Award-winning Dan Brunn, a champion of modern architecture, is an architect whose designs transcend traditional boundaries. Brunn creates a sustainable vision that empowers the natural elements of location, materials and space. He meets the specific requirements of his individual clients with unexpected and fascinating design elements. A Tel Aviv native, Brunn’s approach to style follows the legacy of iconic masters Frank Gehry and Frank Lloyd Wright, building spaces as art.
Brunn has taught at Boston Architectural Center, Harvard Graduate School of design and at the USC School of Architecture. Winner of the Red Dot Design Award and the Interior Design Magazine’s Best of the Year award, he is the principal at the LA-based design firm Dan Brunn Architecture.
Photography has played an important role in Dan’s impressive career He is keenly aware of light, form and perspective, all of which are critical components that any fine photographer reacts with.
We had an opportunity to discuss many of these concepts and issues that challenge architects like Dan all the time. The following is the transcript...
AF: Why did you choose to become an architect? How old were you when you realized that was what you wanted to do? Tell me a little bit about your background, where you went to school . . .
DB: I think architecture chose me. I don’t think there was much of a choice I had in the matter. It started, probably, when I was six years old and when my parents would buy me Legos?. Instead of following instruction sheets, I would just create my own concoctions and it would be something out of a science fiction movie, something you’d see in Blade Runner. And I’d create these cities . . . and I got a reputation for it and friends and other people in the neighborhood would come over to see it. “Oh! What did Dan create?” This was in the suburbs of Tel Aviv.
AF: And you were six years old?
DB: Six years old. And I remember it vividly. And then I remember, later on, when I was seven years old, my grandpa came from Germany or America and he came with a Lego set of Technics, which is for fourteen-year-olds-plus and I was sitting there thinking, “Oh my God! How am I going to solve this thing?” and nobody was helping me and I just took the instructions and somehow built this car. Six months ago, I went on eBay and I bought that same exact kit. I built it again and I have it at home now. It’s a very fond memory.
And ever since then I’ve been enamored by design, by architecture and I remember, maybe I was even younger, I used to touch everything . . . The touch was very important to me, how things feel. And my mom would say, “Stop touching! Stop touching!” But it’s a sensory thing that I think I was always “in touch” with the world around me and light and everything.
AF: How old were you when you came to America?
DB: Seven years old, second grade: we moved to Los Angeles. And that was an experience and a half. Didn’t know the language, didn’t know the culture, everything . . . learning, what is “baseball”? What is anything? So everything was new to me.
AF: What year would that have been?
DB: 1986 . . . I remember the day when it was 50/50, meaning 50% in America and 50% in Israel. I remember sitting in my room and questioning, “Am I American now? Am I Israeli now?” Where do I stand on this? It was compelling.
AF: Was your mother or father in the arts?
DB: No. However, my dad was very handy. He made furniture for the house. He knows how to do that. He would design the furniture, like a bed frame, side tables and he made me a shelf for my toy cars . . . And he painted it black with a little white line in the middle for a road. I wouldn’t say he pursued art, but he was very connected to it. He would also make canvas paintings; very abstract like Mondrian; very pop art with very few colors. My mom appreciates the arts.
AF: Tell me again about your schooling.
DB: I went to high school in Los Angeles, Beverly Hills High School, and they actually had an architecture class there that I took for four years and that taught me the technical aspects: What does a plan look like, what is a section . . . how to build a model, how to be in touch with scale.Then I got into USC and I did a professional degree there. It’s a Bachelor of Architecture, which is a five-year degree and in the last year you complete a thesis, and it was interesting. I had to unlearn everything that I had done in high school. They had to re-teach me. “No, no, no! It’s not about the technical part! There’s so much more to it!” After USC, I worked every year in the summers interning for a professor that taught there. I worked for him for two years afterwards, and I actually learned so much there at the office. I got to work on some really incredible projects.Then I applied to grad school. I went to Harvard for two years for a post-professional degree, which is like a masters degree. When I finished there I came back to Los Angeles just to do my licensing exams, and as that happened, I started meeting people for jobs, and here I am a few years later.
AF: What was your first big break, your first major job, your first client?
DB: My first client was for a company called CaesarStone®. They are a manufacturer of stone products, counter tops. They wanted to design their first ever flagship showroom, in San Francisco. They flew me up there, I gave them a proposal, and that was the first job I ever got. That was in 2008.
AF: So, how do you approach the problem of creating architecture?
