Venice’s David Hertz strives for balance in the built environment

To cap off the 747 Wing House, Hertz flew in the wings and tail section of a retired Boeing 747 (Photo by Juergen Nogai)

Los Angeles has given rise to many of America’s most prominent architects. But for all they’ve built here, very few of them are actually from Los Angeles.

Frank Gehry, the rambunctious scribbly designer of downtown’s Walt Disney Concert Hall and newly crowned czar of L.A. River redevelopment, is from Canada; John Lautner, the Frank Lloyd Wright apprentice turned godfather of 20th century L.A. architecture, was from Michigan; Ray Kappe, mastermind of the California Modernist home and founder of the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc), is from Minneapolis.

David Hertz — who studied at SCI-Arc, apprenticed under Lautner and at one point worked for Gehry’s firm — is from Los Angeles. More specifically, Venice.

He wears shorts and sunglasses. Speaks with a coastal twang. Rides his bike to work. And actually surfs.

Over 40 years living and working in Venice, Hertz has made a career of incorporating sustainability into his Los Angeles architecture.

Back in the 1980s he invented a concrete-like substance, called Syndecrete, made from “computer parts, recycled plastic, records and, you know, buttons.”

In 2003, Hertz completed his 5,000-square-foot Silver Triangle residence made famous as David Duchovney’s bachelor pad in the Showtime series “Californication.” A “living laboratory” for sustainable design, the four-structure compound utilizes recycled wood and generates most of its own power through rooftop solar panels and water heaters, with Syndecrete floors capturing heat during the day and releasing it at night. Until recently his family home, Hertz sold the property in April for $14.6 million — setting a new residential sale price record in Venice.

In 2011, Hertz up-cycled a decommissioned 747 jumbo jet into the main design element of a home in the Malibu Hills, transporting the plane from a desert boneyard by orchestrating partial closures of five Southland freeways before having a Chinook helicopter airlift it up a hillside.

Top left: Hertz with his dog Nalu in front of the famed ‘Californication’ House, also known as the McKinley Residence (Photo by Laura Doss)
Bottom left: An avid surfer, David Hertz is a born and bred Los Angeles architect (Photo by Laura Doss)
Right: Hertz’s former Venice residence served as the bachelor pad for David Duchovny’s character on the TV show ‘Californication’ (Photo by Juergen Nogai)

Recently he’s been working with Skywater, a machine that converts airborne water vapor into fresh drinking water. He and its creators have entered it into the $1.75-million X-Prize Water Abundance competition, an incentive to develop technology that can alleviate the global water crisis. Hertz installed a Skywater machine in the alley behind his office at 57 Market St. after the city shut off public water faucets during the drought, prompting debate about whether restaurants should be required to provide free water for the homeless. Now passersby can fill a bottle or cup from a tap marked with a golden arrow.

For Hertz, it’s not enough for buildings to give shelter. They should also give back.

“I’ve been very, very interested in how we can have buildings that are restorative — that we move beyond sustainability to actually heal the damage we’ve done. That buildings can make more energy than they use. That they can grow more food than they use. That they can create more oxygen,” Hertz says. “But we haven’t really been able to do much with water.”

That is, until SkySource.

The son of a surgeon/sculptor and an artist/photographer, Hertz credits his interest in the natural environment to childhood summers at his grandfather’s ranch in the Malibu hills.

Bill Hertz started off in the bottling business, and during World War II he patented a mechanism for recycling used bottle caps into tin in support of the war effort. But deep down, he desperately wanted to be a cowboy. Soon after the war, Bill Hertz left New Jersey for 2,700 acres of undeveloped land in Malibu, where he fabricated a Wild West town that he leased out for movie shoots.

“I certainly grew up privileged,” David Hertz says of his childhood. “Part of that was a family dynamic that had some social awareness. I grew up directly connected to nature. And first, really, I became an environmentalist before becoming an architect.”

As a teen, Hertz volunteered with Greenpeace. It wasn’t until he broke into a construction site for a closer look at a building and somehow talked his way into an apprenticeship with Lautner that he finally chose architecture. In a lot of ways, he’s still putting off that choice.

“At some point there was somewhat of a crossroads,” says Hertz. “I loved building things and I loved the built environment, so I had to rationalize my place in the built environment: Do I divorce myself and my passion from what I want to do and maybe protest these things, or do I stay in it and influence them?”

