The Client Whisperer

Architect Michael Maltzan’s trophy house for Michael Ovitz has made him the go-to guy for art collectors in need of major square footage. Kevin West takes a tour.

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Michael Maltzan’s Ovitz residence comprises three interconnected cubes totaling 28,000 square feet.

The Client Whisperer

Architect Michael Maltzan’s trophy house for Michael Ovitz has made him the go-to guy for art collectors in need of major square footage. Kevin West takes a tour.

When architect Michael Maltzan talks about the 28,000-square-foot house he designed for former talent agent ­Michael Ovitz, he draws an instructive distinction between two related archi­tectural forms: “the house” and “the villa.” The former is where peo­ple live, a place of domestic intimacy and private sanctuary. The ­latter ­simultaneously satisfies the owner’s personal needs—bedroom, bathroom, kitchen—while also accommodating larger, public groups. The villa communicates wealth, prestige, and power. It’s a boast; at its best, a memorable one. The ideal today is still defined by Palladio’s 16th-century Italian country houses, structures that both Maltzan and Ovitz know literally inside and out.

Of the two architectural forms, there is no question that the Ovitz residence in Beverly Hills is a villa. It is Ovitz’s private sanctuary as well as his new public platform, a quasi-museum for his significant art collection. “I average 10 or 12 tours a week,” he tells me one evening at his dinner table, which is flanked on one side by dark-hued canvases by Mark Rothko, Ad Reinhardt, and Franz Kline and, on the other, by a mural-size black assemblage by Louise Nevelson. “It’s open to anybody. There are staff here who bring visitors through.”

Maltzan is sitting across from his client at the large round table, one of two in the dining room, which is less a discrete room than the wide end of a passageway that broadens as it runs the length of the house from the main gallery to the family wing. Along the way hang three Picassos, a Dubuffet, and a stunning trio of works by Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and Willem de Kooning. The house is chockablock with art, and the effect is nearly overwhelming, like Christmas morning with all the presents open.

Although this is the first joint interview Ovitz and Maltzan have given, client and architect already have a chummy routine. “I told him right up front that he probably shouldn’t take the job,” says Ovitz.

“That was completely true,” Maltzan chimes in. “He said something to the effect of ‘This will either be the biggest thing for your career or it will completely destroy you.’ I kind of liked that. If he thought in those extremes, then he was willing to go to incredible lengths to make this thing amazing.”

At 51, Maltzan is entering the midpoint of his career in a field notorious for deferring important commissions, even for its most talented practitioners. (Frank Gehry, for instance, was 62 when he won the competition for the Guggenheim Bilbao.) More than a decade ago, he was considered something of a wunderkind when curator Terence Riley included him in the Museum of Modern Art’s influential 1999 exhibition “The Un-Private House.” “Michael has done extraordinarily well since,” says Riley. “He’s done public projects and private houses, he’s taught, and he’s had significant publications. Is he a household name? No. But he hasn’t had a misstep.”

New Yorkers may remember Maltzan as the architect responsible for the Museum of Modern Art’s temporary MoMA QNS outpost. MoMA director Glenn Lowry gave him the job after seeing “The Un-Private House.” “I liked the way he thought,” says Lowry. “He could talk in broad, theoretical terms and very quickly translate that conversation into practical applications. He found really intelligent ways to build engaging architecture we could afford.”

Born and raised on Long Island, Maltzan moved to Los Angeles in 1988 and apprenticed in Gehry’s studio, eventually serving as project designer on the Walt Disney Concert Hall before opening his own firm in 1995. Aaron Betsky, director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, recalls Maltzan’s early efforts as “Gehry lite,” but his ideas have grown more independent in the intervening years.

Among his principal influences, Maltzan name-checks Alvar Aalto and Le Corbusier, but he also makes surprising reference to Francesco Borromini, whose Baroque Roman church, San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, arrays geometric forms—a square base, an oval dome—to create an interior full of light and atmosphere. Such negative space is “where experience is created,” says Maltzan, and it has become a touchstone of his thinking about how visitors interact with buildings.