DB: (Chuckle) It’s something I’ve been asked many times. It’s an art and it’s very hard for me to say, “What is it that will make it happen?” But it always does, and it’s something that comes naturally, I guess, to me. A lot of it is being in tune with the time, place, the client, the environment, and pulling something out of it, pulling out a problem, how will I solve this in a unique way . . . not even in a unique way . . . The unique way is just a resultant. But if somebody gives me a problem, I will come up with a solution for it that’s novel. So that, I think, is the way I approach a design. Instead of just saying: “Oh well, I’ve got to have a four-bedroom house. How am I going to place everything?” There’s an underlying. . . thesis . . . beyond that, but I never let the actual thesis overtake what the client demands . . . so that they work together. And I think that’s the synergy of art and science. Its what makes architecture, good architecture, so powerful!
AF: In modern architecture, would you agree that structure and function are very connected? How important is that to you?
DB: Very connected! I was having a conversation with one of my employees yesterday actually, and she is a super-educated, really smart, young girl who doesn’t have the technical, professional practice. She doesn’t really know how the structure, or the connections and details work. But that’s what makes fine architecture what it is. If you can’t put it together, then it means nothing in the end. It’s just a drawing.
AF: “Putting it together,” meaning that it’s functional?
DB: That it’s built and the idea is still carried across. So, it would be the same thing as somebody in the movie industry; somebody comes up to a producer and says, “I’ve got a great idea for a sit-com.” Everybody has great ideas. I want to see that idea come across in the end! After you have the budget, after you have the city, after you have the bureaucracy, after you have the clients, the climate - all of this makes your thesis come alive. It is the key to good architecture. So yeah, you have to be very good at understanding everything and I think I had that from a young age, coming back to the lessons from Legos?. I understood how gears worked, I understood how lever arms worked. Physics to me is like walking - I don’t have to think about it. I could look at something and say, “That’s going to fall down,” without having to have it engineered. It’s just second nature now. As I’m designing I can say, “No, no, no. We have to change this, this and this.” And I’ll be able to get it very close until the engineer can work it.
AF: How important is light to you? How much does it influence your creative process?
DB: Prime - it’s one of the first things. You look at the site and if you have the luxury of working with natural light, the first thing you look at is the sun path, and then that’s how you layout everything else. It comes back together as a choreography of spaces.
So when I design I take a person through a story, through a voyage of a space. I always imagine how the light will come into that space, how the reflections of the light will occur. What space do I want to have at night when the light is coming into rest? When it’s the end of the day, where am I going to locate everything within all the zones within the house?
And with an interior, then I get to play god, because then I am in control of all the lights. Then I get to use artificial lights. I love to hide lights, so you don’t see the source of the light. When you think about the sun, you never look directly at the sun, but you look at the light that comes off the sun. The same thing goes for interiors. If I can see the light source, I’ve failed. I like to have the source hidden.
AF: I’ve worked on many movie sets and witnessed how cinematographers, along with their gaffers, will place very small wattage lights into the background, which you would think would not make very much of a difference at all. But when you see the shot on screen, and you see the background and you see that little bit of light coming from that corner, then you realize what a hot idea it was to place that small light there. It gives the room dimension and character.
DB: You see! That really fascinates me, and I’ve seen that in movies and also in still photography. But for me, it’s all about the human eye; that’s what I’m designing for.
AF: That actually brings me to my next question: how has photography influenced your work in any way?
DB: Very! Oh my God, because architecture... I have a passion for it because of the human experience! I love the effect that I can have on somebody, very intimately. But the only way I can share that with a lot of people is through photography. So when you’re designing a space, you’re designing it for a multitude of things.
First and foremost is the personal experience. But second of all, it has to be photogenic. And so as I’m designing, a lot of the tools I’m using - are 3D... 3D modeling, which uses physical cameras. So I set up a camera. I tell it 35mm, the ISO. And so as I’m designing, I’m actually designing through the lens of a camera.
AF: Really? And this is a software program in your computer?
DB: Yes! The software program lets me build in 3D! It acts on a metric. I just play around with the geometries, and then I put myself behind a physical camera. Its what they call it. I’m behind this camera, with its ISO set, with all the lights, and I know what each light’s brightness is set to, the wattage of each bulb . . . this one is 45 watts, exactly how many lumens (a unit of light), and I select the time of day, and that’s how I design the project.
AF: Incredible! Who are some of your favorite architectural photographers? Growing up, were there any that really stood out in your mind for being extraordinary photographers?