With his company SkySource, Hertz is donating water to public gardens in Venice and has big plans to expand the Skywater machine’s use locally and internationally in communities where water quality is an issue. He’s currently working with a local artist to turn billboards — “urban blight and an overt expression of consumerism,” he calls them — into water faucets, with a pilot project in the works for southeast Los Angeles.

“Someone asked me recently whether SkySource is a water project or architecture. I thought that was kind of funny, you know, because I feel like it is absolutely architecture: It involves building and place and people and energy. Architecture can have a public benefit, just like a park can,” he says.

Hertz credits much of that philosophy to his time at SCI-Arc and Kappe’s philosophy “that looked at social and environmental ways to be responsible with buildings.”

But how much can one be both an architect and activist?

One of his former SCI-Arc teachers wasn’t convinced that Hertz’s 747 Wing House filled the bill.

“David wanted to cut a plane up and make a high-end residential complex with the parts. Fine — the result filled the fantasy dream. But do not rationalize it as economical nor green. It is serving the rich with an expensive gimmick approach,” Glen Howard Small, a noted pioneer of green architecture, blogged against the tide of public adulation for the project.

In Venice, Hertz knows he’s walking a tightrope.

His architecture office is one of very few addresses on the west end of Market Street not occupied by Snapchat, whose piecemeal expansion throughout Venice has drawn fierce criticism as both gentrifying and sterilizing Venice.

“For the most part, almost everyone has moved out and Snapchat has moved in. We’re pretty much part of the campus. And that’s both good and bad,” Hertz says. “I think change has happened quite rapidly — certainly to Market Street, because it has become somewhat of a monoculture.”

Hertz has been on the block long enough to have worked with Jean-Michel Basquiat at Larry Gagosian’s gallery and dined at Tony Bill and Dudley Moore’s legendary 72 Market Street restaurant. He remembers sculpture artist Larry Bell walking around the neighborhood with his cigar in one hand and his dog’s leash in the other — and that was only a few years ago.

As a past member of the Venice Neighborhood Council’s development-related committees on Land Use and Planning and Mass, Scale and Character, he’s heard activists and builders argue about the impacts of gentrification.

As a resident of Venice’s historically African-American and working-class Oakwood neighborhood, where contemporary McMansions are crowding out smaller single-story residences, he’s hyper-aware of change.

“As an architect, sometimes I’m a part of gentrification,” Hertz concedes, quickly qualifying that he does not work with commercial developers. “I’m very, very empathetic to the change in the dynamic, especially of the Oakwood community. At the same time, I see things that once were different and they’re much better.

“Do we want every single thing to be controlled as a little Craftsman bungalow or kept to a certain size or scale? No, because we don’t want to create uniformity — we want diversity and we want creativity. But you have to have some sort of kind of control in that. So it’s a very delicate balance. I wrestle with that all the time.

“What I love about Venice is that it’s a community of people who also love Venice and they’re very concerned about it. There are tensions around change, and it tears at people’s stability. There are people that just kind of come to Venice and claim it as their own. When people talk, it’s like: ‘How long have you been here?’”

It’s a question that pertains not only to Venice, but to the history of Los Angeles.

British architecture critic Reyner Banham once said that he loved L.A. for all of its freeways and flaws. In his book “Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies,” Banham told the world that they were wrong: Los Angeles, a coastal wonder of traffic-filled concrete expanses, was beautiful.

“The culture of the beach,” he wrote, “is in many ways a symbolic rejection of the values of the consumer society, a place where a man needs to own only what he stands up in. Usually a pair of frayed shorts and sunglasses.”

That’s pretty much what you’ll find Hertz wearing on any given day.

“I think David Hertz’s name is synonymous with Venice’s architecture,” says Stephen Vitalich, a prominent Venice-based architect who has known Hertz for more than 30 years. “He knows how to create a project that’s synonymous with Venice and what Venice is trying to be.”

Will Wright, director of government and public affairs for the Los Angeles chapter of the American Institute of Architects, describes Hertz as “someone who really believes in the sense and place of Los Angeles, the region of Southern California — a person who is deeply connected to the environmental aspects of what is unique and special about L.A.”

Hertz, he says, is representative of the city where he grew up.

“The first thing that came to my mind is Angeleno,” says Wright, trying to explain Hertz. “With all the connotations of that.”

For Hertz, the word seems to imply a unique kind of balancing act in the face of rapid transformation, a tug of war between activism and architecture.

“I’d say I embrace change in my life. And personally, I think change  is threatening to a lot of people,” says Hertz.

“I, for one, am kind of a centrist,” he concludes. “Maybe it’s being a Libra, but I’m balancing both sides.”