A few days before the Ovitz dinner, I met Maltzan at his office in a low-slung building in the Eastside neighborhood of Silver Lake, far from the beach breezes that have attracted many L.A. architects. (Gehry, Thom Mayne, and Eric Owen Moss were once known as the Santa Monica School.) Our plan was to see another aspect of Maltzan’s practice—his public projects downtown.

The tour began with a large aerial photograph in his lobby that showed Inner-City Arts, an arts-education campus that stood out from its blighted surroundings with a coat of bright white paint. Maltzan said that when construction began in the mid-Nineties, the joke about the project—courtesy of Joni Mitchell—was that they were tearing down a parking lot to put up a paradise. Today the compound of sculptural buildings set in a palm-shaded garden is used by 10,000 students of the Los Angeles Unified School District annually, and is included in the current MoMA exhibition “Small Scale, Big Change: New Architectures of Social Engagement.”

Next we climbed into Maltzan’s immaculate black BMW and headed downtown to where Hope Street ends in a cul-de-sac beneath an overpass of Interstate 10. Not 35 feet from the roaring roadway sits the New Carver Apartments, another optimistically white building set among grit. The barrel-shaped tower is Maltzan’s second project for the Skid Row Housing Trust—a third is in development—and his brief was to provide its formerly homeless residents with privacy while also creating a sense of community. To do so, he layered communal spaces throughout the six stories of 95 single-occupancy apartments: an observation deck with spectacular views of downtown, a terrace garden, and a ground-floor kitchen–dining area that opens onto a small lawn for “backyard” barbecues. “Architecture is not going to solve homelessness,” says Maltzan, “but it is going to give the residents a new way to negotiate this public-private question.”

Despite the freeway’s proximity, passing cars created only a dull background hum—almost like the crashing of waves—thanks to the building’s sound-deflecting shape and acoustic glass. From a window in a stairwell we gazed out at drivers on the freeway, while they gazed back at what could be an upscale designer-condo tower.

“Almost by definition, public housing is mean and minimal, because it is difficult to create anything of enduring quality and beauty without money,” Betsky would later tell me. “It’s fantastic for a change to have a piece of social housing that is iconic. Michael deserves great kudos for that.”

One can’t help but wonder if Maltzan suffers any disorientation from working one moment on Skid Row and the next on houses for a privileged elite. During the Ovitz dinner, I ask if there is any contradiction between the two. Instead of being defensive, Maltzan embraces the question enthusiastically. “Architecture is an elastic art,” he says, as though he relishes stretching it to accommodate every challenge and budget—on the one hand offering dignified shelter to the dispossessed, while on the other giving shape to a rich man’s outsize and contradictory ambitions.

Ovitz first met Maltzan around the time of “The Un-Private House,” whose survey of recent homes included Rem Koolhaas’s Maison à Bordeaux as well as Maltzan’s effort for Beverly Hills art collectors Alan Hergott and Curt Shepard. At the time, the former agent was living in a Thirties neo-Georgian he had bought early in his career and expanded higgledy-piggledy. “Every time I made $10,000 as an agent, I added another room,” Ovitz recalls, describing the outcome with a story about architect Robert A.M. Stern. “He came for dinner one night. He walks into the foyer, looks around, and says, shaking his head, ‘Michael, this house is really a piece of shit.’” When, in 1999, Ovitz finally decided to build his dream home, he turned to Riley for advice. The curator gave Ovitz three names to consider. Ovitz examined their work and interviewed all three, but says he made his final decision when he went to a dinner at the Hergott-Shepard residence. “There was nothing in the house that I didn’t like,” he says. “It was an A-plus-plus.”

Hergott, an entertainment attorney who represents Brad Pitt, and Shepard, director of the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center’s youth-services program, had hired Maltzan on the strength of the late art ­dealer Stuart Regen’s recommendation. “It was a big break,” says Maltzan.