DB: We know, obviously, of Julius Shulman, He was an outstanding one, and in general I can’t say that many have been very provocative to me. Architectural photography, for the most part, is a very technical skill. A lot of these photos are taken and done with the eye of the architect, telling a photographer where to place their camera. That art is lost, in a way, and I think that art was lost for pop [art] use in the 1960’s, where an actual artisan, this photographer, would go out and scout, and take these photos, and they would become famous. Now it’s more, “I need this job done. You’ve got to get it published for me, this is the quality of light.” It ends up looking very, very technical.
AF: On the opposite side of that, is there a point where an architectural photographer can become, in a sense, too creative, where they are exploiting the structure to their own aesthetic? Where they are not necessarily being true to the structure or respecting it properly?
DB: Yes. If they don’t respect it properly then they have failed. But if they are creative, in their own sense, then maybe they don’t convey the idea that the architect wanted to convey. But they could be provocative, conveying something else. There’s a Japanese photographer called Iwan Baan, and he is incredible. He’s now regarded as the new avant-garde in this field, because part of what he does is to label himself as a “lifestyle photographer” instead of an “architectural photographer.” So he will have people in his photographs. Its like what Julius Shulman did sometimes. But that’s no longer the case.
AF: Shulman used some great models in his photographs. Is that type of architectural photograph not being done today because clients are not able to afford such shoots, with the expense of the models added on?
DB: No, no! The pureness of the space . . . It’s the architect’s desire to have a pureness of space. The only time you’ll see that is if a magazine demands it for a project like a restaurant, so that it can look filled. What’s interesting is that I’ve submitted my works recently to a few magazines and come back and they have their own requirements! For example, “Oh, we like to see some arts and crafts things laid out.”
To me it dilutes the actual job. But on the other hand, that’s the way to get published. It’s very frustrating. But that is what drives architectural photography because at the end of a project, after I’ve completed it, I need it to be shared.
AF: And you’re a very good photographer. I mean you’re a seriously trained photographer. You told me you have a Sinar view camera, which employs all the tilts and swings. You’ve shot larger format, worked in color transparency, color negative . . .
DB: At USC there was a class that architectural students took, and it was manual photography with a 4x5 Sinar, and then I ended up buying one for myself.
AF: Do you think somehow, studying architectural photography, it made you a better architect?
DB: One hundred percent! One hundred percent, because it lets you put your eye at a stationary point and grasp perspective. A lot of people don’t understand it. For example, I just finished a restaurant in Beverly Hills and it’s a long narrow space. I used a forced perspective in the design. The restaurant is called “Yojisan.” It’s a Sushi place, just north of Wilshire Blvd. on Beverly Drive. I took the ceiling and I angled it the whole way across to “force” perspective. So, if you take a camera, it’s even better.
Once it gets photographed, it will be a great space. It has this foreshortening that pulls all the space in. So I think, “Yeah. My architecture is very much together,” especially when I talk about choreography, as in designing the space. As I said with that program, I’ll use the lens of a camera and have a walk-around, and it will show me what I can see.
AF: Do you see any themes in your work? Do you recognize any specific themes in your work at all?
DB: You know people recognize things in my work, and I take that as a major compliment, because when I design I’m always just trying to break boundaries, and I think, I definitely try to complete them with the least means possible. That would be my theme, at least, to look like the least means possible.
AF: When you say “means”, are you talking about materials or the visible volume?
DB: I’m trying to think of the right word to say, or the right thing. Some people in their architecture, they like to highlight the structure, or highlight the connections of materials, highlighting how something was put together; I hide all of that. For me, what I would love to see is, if you could make a huge piece of Jell-O, and cut it out, and live in it, that would be my perfect space because everything is the same: the floor is the same as the wall which is the same as the ceiling. That is what I strive for.
And I call that a “sublime” thing. I don’t want to see a bolt. In the house I just finished, in Venice, they are no screws. They are not shown at all, everything is hidden, and I think it’s a magical thing, and it’s the same when I pick up even a nice piece of photography equipment. It’s one of the first things I look at. Between the DSLR’S that I’ve owned, sadly, sometimes, it hasn’t come down to the quality of the image that it produces, but the quality of the piece in my hand.
AF: The ergonomics of the design?
AF: What are the significant differences when you do a commercial design, versus a residential one?
DB: Speed: that’s the biggest thing. In commercial, you need to get the project done, and you need to see it. The client needs to have the place opened. So if it’s a showroom or restaurant, they have a deadline and that deadline is real.
It’s not about comfort or “I need to move into my house.” It’s a real necessity to move along. I also like the fact it’s a business type of environment, and it gives me the liberty to really express myself.
Sometimes in residential design, because it’s so intimate, clients might have a hard time letting go and saying “You know what? This is your gig. You go for it!” And the best work that I’ve done has been with clients that have let me do that. Just, “Hey, this is your show; we’ve hired you for a reason.”
