Culver City-based architect Zoltan E. Pali on the ups and downs of building in L.A., mixing work with married life and making peace with the wrecking ball

Architect Zoltan E. Pali with wife and creative partner, Judit Fekete

Architect Zoltan E. Pali with wife and creative partner, Judit Fekete

By Michael Aushenker

By his own admission, Zoltan E. Pali is the less-civilized partner of Studio Pali Fekete Architects.

Pali and his wife, Judit Fekete, founded the firm in their Westside garage in 1988 before moving into a building on Glencoe Avenue in Marina del Rey and then to Washington Boulevard in Culver City.

On Sunday, a conversation with Pali kicks off the first of three sessions in the Culver City Cultural Affairs Foundation’s “architectureTALKS” series, with proceeds benefitting the enhancement of the Veterans Memorial Building Auditorium in Culver City.

Pali attended Taft High School in Woodland Hills and graduated from UCLA before moving to West Los Angeles and then Santa Monica. Decades ago, he was an architectural contributor to the Santa Monica Museum of Flying.

In the years that followed, Studio Pali Fekete’s myriad projects have included work on the recently opened Wallis Annenberg Center in Beverly Hills and on the late Gibson Amphitheatre, the Pantages Theatre restoration in Hollywood and the Greek Theatre expansion in Los Feliz, the Getty Conservation Institute in Malibu and Sinai Akiba Academy in Westwood. Pali even returned to his alma mater to design UCLA’s  C.E.N.S. technology labs, completed last year.

On the residential side, those funky, boxy, Mondrian-type analog Culver City buildings — specifically 9900 Culver Blvd. and the MODAA Lofts — are his firm’s designs, as are a unique string of Modernist/Bauhaus-echoing residences in Malibu, Pacific Palisades and Bel-Air. Pali hopes to tackle more projects outside Southern California, but in the meantime his credits include the SJU Museum of Art and Design in San Jose and the Grand Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

Currently, his firm is working on a couple of bridges over the L.A. River, a bridge in Long Beach between the Performing Arts and Convention centers, the Rancho Cienega sports complex next to Dorsey High School and Houghton Park in Long Beach.

— Michael Aushenker

Were there any great architects who influenced you as a youth?

My dad is a mechanical engineer. He noticed that I could draw and taught me [at a very young age] to draw on a technical level. He brought home architects; they were his clients. So I kind of grew up loving that aspect of it.

I became very early in my career what you would call a production architect. I was really adept at doing that thing. I didn’t go to architecture school. I got into UCLA Engineering and I almost failed out of it because I hated it [laughs]. I kept on taking art classes. I transferred to the school of arts at UCLA and got my bachelor’s degree in design, but I worked through school as a draftsman.

So you’re essentially self-taught?

Yes, very much self-taught. As a result, I started working on my own. I worked for a couple of good people [and learned from them]. I started reading about Neutra and Elwood and all the people who became our heroes. One of the things I was doing is entering competitions, spending a tremendous amount of hours doing that. Then I got gutsy enough to open my own firm.

Do you see your work as an extension of mid-century modern?

We start with those basic tenets that come out of the modernist school that started in Germany in the 1920s [and flourished in California]. I worked for Gerald Lomax, a protégé of Craig Elwood. Those are sort of our initial inspirations. Beyond that, we’ve kept our eyes on what the Europeans are doing and what the Americans are doing as well. I came of age in architecture when postmodern was at its height.

Many couples separate their personal and work lives. How do you and Judit work together?

We met and decided to start working together — in the apartment, in the garage, and on from there. She’s an artist and an architect by training from Hungary. She’s very civilized and can put up with me [laughs].We have a very similar design sense, of course. We share a hard work ethic; we have the same ethical values. We argue a lot. You can call it “spirited discussion” or argument. Everything is fought for.

Working with institutions can involve many cooks in the same kitchen. Was there a challenging collaboration that yielded satisfying results?

I can be sort of pessimistic and say I haven’t had that yet happen the way I wanted it to [laughs]. The Annenberg in Beverly Hills is a perfect example. The compromises that had to be made would not necessarily be noticed by a person who came through the facility, but they’re there. But in the end, if you can step back and look at what it brought to that community, it’s a successful project. Being an architect is sort of an unsatisfying profession. You’re not left happy with what you’ve done. Even if you’ve [executed your vision], you still wouldn’t be happy.

What local areas do you find architecturally compelling?

I have a love and indifference relationship with L.A. [laughs]. I can enjoy myself anywhere I am in this town, but it’s not visually that great.

What about individual homes designed by Wright, Schindler, Soriano, Neutra, Lautner … ?

The names are countless, of course. The interesting thing is that when you think of the larger-size buildings on the Westside, what is there? There’s nothing. There was the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, but what’s happening with that now? It’s unfortunate, but we in the city have not put ourselves on the map.

What do you think of carefully planned communities such as Irvine and, closer to home, Playa Vista?

It seems people love it, but it ironically lacks character. It really hasn’t developed organically. A great city develops organically.

Southern California is known for an anything goes freedom of expression. Is there a downside to the crazy-quilt architectural landscape?

At first, I loved it. I’ve always seen it as an eternal optimism because of this freedom, if you will, but it continues speaking with a scattered nature. If you think of San Francisco, you have a strong image of what the city looks like. Or New York, Boston, Chicago, Paris. With L.A. you don’t have that. There’s no context, if you will, but that in itself is a context. It allows Frank Gehry [and other innovative architects] to do what they do.

Given L.A.’s ephemeral nature, does it depress you that some of your work may one day be razed?

I believe that it should go.

Really? Why?

Everything’s temporary. If a building I’ve done doesn’t make sense anymore, it should go. I’m not going to step in front of the bulldozer and stop them. Take it away. On the plus side, all of the mistakes will be gone, too.

A conversation with Zoltan E. Pali of Studio Pali Fekete Architects, moderated by architecture writer Thomas Aujero Small, takes place from 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday at 8609 W. Washington Blvd., Culver City. Tickets: $40 (includes post-talk wine reception catered by Akasha).