Hergott and Shepard asked for rooms that could house an evolving collection of contemporary works, almost in the manner of a kunsthalle. “We knew we wanted to be flexible, and we didn’t want any spaces to be built for a particular piece,” says Shepard. “But then there is this challenge of, you know, how to capture the view.”

“And be livable,” interjects Hergott. “Be a real home.”

The Hergott-Shepard house demonstrated that Maltzan could ably negotiate the demands of a large art collection, which he acknowledges imposes “a very insistent third dynamic” into the already potentially taxing client-architect relationship. “Michael is in the tradition of architects who have never treated domestic architecture as a merely domestic concern,” says Riley. “It’s usually the first thing an architect gets to do, with the most ambitious clients he will ever have. Houses are the R&D of architecture.”

For the residence of artists Lari Pittman and Roy Dowell, he had to grapple not just with paintings and sculpture but also with the legacy of L.A.’s great modernist master. Thirteen years ago, Pittman and Dowell bought a classic Richard Neutra shoebox on several acres in suburban La Crescenta, at the foot of the Angeles National Forest. Over time they came to find the 1,380-square-foot two-bedroom overly “choreographed and strict,” says Pittman. With land to spare, they imagined a new home adjacent to their old one, which had been built for a cultured, well-to-do couple not unlike themselves. “One of the things that I said to Michael early on is, ‘Can you build a house for the educated, prosperous middle class?’” recalls Pittman one evening as he and Dowell watch the sun set over La Crescenta. “Anybody else might have laughed, but Michael took that really seriously.”

What Maltzan came up with was a highly idealized dwelling—albeit one that, with its flat roof and unusual seven-sided form, might have been beamed in from another galaxy. Compact and seemingly impenetrable from the outside, the Pittman-Dowell residence has only one interior door (to the guest bathroom), and radiates out from a glass-walled interior courtyard. The singular residence has the potential to become its own modernist icon—a 21st-century rejoinder to Philip Johnson’s Glass House.

In scale, however, the Pittman-Dowell place would barely rate as a guesthouse on the Ovitz property, for which Maltzan delivered some 25 concepts before Ovitz was satisfied. Eventually he lit upon the idea of three interconnected boxes, which were later wrapped in a perforated-steel skin, arrayed along the lot’s descending ridgeline. After that breakthrough, the idea of “movement”—how to control a visitor’s approach to and progress through the house—was a top priority.

“I told Michael that I wanted multiple ‘wow’ moments,” says Ovitz. “I wanted it to be—and this is going to sound stupid—nontheatrically theatrical.” Given the contradictions built into the project from the outset, such oxymoronic statements are not entirely surprising—at another point Ovitz describes the house’s carefully balanced asymmetry as “Palladian non-Palladian.”

Ovitz speaks at great length about how the house represents the fulfillment of a years-long process with the architect, and yet he dodges the question of what the house might mean for Maltzan. Instead, he offers his assessment of Maltzan’s career to date. Thus far, says Ovitz, he has upped his game with every job, and that a major reputation is now “his to lose.”

Maltzan’s next few years will certainly be busy. He’s designing a futuristic apartment for actor Vincent Gallo in downtown L.A. and an enormous house in Texas for art collectors David and Suzanne Booth—thus cementing his reputation as the go-to architect for rarefied art collectors in need of major square footage.

In order to reach the top rank of his profession, however, Maltzan will need to expand the scope and depth of his practice, suggests Betsky. And, indeed, during my various visits to his studio, Maltzan shows off maquettes for a range of public parks and mixed-use urban-renewal projects for a postindustrial site in New Orleans and an L.A. rail yard.

“Expectations can’t shrink,” says Maltzan as he sips a glass of lager over lunch at a bustling downtown café following our tour of the New Car­ver Apartments. “The stakes get higher with each successive project.”

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