And I always use an analogy, and people don’t understand it. I am a trained professional: if you go to a doctor and he gives you a prognosis, that you have “X” disease. If you don’t like it, he’s not going to change his prognosis. You go to another doctor, he’ll give you “Y”. That’s the way I approach my architecture: “This is who I am. You’ve hired me for this reason.”
Now with residentials, that can become really difficult at times, because you have to express to the client why. And you have to walk them through a lot more. They have time to sit down and listen to you explain everything.
Meanwhile, in commercial, how many people are going to sit? What they care about is if the material is durable. Will it last? How can I clean this? How can my crew clean this? How much storage do I have for my computers? Things like that - very, very practical. Which means that the rest of it they don’t look at you can just have a great time with.
AF: At any given time, how many different projects would you be working on?
DB: Right now, I have about five.
AF: Is it easy for you to transition, in your mind, from going to either one or the other? Is that challenging for you?
DB: No. But it’s very organic, and I think the more projects you have, the more you can transfer the knowledge from one to another. It’s incredible. Sometimes as I’m exploring an idea for one project, it might not happen in that one. But there’s a possibility for it to occur in the one right next door to the project I’m working on.
AF: So in a sense, it’s a positive thing?
DB: Very positive. Obviously, it can come to a point where you don’t have enough attention to bring. I haven’t reached that saturation. One of my biggest talents is that I’m really fast. I could just churn these things out really quickly.
AF: I was curious about something: at this point, do you ever do anything in “analog” (in a sense); just with paper and pencil, slide rules, and straight edges?
DB: I draw by hand all the time. If I have to solve a little problem, say, about geometry, I’ll draw it by hand, really quick, just sketch it out . . .
AF: So are you good in math also, on your own?
DB: I don’t have to be. I mean, there’s no. . . I’m not doing the engineering. I took all the engineering classes; I passed all the exams for structures. In architecture it’s not a real necessity to be good at math. I think what is a really good necessity is something that you touched on, which is using the hand . . . “analog” . . . So what I find is that when I was going to school, it was awesome because they forced us to draw by hand.
AF: Meaning you would actually conceive the structure on paper?
DB: Everything would be drawn by hand. Up until age thirty, I drew everything by hand. The computers were not allowed. And I think what’s incredible about that is that it forces you to understand scale. Because as architects, what we draw is on paper; 1/4-inch would be equal to one foot for example, or 1/8-inch is equal to a foot. So you have to understand that notion so when you look at the drawing when you’re done, you get it.
The problem is when you use a computer, you can zoom in and out, consistently: in and out, in and out, in and out. And I’ve seen the confusion in my students that never used paper, they don’t understand scale. So as they’re drawing they ask, “Do you think you could fit through there?” Yeahhh . . . And I could just tell they can’t see it at all.
And that’s critical. It’s the same thing for a photographer, walking into a space. “Okay, the ISO is this, the exposure is this,” without ever using a meter, just knowing. Knowing light, by knowing it on your own, you can be a lot more creative.
AF: And faster! Especially in journalism and such.
DB: Much faster . . . much faster. And so it’s the same thing in architecture. You need to have that analog background. I used to build physical models and mockups of everything. Now people use what’s called a 3D printer.
It’s so important to take the time during modeling, to take a piece of paper and cut and measure it with my ruler . . . I get to see that dimension again, and again, and again. So it gets ingrained in my skull. So now I know. Okay . . . A good space for that would be around 8’6”x10x20. So I understand that space. If you just press “print,” you never had to figure that out.
AF: What is your most favorite building on the earth? Do you have one?
DB: Yes I do, it’s the Guggenheim in New York. I’m enamored by that building. And every time I go I always discover something new in there, and I’ve never been let down by it. It’s just a phenomenal building.
AF: What year was it built? I forget.
DB: 1944-1959... somewhere around then. The architect turned the world upside down with that project. It stills holds up, curators will bash it for it being a difficult place to see art, and I agree, but as a building . . .
AF: The way the light comes through the dome at the top is so beautiful! The way it illuminates the artwork . . . I don’t find it that difficult to view fine art there, sculpture or canvases, it’s quite unique for a museum.
DB: It’s incredible! It’s amazing! And what he pushed forward in that building is just amazing and I love it. Frank Lloyd Wright, who designed it, what a great architect!
AF: What about Los Angeles? Do you have any buildings in Los Angeles that you admire? Or that you think are really extraordinary, or that inspire you?
