Here is the third in our POV interview series. This time we check in with Leo Marmol and Ron Radziner of Marmol Radziner who discuss their prefab designs, the impact Los Angeles has had on their residential work and how nature and mid-century modern masters inspire them.
Can you tell us how you both got involved in designing pre-fab homes? We had incorporated prefabricated modular buildings into a few of our projects in the late 1990s, including four one-story modules for the Los Angeles Airport childcare center completed in 1999 and a two-story classroom module as part of The Accelerated School in South Los Angeles, which began construction in the early 2000s. So in 2003, when Dwell magazine asked our firm to participate in a prefab design competition, it seemed like a natural opportunity to continue what we had started.
The competition sparked our interest in the greater possibilities of designing high-end modern homes within the constraints of a factory. We were exploring ways to minimize the inefficiencies involved with site-built construction, including weather delays, sub-contractor delays, runaway costs and excessive material waste, and prefab seemed as if it might provide some solutions.
Since our prefab prototype the Desert House in 2005, we have developed our modular system and completed houses in Utah, Nevada, and throughout California. Our project in Moab, UT was on a particularly remote site and in that way was especially suited for modular prefab. Transportation of labor and materials alone would have made for extremely high on-site construction costs. The modules were installed less than 12 months from the very first site visit, meaning design and construction were able to be completed in less than a year. It was an extraordinary case study for how prefab could significantly improve efficiency and reduce costs for the right project.
It’s always interesting to see how an architect, who designs homes for a living, has set up their own home. As Los Angeles-based architects did you find the city influenced the way you designed your own spaces? Ron: In Los Angeles, there is a tradition of living that encourages the creation of private worlds, as opposed to cities like New York or Chicago, where it’s all about the public realm. Here, the idea of privacy, of sanctuary is integral to the idea of home, so that was an important factor for me in designing our house in Venice. With the density there, a certain amount of maneuvering has to happen in order to create that privacy.
The other defining feature of the city is, of course, its climate. The weather really makes possible an indoor-outdoor living experience, and in my home, the integration of indoor and outdoor living extends to the union of the landscape and the built form, of water and fire. There’s something very elemental about it.
Leo: The Desert House, in addition to being the prototype for Marmol Radziner Prefab, was also designed as a vacation home for my wife and me. It was a unique experience for us because it was an experiment, and we were the test subjects. But while there was a focus on learning lessons about prefab construction and installation, we were still ultimately looking to create a high-quality, modern home that responded sensitively to its site.
The Desert House serves as our retreat from Los Angeles, so the idea of making a home in Desert Hot Springs was very different from building in the city. We took care to open every interior space to the vistas of the San Jacinto Mountains. These are outstanding natural surroundings in which to live, and the house takes advantage of that. Despite its origins in a factory, the space is warm and inviting, and it connects us directly to nature while still sheltering us from the extremes of the climate.
What inspires you in your work? Ron: Something I’m always interested in is how the built form sits against nature. I think that manmade elements can enhance nature. But even when the built form is absent, I find great beauty in natural forms. Joshua Tree, for instance, is one of my favorite places. It’s interesting because even the natural forms— the rock formations, the trees —are so extreme that they create a striking formal opposition to the landscape.
Above: Joshua Tree National Park. Photo via iGuide.
Leo: If I were to choose a constant inspiration, it would be the work of the mid-century modern masters. Richard Neutra, R.M. Schindler, and John Lautner, among others, were groundbreaking, daring and elegant in their architectural responses. Schindler’s own home on Kings Road feels inspired and contemporary even by today’s standards. They represent not a style but rather a lifestyle that casts off the inessential. Their work is a refreshing model in the chaos of our media mania.