Invisible Hand


A week before the opening of the Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects new Culver City space in January, the architect Peter Zellner gives me a tour of the site, a 7,500-square-foot former T-shirt silkscreening shop and pool hall. Zellner points out original building features, like the bowstring-truss roof ("they’re everywhere in Los Angeles") and the massive roll-up door ("designed so you can back a truck in"). But it is hard to pay attention to these details with the art sprouting up around us. The Los Angeles artist Rodney McMillian is transplanting to the main gallery dozens of succulents that he had grown in terra-cotta pots in his yard, while fellow Angeleno Ruben Ochoa is walking around a back room inspecting a giant spidery sculpture that he is building out of rebar and found wood pallets and anchoring to the concrete floor.

"Most architects think their audience is other architects," says Zellner, whose oatmeal-colored cardigan and oversized glasses give him a bookish look. "But I think the ultimate audience for galleries is artists." That attitude has won the 40-year-old a devoted range of gallery clients, especially out west. Although he still accepts Manhattan commissions, he has become deeply rooted in L.A., both witnessing and helping to shape the development of the city’s art scene over the past five years. He has built up his Culver City-based practice, which recently moved to an office off Washington Boulevard near Vielmetter’s new location, to the point that he now has two full-time employees. And along the way, he has earned a reputation for creating gallery spaces neutral and flexible enough to withstand — or perhaps even invite — high-impact installation and performance art.

"I’m willing to let artists completely destroy my work," Zellner says, adding that this sentiment might appall fellow architects, "but I know this is what it’s all about." In 2005 he completed the retrofit of Harris Lieberman, in New York, one of his most polished projects, only to have Aaron Young drive cast-bronze street curbs through the walls. In 2007 he watched Paul McCarthy turn Michelle Maccarones West Village gallery "literally and legally" into a food factory producing perverse chocolate Santas (you remember, the ones holding butt plugs). And now Ochoa is boring holes at Vielmetter.

"Ruben has a long history of attacking my work. Not only did he drill into the floors at Susanne’s, but he also did the earth wall for LAXart that required extra structural support," Zellner says, referring to the nonprofit gallery founded by his wife, Lauri Firstenberg, which since its opening, in 2006, has become a laboratory for experiments by cutting-edge local and international talents. The couple is a visible — and likeable — presence on the L.A. art scene. While Firstenberg is busy fund-raising for laxart, Zellner teaches at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, curates shows, and participates in panels on such issues as the role of architecture in the public sphere.

Rivaled only perhaps by the local husband-and-wife team Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee, who have designed spaces for Honor Fraser and Roberts & Tilton, Zellner is the architect of choice for young L.A. galleries. And when New York power dealer Matthew Marks decided to open his first space in the city, he tapped Zellner for the job, scheduled for completion by year-end. "I think he’s on his way to becoming a major L.A. architect," says Vielmetter. "He’s part of a generation of architects, and maybe artists too, whose approach is not male, paternal, ego driven. It’s architecture that’s impressive but not intimidating."

Zellner was born in New York in 1969 to a Romanian exhibitions designer who worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a Nicaraguan opera singer who sang at such venues as the Palacio de Bellas Artes, in Mexico City. His parents relocated to Southern California when Zellner was young, and he was raised mainly in La Jolla. He studied architecture as an undergraduate at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, in Australia, and received his master’s from Harvard, where he met Firstenberg. The two began their careers in New York but settled in Los Angeles in 2003, in part to be closer to family.

The move also allowed Zellner to trade Manhattan’s big-firm mentality for low-rent experimental models. "Los Angeles is the perfect place to launch a career, because space is cheap and abundant," he says. "And there’s an amazing history here of garage-band firms like Eric Moss and Thom Mayne."

Zellner landed his first project in Culver City in 2004, when the New York dealer Christian Haye decided to relocate the Los Angeles outpost of his gallery, the Project, from downtown. He and Zellner started driving around and found a cheap space in Culver City. It was far from an obvious choice at the time. Apart from Blum & Poe and maybe one other gallery, "there was really nothing there — auto-body shops, upholstery factories, and one glatt-kosher butcher," says the architect, adding that the area nevertheless had huge potential, both because of its central location near the freeway and because "it had all been zoned for commercial/manufacturing, so there were large plots upon which you could build." Moreover, the structures already standing were large, without columns, and "with big structural bays where you could drive things in."

Zellner’s next projects were laxart and the adjoining Walter Maciel Gallery. What was it like working for his wife? "I discovered she is much more frugal in her business life than in her personal life," he says, laughing. "And she’s a tough client. It’s hard to wake up next to someone who asks you, ‘Why were framing costs so high?' "

More important, being married to a curator has taught him something about how artists work. Firstenberg is known for letting artists wreak havoc at LAXart. Before openings, the space can look like a hard-hat construction zone. Her permissiveness has clearly shaped Zellner’s understanding of what a gallery should be. "When you’re doing galleries, you’re hiring an architect for his or her ability to disappear," he says. "I’ve decided to allow my personality to recede."

Galleries are best served by restraint, he continues, citing as an example the Los Angeles-based architect Michael Maltzan, who designed MOMA QNS and a massive house for the collector and Hollywood power broker Michael Ovitz: "Michael [Maltzan] has an exuberant practice, but he understands that galleries are not a venue for the architect’s self-expression." Zellner singles out Maltzan’s work on Shaun Regens L.A. gallery, which he characterizes as "beautifully realized," pointing out that "if you look very carefully, there’s a slight curve in Shaun’s office that is very subtle and very elegant."

Zellner aimed for just that kind of subtlety and precision with Vielmetter’s gallery, choosing to skip fireworks in favor of an authentic industrial feel. The two decided, for instance, to let the pits and chips in the concrete floors remain, filling only those "that might pose a human-safety hazard where a heel could get caught. Anything smaller than a dime was left," he says. "We then sanded and did a very light matte-finish polyurethane coating, so what you see is the grain of the old concrete, which is very beautiful."

Zellner acknowledges that his projects to date have been mostly renovations and retrofits, not original construction. "My entire career is evidence that a young architect here is always negotiating with the city’s existing fabric," he says, noting that the Southern Californian modernism-in-the-wild ideal that drew everyone from Greene & Greene and Frank Lloyd Wright to Rudolf Schindler and Richard Neutra is long over. "Since around 1970, L.A. has not been a blank canvas politically or physically. That’s what makes working here interesting now, not the utopian vision."

His work for Matthew Marks thus represents a rare chance to build from scratch, on a Hollywood lot. So far, Zellner says, his conversations with Marks have focused on the city’s light, "how showing art in L.A. is potentially very different from showing art in New York." They have also talked about Corbusier and Luis Barragn: "Matthew is an amazing client, very erudite about architecture and very precise, with a deep understanding of how spaces should function."

In the meantime, Zellner is putting the finishing touches on a proposal for the new Maribor Art Gallery, in Slovenia. On this project, he is not afraid to show some flair, reconciling the "very Germanic and precise" influence of his dad with the "passionate and energetic" sensibility of his mother. "I talk to my mother all the time about composers in this respect," he says, "whether Mozart or Verdi or Wagner. The question is, Is it possible to be both controlled and expressive?

"It’s easy to be a Minimalist or an Abstract Expressionist," he adds, switching so smoothly from music to art that it doesn’t even seem like a shift. "But I think it’s very hard to be both."

"Invisible Hand" originally appeared in the May 2010 issue of Art+Auction. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Art+Auction's May 2010 Table of Contents.