DB: Well, we have the Disney Concert Hall, and that inspires me in - not in the beauty of the building, but in the way Frank Gehry pushed the limits, the way he was able to bring aerospace design and aerospace structure into architectural reality.
AF: But he also (if I remember reading about it correctly), he was influenced by the idea of how the wind would fill a large sail on a sailboat. This had a lot to do with how he conceived the project. The way the large shiny plates of metal on the exterior of the building kind of wrap with one another and appear like sails filled with wind.
DB: Yeah, probably . . . Well, the forms are really beautiful. It gets me on a more sculptural level, verses experiential level, which is more why I love the Guggenheim. Every time I go there; it’s like a place of worship for me.
You walk into a space (the Guggenheim) that’s very low, the entrance has a hover space, no taller than 8 feet, probably 7’6”; you walk into that very low space, he compresses you and then you walk in to the big dome! Bam! I don’t know if there is anything in L.A. for me that’s as dramatic as that!
AF: As compelling . . . This is kind of a tough question, you don’t have to answer it if you don’t want to. (I don’t know how I would answer it myself actually . . .)
How do you come up with an idea? Can you explain your process at all?
DB: (Pause) I would say, that I’m always amazed when an idea comes out okay. An idea is an organic thing, so a lot of times some of my best ideas have come from traveling.
Actually, I love to travel, and I always take something from my trips. I was trying to explain this to somebody before, and we were having a discussion about what is new? What is novel?
AF: . . . In terms of architecture, or just in general?
DB: . . . In general, but in terms of design. And to me, if you take something that maybe had already been designed, like a sphere, and you came up with a new way of using a sphere, then that’s novel. So for example, some of my best works are borrowed from something else that I’ve seen while traveling. It could be a napkin holder and that will turn into a house! I had an argument with the person and they’re like, “That’s not new! And I said, “Of course! It’s completely new!” And that’s the way evolution works. And that to me is architecture. Architecture is evolutionary. When I write music, I’m inspired by the Beatles, and I always think, “How will I ever be able to write a song that’s as revolutionary as any Beatlessong?” Instead of just saying, “Well, you know what? They were evolutionary with a revolution.” And you have to take that stance.
AF: They would be the first to agree. The Rolling Stones included, many of the English bands were influenced by American Rhythm & Blues, Elvis, early Rock & Roll, and so on.
DB: Exactly! It’s the same thing for architecture. So as I’m moving along, I’m constantly inspired. And that’s where ideas come about.
AF: I would also think, that as technology changes, in terms of new types of tools and construction methods, plus the new materials that are now available to you that never existed three hundred years ago...
DB: Never existed thirty years ago! Never existed twenty years ago! Look at Frank Gehry; from when he started in the ‘80’s in L.A., which were these little boxes made out of stucco and chain link fences and a lot of found materials - to what he’s doing now!
He’s essentially building airplanes. The technology that they use, the software that they use, everything is from the aerospace industry. So the materials that he brought to our world, the technology he brought to our world is unbelievable, and what you mentioned about the sail earlier . . . I don’t care about that. I don’t care what the building looks like and I don’t care when people criticize or listen to what they say about it because, the fact is, he brought something to the stage.
And it’s the same thing when someone, somewhere, invented the arched column. It’s as revolutionary as that, and that’s architecture.
I had another conversation with someone about one of my other favorite buildings in Seattle, designed by my favorite current architect, Rem Koolhaas. He is from the Netherlands, and they are from Seattle and they were complaining. They said the building is a failure, and I said, “Why? Can you please explain?” They said, “Well, it’s too expensive and difficult to clean the windows.”
And I said to them, “You know what? Some of the best architecture out there has failed technically, but it’s pushing the limits forward, and that’s when you know you’re doing something. Otherwise we would continue to build teepees because they work!” You have to push the limits... have to... have to... have to...
AF: That’s an interesting criticism; I would have thought it would have been more of an aesthetic criticism.
DB: No. So I explained to them about another great architect, who practiced in Los Angeles, (Rudolph) Schindler. His houses considerably fail all the time. They have no weatherproofing. All of his windows leak. All the skylights leak. Everything leaks. Did he fail? Some people think so. I think he’s a genius. He invented corner windows . . . and so many other things! Same with Frank Lloyd Wright: all of his houses in L.A. are failing, the soil, everything.
Falling water is one of his most famous houses. It has these huge cantilevers. They’re sagging, but nobody had done anything like that before. And if he didn’t do it, guess what? I wouldn’t be able to do the house I did in Venice! It has 15-foot cantilevers! Somebody said, “That’s impossible, you can’t do that!” But he tried it and wasn’t afraid to fail; he pushed the limits.
