing. With this particular project of hospitality (The Venice V Hotel), it was informed by my growing up here.”
He explained that he has spent at least half of every decade since the 1970s here. His parents came to Santa Monica to go to school and he described that they were deeply immersed in the hippie culture.
“I was naked until I was 8,” Bell joked.
He grew up on 25th Street and said he was surrounded by hippies, bohemians, actors, people who didn’t have a lot of money — and, of course, skaters. They all congregated at the Venice Beach area, he said, adding that it was a beautiful place to grow up.
Then his parents divorced and his mom moved back to Maine. He would go back and forth between them, spending six months with his father and six months with his mother. After he went to college (he got a BFA from Rice University in Texas and a master’s in architecture from the Southern California Institute for Architecture), he settled in Venice.
Bell did move for a while to the Valley, a place he described as “stifling” and without the character that Venice has.
“I had 10 years of dark ages in the Valley and then I came back,” Bell said. “I couldn’t take it. I couldn’t take being away from the beach and that environment.”
When designing, there’s no place like home
It is that sort of love and passion that Bell brings to his Venice projects. He explained that he has a context that he can bring to all his works. With the Venice V project, he added that he worked in hospitality for 28 years and is very aware of what contemporary hotel needs are.
“I’m aware of all the different aspects of Venice, from the very bottom, the meth addicts, to the billionaires. I can see in between those and there is a common ground that can be conveyed in the work and we’ve been able to do that consistently,” Bell said.
The local immersion makes a difference to not just clients but to the ultimate end-user of the buildings. Bell and his partner try to imbue a sense of place into their work.
“We don’t want you to go through the motions in and out and not realize where you’ve been,” Bell said. “We want to create moments, even small ones, where you maybe catch your breath; you ask a question; you wonder why we put a door there — wonder where the door leads to. We want to recreate those moments that give you a sense of place — that you need to know where you are because you’re experiencing something special. That’s what we try to achieve in our architecture 100 percent of the time.”
Bell didn’t go to architecture school to become an architect. He went because he wanted to be a better painter.
However, as he worked toward his architectural degree, he realized he liked creating three-dimensional objects, that designing a building was its own form of art.
Nor has he abandoned painting even among the demands of running an architectural design firm and raising a family.
His appreciation for art is brought to every one of his projects.
“As often as possible, we use muralists, photographers, painters, set designers and sculptors,” Bell said.
“In every project, we attempt to engage an artist and install art into the process. If we can’t engage the artist, then I or someone in the office will create a piece of art and install it into the project.”
At Hal’s Bar and Grill, Bell created an elliptical chandelier where champagne glasses are hung in a swoosh above the bar. He designed the mural in the lobby of the Venice V Hotel.
He insisted he will always be an artist. In addition to earning an undergraduate degree in art and art history, he studied as a resident artist in Israel for a year.
Bell came back to the States and was making money selling his paintings.
It wasn’t a lot, but it was enough to live on. That is what he thought he was going to do until he went to architecture school to be a better fine artist.
“I just got hooked on making things in three dimensions,” Bell said.
“They’re still art in my mind. I kept painting until I had children. Then, you know, you can only bifurcate in so many ways.”
To this day, he still creates two or three small watercolors a week. They help him to stay activated with a painting eye.
“Where we see a need for art in our architecture, whether decorative or the actual building itself, that’s where I’m going to tap into the things I’ve studied from theory to books that I’ve read,” Bell said. “I’m not just a painter. I’ve written architectural theory. I have a degree in art history. I’m really strong in architectural history. I can reference our work to other artists and artists to inspiration. It is woven in and out of anything we do.”
Wide swathes of knowledge and specialties
It is this wide range of knowledge that puts Relativity several levels above the average DIYer. In fact, they aren’t even in the same county. Each project embodies numerous facets and even after 30 years of doing the work, Bell still discovers things he doesn’t know.
“We talk a lot in architecture about what we don’t know,” Bell said. “One of the beautiful things of my partner and my approach is that if there are alternatives, we will always listen. But, the idea that everyone can be an architect is a bit frustrating to me because I know everything that goes into even small projects. It’s not as simple as nailing two boards together.”
To do his job, Bell says one has to understand everything from people’s psyche all the way down to their financial ability.
It also helps to have connections. He went to graduate school at SCI-ARC in Santa Monica — the founders of that college were friends of his family.
When he was getting ready to work on Hal’s Restaurant on Abbott Kinney, he discovered that the owner went to college with his father and was his babysitter when he was a kid.
“It wasn’t planned, but when you think back, all the influences of these local architects at SCI-ARC were friends of my family growing up,” Bell said.
Those kind of connections draw Bell to the Westside. When he talks to clients, he lets them know that he gets why they are there — and that he loves his home and his hometown.
“I have a very strong body of work,” Bell said. “If you’re going to choose me, there are reasons why. I’ve now established a bit of a presence with the hotel, with Hal’s, with some of the other work we’ve done down here. The conversations around building in Santa Monica and Venice have gotten pretty exciting.”
To Bell, it is impossible to not be a part of the Venice community. He lists the edginess, the complaints, the activism, the art and the pure creativity spread throughout the city. He loves the character, the noise and the activity found throughout Venice.
Still dreaming big
While he has projects all throughout Los Angeles, the country and even internationally, it is Bell’s hometown that continues to call to him.
While there are many cultural projects he wants to be a part of, one of his big dreams at this point is to build something for the Los Angeles Olympics in 2028.
When Relativity started in 2013, they had the two partners and four employees. Now they are up to almost 50. It is a growth that puts them on a trajectory to win some of the Olympic commissions.
“I’d be happy to have just one house in the Olympics — just a way to put a cap on my career,” Bell said.
His father was involved in events leading up to the 1984 Olympics. It was the first time underwriting was allowed and the first Olympics that made money. His father was responsible for all the events that Arcos underwrote and it was his job to generate funds and excitement around the process. Because of his father’s work, Bell was deeply involved in the 1984 Olympics and everything going on in the city.
“We want to be able to prepare something for 2028,” Bell said. “That’s our goal.”
Meanwhile, he will continue designing in the city he identifies as the last free-expression, uncontrolled place in Southern California.
“You get this amazing mix and just this beautiful sense of freedom,” Bell said. “I’ve noticed that from childhood on. I remember thinking, though, why aren’t things on the east side (of the street) better? Why are they the cheap stuff? Why not make them a bit nicer?”
When they started working on the hotel, Bell had an epiphany — this is what made it nicer. This is what can serve as the fulcrum. This is their chance to activate the urban fabric.
And so, their work goes on.
Relativity Architects studioofrelativity.com