By Maristella Casciato and Johnny Tran
“If all roads lead to Rome, as many roads now depart from Los Angeles,” Frank Israel wrote in his 1992 essay “Cities Within.” For Israel, Los Angeles was linked with Rome, “the eternal city.” He believed that urban forms inspired creative genius and freedom. In Los Angeles, he found an atmosphere and an aesthetics of bright colors, friendly open spaces, and prejudice-free artists that would help him grow. His work, mixing commonplace and surprising delightful forms, shaped the Southern California architectural landscape. His talent influenced a generation of Los Angeles designers. He would have turned 75 this month.
Born in Brooklyn, Israel grew up studying on the East Coast, finding his way into architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied under Louis Kahn. But it was in Rome that the architect discovered what drove him. He was awarded the Rome Prize in architecture at the American Academy and spent two years in the city. It was a liberating experience. He felt the power of the monuments and the intimacy in the intricate layers of the urban fabric. Later, he perpetuated in his projects in Los Angeles the analogy of the “city within the city” he had discovered while zig-zagging through Italian cultural landscapes.
Los Angeles came calling in 1979 when Israel was offered a teaching position at UCLA by architect Charles Moore. He first found work as a set designer for films such as Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Night Games, but his architectural work soon gained notoriety. The culture of Hollywood and the mentorship of Frank Gehry pushed Israel to innovate in all he built, reinterpreting Los Angeles’s tradition of building beyond formulas.
Israel was diagnosed with AIDS in 1990 and became an active voice for the LGBT community. He spoke about LGBT acceptance in architecture and at conferences, and educated people about living with AIDS. After his diagnosis, his work brought a new sense of risk and revolution: playing with materiality, redefining spaces, and juxtaposing old and new.
Israel died of AIDS-related complications at age 50 on June 10, 1996. His legacy of innovation and spirit is evident around Los Angeles, where he designed around 100 projects. Many of his buildings have since been torn down, but we bring you some highlights of his Los Angeles work through archival materials, architectural models, and photos of what can still be seen from the street.
“Well, what pleases me about the direction of architecture, especially in Los Angeles…is the experimentation that’s going on…You drive around the city, and you see things that are pretty amazing.”Frank Israel on Charlie Rose, March 31, 1995
The Bright and Associates office in Venice was completed in 1991. Israel reshaped a nondescript group of existing buildings into the signature of the agency. Look for the supergraphic on the entrance façade. The architect separated the street view from the evolution of the interior spaces. Behind the wall, the interior spaces flow like a narrow, winding street that recalls the urban structure of a medieval Italian town.
Israel found notoriety in designing private residences. One example is tucked in the Hollywood Hills. The Goldberg-Bean House (1991) remodels an existing ranch house and adds a freestanding structure linking old with new. Observe the different materials used to show the variety of free-forms Israel created: plywood, sheet metal, and stucco.
Beverly Hills reveals a hidden gem: the “Art Pavilion” for the Frederick R. Weisman Art Foundation (1991). The freestanding building for a gallery space and studio complements yet stands out from its neighbors. Vertical corner windows, inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright and Rudolph Schindler, bring views of the surrounding area.
Israel designed several buildings for production companies in West Hollywood. The Propaganda Films headquarters (1986-88) was based on the structure of a warehouse. The drawing shows a space configuration with an interior street, marked by a curvilinear wall that reconnects diverse architectural elements, such as a pavilion and a cylindrical tower. The building has since been leveled and no longer exists.
The project for the Clark House (1980), in the Hollywood Hills, draws from the Italian Renaissance, when villas constructed the concept of a view that framed the surrounding neighborhood.
Built in Malibu, the Dan House (1995) plays with angled walls, asymmetry, and the assortment of spaces that Israel was known to experiment with in his later work. These two models, from the beginning and the end of Israel’s career, showcase Israel’s evolving architectural explorations influenced by the Angeleno spirit of freedom and creativity.
Held at the Getty Research Institute, Israel’s archive includes original drawings, prints, models, photographs, books, office records, and correspondence files. Adding to these is a four-hour audio interview with architectural historian Thomas Hines and the Stonewall Conference. These tapes document personal and professional accounts from Israel’s own words. The limited lifespan of many of his buildings, either torn down or heavily transformed, makes the archival documentation a unique witness to Israel’s work and legacy.