AF: What about the architect, Louis Kahn? What do you think of him?
DB: Not one of my top choices. I do respect him for his technicality. I think his Yale Library is amazing; the light quality in there is impressive. But for the most part, I don’t really follow his work too closely.
AF: Do you have certain materials that are your favorites to work with?
DB: Iconic for me? I’ve designed this one house all in concrete, and I haven’t built it yet, so I would say my favorite one, right now, is concrete. I really want to build this house entirely out of concrete, and as I mentioned before about the Jell-O house, this is the quintessential way of doing something like that. But I don’t have a material that I absolutely must use. If I look back at the themes, I love terrazzo floors. I use that all over the place. People ask “Why? It was done in the 60’s.” I think it’s a wonderful material. It’s a seamless material, you can carry it inside, outside; you can do whatever you please with it. I think in materials; a lot of it for me is very classical. I like tried and true materials, and pushing the limits with what I can do with those materials.
AF: So if you were given all the resources that could possibly be available to you, what would you build?
DB: A museum. When I finished grad school I designed a theoretical museum for Japan. It was suppose to be an ever-expanding museum; I loved that project. At the end of the year you present your project to other architects and my mentor, who taught the studio, invited all of his friends to the jury. To me it was one of the best feelings I ever had, and this is how I knew I had finished school. During my presentation somebody said to me, “You have turned the world of museums upside-down, like the Guggenheim has done. The only difference is I would love to see a piece of art in your museum.” And for me it meant that was when I had succeeded. And now I was done with school.
AF: What is your opinion on the whole “green” movement in architecture?
DB: There’s not even a thought about it.
AF: You mean it’s the obvious thing to do?
DB: You don’t even think about it. It’s my duty to do that. If you don’t do that, you have failed. It shouldn’t be a “plus” - it should be a standard.
AF: If you had a structure you were building, in the desert for example, that had great exposure to solar energy, would you naturally then employ solar paneling?
DB: Of course. I would naturally use different materials, locally found materials. I would make sure that the building was self-sustained.
Even in the beach houses I did in Venice, there’s no air-conditioning. And there’s no need for air conditioning if the building is designed correctly. They have a ton of glass and they don’t have heat gain. If it’s designed correctly, you’re fine. And that’s why I love modern architecture, because modern architecture pushes the limits for these things.
For example, I used to live in Italy, and people would ask me, “Do you like Italian architecture?” I absolutely love it! They would say, “Well, I want to build a classical Venetian palace.” And I would say, “Absolutely not!” And then the response would naturally be: “But why? You said you love it!” I do! I love it when it’s authentic. And it goes back to the technical reasons.
So if you go look at a Florentine palazzo, it’s designed to cool itself. So in the middle of the courtyard there is a fountain and before that there is a loggia, which is an arched breezeway. And the resulting effect from this arrangement is that you have one big air-conditioner. That’s how the whole building functions, and you’re cool in there. Meanwhile they built these terrible homes after that, that need air-conditioning. But if they are built contextually correct, you’re fine.
AF: Is the reverse true? About heating, when you’re in very cold areas?
DB: There are other ways of doing that too, to collect heat. Depends on the type of material, you can have a thermal mass that will collect it and then dissipate it. So it will collect it for eight hours and then let it out for 8 hours and back and forth. So it’ll be well insulated during the winter.
AF: Do you see any negative impact with the obsession of going green?
DB: Yes I do. When government steps in, for example there is what’s called “LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Certified Buildings,” these certifications that you have to have on products and buildings. And what it means is that these big corporate companies are able to get something passed through government agencies, pay a lot of money to get it passed, and then people get obsessed with getting green-certified LEED; gold, platinum, bronze and so on. And they are buying these materials just because they’ve been certified, but the material might actually come from Arkansas, when you could find a locally made L.A. material that would be more green, but it’s from a small company. It’s a start-up and it doesn’t have the money to get signed.
I have a hard time with LEED Certification . . . a very hard time with this. I think it’s great that government would give a good incentive for it, but when they give certifications it becomes problematic.
I’ll give you another great example: the bureaucracy that I have to go through in order to get a building permit. Now there’s what’s called a Green Building Code. So usually, what I would have to supply to the city is one set of drawings, which is . . . I don’t even want to think about how many trees it takes to complete that one set! Luckily, now it’s changing slowly to digital. But the city requires another set for Green Building Code and they just end up throwing it away. They look at about five sheets out of about 200, and I have to print out the whole thing. Twice!
So the Green Building Code is actually wasting a ton of paper.
AF: You would think that would be an obvious thing they would realize.
DB: The first thing that the Green Building Code should say is, “Do not distribute in paper; you must distribute a PDF format. You must distribute digitally.” It’s counter-intuitive, and that’s a problem.
AF: So, what advice would you give a young architect today?
DB: Heart! Follow your heart all the way! And if you don’t have it, get out!
AF: That’s wonderful advice!
DB: That’s it! I’ve seen so many students of mine who falter, and you have to have the heart. You have to have the passion for it. And I think that’s with anything. In this field, it’s so difficult, and if you don’t have the heart, you won’t make it. And the other thing is to have self-respect and dignity for your self, because what people teach in school is not what reality is. They teach you to de-value yourself in a lot of different ways.You have to understand that just because you value yourself doesn’t mean you’ve “sold out,” for example. So in architecture school they do competitions, and I refuse to do competitions. It’s the same thing as the doctor analogy from earlier. You go to him. If you want a prognosis, you have to hire him.
AF: But if a city is going to build a new museum, for example, won’t they seek out more than one architect to submit proposals for the design?
DB: Yes. Yes, and that’s fine. That’s a paid competition. There are a lot of architects who start out just out of school and do unpaid submissions, and, I think it’s de-valuing our field.
AF: Do you think Los Angeles is a great place to be working today as an architect?
DB: The best place to be working as an architect!
AF: Really? Why do you feel that way?
DB: Even though I wasn’t able to say my favorite buildings, it is still the best place. Maybe that’s why. Maybe there isn’t one for me. So there’s a chance to make the next one for me.
L.A. is the land of opportunity for young people. You’re not judged for your background. You’re judged for who you are, what you can bring to the table, and I don’t think many places in the world are like that.
AF: Usually they say that about New Yorker’s, they think everyone out here is so Hollywood-ized; it’s all a façade. I agree with you.
DB: I think it’s a, “Come and WOW me!” attitude. “Let’s hire him, let’s see what he can do; let’s give him a shot!”
Where I think, in a place like New York, it’s more like, “He’s not forty yet. What’s his track record? Who does he know? Let’s hire somebody who’s been working a long time.”
My favorite clients have been fresh, new blood and they trusted me. They’re like, “Oh My God! This guy has passion! He’s going to do the best job!”
And that’s amazing. And L.A. is on its “first-second skin.” So, most cities have been around much longer and they’ve been peeling it back like an onion. “Peel it back; let’s redo this...” And they’ve become finer just because of that. In L.A. it’s happening for the first time. It’s the first time we are looking overall, by and large at urban planning. What are we going to do?
AF: What do you think, are the biggest challenges facing Los Angeles?
DB: Traffic, cars, the biggest challenge...
DB: Transportation. And we are going about it in the wrong way. They should be investing a lot more into trains, lightweight trains. It’s met a lot of resistance, and I feel like there’s not even a mayor or a governor-level, somebody that needs to really step up and say, “You know what guys? Enough is enough!” I see Beverly Hills as an obstacle, and it’s doing this every time someone needs to vote for a subway and their reaction is, “Not in my city”!
AF: Like Beverly Hills High School with their objections? And they have an oil derrick on their school grounds!
DB: So which one is worse, the oil well or the traffic?
It comes down to actually being racist. You know, like, “Who will ride the subway”? Just like any other city, everybody will ride the subway. And they don’t want everybody to ride the subway. And it’s a problem. It’s a nuisance.
AF: Do you have any issue with historical buildings being razed?
DB: For sure!
AF: L.A. has, like, the 1950’s car wash . . .
DB: It’s really sad, because L.A. doesn’t have enough preservation. For example, if we go back to Beverly Hills; they haven’t had any for long time and I think they’ve are just started one now, a historical preservation, and yet George Gershwin’s house was razed!
AF: I actually photographed the Harold Lloyd house; I shot it in the 1970’s. I don’t know how much it has changed since then. I was given complete access to it. I did it all in black & white.
DB: Going back to the George Gershwin house, it was just razed (in 2005) without a thought. There was no preservation being considered, and then, OOPS!
It was a famous architect, famous resident; there was a lot of history there.
AF: What’s your opinion about tagging and graffiti?
DB: Hmm . . . That’s funny, because a lot of my friends are involved in the street art scene. I think some of it is incredibly good, and some of it is just trash and boring. I think there needs to be a place for it, and I think people need to recognize it. I don’t like it when it’s everywhere. It’s kind of rambunctious. It becomes dirty.
AF: And it’s a gang thing; it started out as a gang thing.
DB: There are some really beautiful works out there, really beautiful. And the beauty of it doesn’t even have to be aesthetic. The ones I really like are the those that are thoughtful, you know. They take something and turn it around, they’ll paint around the fire hydrant; turn it into something else. I love that!
AF: What about, like, Echo Park, and Silverlake, with the murals on the buildings? Do you like murals on buildings?
DB: Not really. A lot of times its kind of mediocre art. And I think that’s probably where architecture failed because there shouldn’t have been a concrete wall for the mural to go on. If the design were done a little bit better, that would not have been necessary. I think a mural is better when it’s kind of like a Band-Aid® to fix something that didn’t go well. If the design were better, you wouldn’t want to cover it. Maybe that’s why I don’t like murals. I’d rather it had a built-in design.
AF: So, you see them differently than tagging?
DB: Yes, definitely! Maybe worse. In a weird way, I’ve seen only a few good murals. I don’t think they’re integrated. I wouldn’t say tagging. Tagging - I don’t like it at all, but street art integrates into a scene. Good street art integrates into a scene. It’s not just an icon of a spaceship. Good street art does that. A mural is typically important because it reflects upon the community. It would be like Caesar Chavez or something, so I understand why the community wants it. But I think there is a better way of giving the community something like that. They needed something better than that. The only good murals are the Sistine Chapel on the top. That’s a mural.
AF: We talked briefly about it; do you enjoy designing products?
DB: I love it!
AF: Is that all by custom order? They see one of your custom designed products and order one? Is that how it’s done?
DB: They all came organically. If somebody would want one, they are all custom made.
I’ve been trying to grow it and I’m still looking for partners to make the furniture parts, sort of like a “mini-factory”. That’s what I’m currently trying to do.
It’s been very difficult to find partners because my products have a lot of materials in them and they are not that simple to fabricate. So they require different parts to go to different trades; you can’t just get a wood worker and get it done. I need a guy that does wood, steel, stone, and fabrics. It’s a lot of trades all in one thing.
But all these products came from other projects, and in a sense that is very ‘50’s, very Frank Lloyd Wright, where a product is born from a house, or a product is born from a showroom.
AF: Didn’t the Eames’, the architects, also get involved in that?
DB: Yes, that’s the same notion. The chairs became part of that house; it’s the same thing for me. As I’m working on a house, or a bar, or a restaurant, or a showroom, usually a product is born. Like for Yojisan, I designed a business card holder. It’s a little tiny object, but it’s a new object that I never designed before, but was necessary.
It’s a lot of fun, and I love product design. I studied it in grad school, and hopefully, one day, I’ll be able to have a full product line.
AF: Do you prefer to go from the beginning to the very, very end, where you’ve conceived the structure, designed it, and then you’re involved in the choices of the interior paint, everything about the project; you go all the way through?
DB: That is the only way I design. When somebody hires me, I go in, from the day they meet me up until the day they have their keys, and I see through the entire construction.
So it depends; some of them have their own furniture, and they’ll pick it out themselves. I like to advise in furniture: I’m not a decorator that goes around choosing items, but I can and I’ve done that for some clients. I’m a bit of a control freak. A friend once asked me, “Do your clients know this? That you are like a “closed system?” I’m like an Apple® product; it’s all Dan Brunn in the end. My clients need to be comfortable letting go so that I have the control.
AF: But then you have the confidence and experience to back it up.
That’s one of the reasons I became a still photographer instead of becoming a filmmaker; the autonomy I have as a still photographer. I’m in control of the photograph, I compose it, I pick the moment, I print the image, and it’s very important to me. I completely understand your desire to be in control.
DB: That’s very nice. In architecture it’s very difficult to maintain that control, very difficult.
AF: I’m curious about something . . . Did you ever, at any point want to get into the film business as a set designer? It’s an extremely important position, every film relies significantly on their production designer, the way the sets look, their scale, creating a world for the script to come alive in.
DB: Yes, I would love to because I like the history that’s involved in it. It’s awesome.
AF: It’s a whole other set of rules.
DB: It’s funny to me because I think it’s an easy set of rules. And it would be a lot of fun too; because you don’t have a lot of the restrictions I deal with, either. I can just build.
AF: And you can just fly it; you can pull a whole wall out, move the camera where the wall used to be, and put it back when you do the reverse. It’s interesting how that can be done, it’s also very interesting to see a great set designer interpret a screenplay and really give the screenplay its depth.
DB: Exactly! It’s life; it’s true . . .
AF: Dan, I want to thank you so much for this interview. It was invigorating to talk to you today and inspiring as well. Best wishes for a continued success.
DB: I had a great time too! Thank you.