It has been more than six months since I first met architect Michael Lehrer at his Silver Lake office on March 5, 2010. My scribbled notations on our interview barely readable, I found it difficult to be taking notes while enraptured with the conversation. Michael Lehrer is one of those larger-than-life individuals that leave you with the sense of being in the presence of greatness. Under normal circumstances, I can review my notes and have something intelligent to put down in words in an hour or two. In all my years of interviewing and writing this has only happened once before, while struggling to summarize the remarkable life of Julius Shulman. Now that I think about it, Shulman and Lehrer share a lot in common: Both came from east coast/ European Jewish immigrant roots; both grew up with a deep appreciation for nature, and both share a deep love for architecture and the dignity of the human spirit. Shulman welcomed me as an equal; Lehrer treated me the same.
The Lehrer Architects office (voted one of the world’s ‘coolest offices by Inc. Magazine); a once-dingy warehouse on Hyperion Avenue is a playful, all-white space with a single red stripe running the length of the floor. The harmony of sounds of children playing (from the next-door day care center), birds chirping (thanks to the open, floor-to-ceiling doors) and the occasional car whisking by on Hyperion are all mixed in with the creative atmosphere. Michael greets me with the kind of warmth that is immediately telling of the type of person he is, introducing me to his staff of about a dozen co-workers/collaborators and giving me a tour. The office is a virtual public space, where the firm often hosts lectures, fundraisers and evening get-togethers for life-drawing sessions. In a prominent display case is an essay, written by Lehrer, entitled, What’s Love Got to Do with It? from which I quote:
“For me, the dialogue between architecture and landscape began long before I had any idea that two such discrete disciplines even existed. Growing up next to Griffith Park, I carved forts out of the bushes on the canyon hillsides where I lived. The smell of the chaparral oil that stained my hands followed me as I ran down the hill to my mother’s daily call for “Dinnertime!” As a child, I was surrounded by great landscapes and spectacular architecture, as I came to appreciate years later. Neutra’s Lovell House was just over the ridge behind our house. Wright’s Ennis House lined a ridge one canyon over, and Schindler’s Schrage House, with a garden by Neutra, was atop a hill on the other side of our canyon. A great Soriano house was just up the street at the edge of Griffith Park, and Barnsdall Park was a mile away. Growing up, architecture, landscape, native flora, and joy were givens to my day-to-day existence. The inseparable connection of architecture to landscape was not something I thought about as a kid. It just was”.
“I decided to be an architect when I was eight. I was in love with a girl whose father (S. Kenneth Johnson, the J in DMJM) was an architect. She brought plans of a high school he designed to share with our third-grade class. And that was it. By the age of ten, I was entranced by Frank Lloyd Wright’s drawings and seduced by his line: how the line of the building would become the line of foliage, and then extend to become the line of the topography, and continue as the picture frame. This sublime integration was the font of my sensibility about architecture and landscape. Both were orchestrated, inseparably, by the construction lines that organized Wright’s plans and elevations. Beginning with drawing, Wright melded the two, architecture and landscape, into the apotheosis of space. While I was an undergraduate at Berkeley, this sensibility incubated organically within me. Marc Treib and Ron Herman’s course on the Japanese landscape was informative. At Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, this integration would become a way of life”.
After graduation, Lehrer worked at Frank O. Gehry and Associates and other design firms before opening his own practice in Silver Lake in 1985. His designs demonstrate a reverence for light and space, grounded in the idea that beauty is the expression of human dignity; the spiritual essence of architecture. The firm has won over 60 national, state, and local design awards since 1996, including numerous honor awards from The American Institute of Architects, the Chicago Athenaeum, and the International Interior Design Association. The Water + Life Museum in Hemet, an internationally honored environmental showcase, was honored as the first LEED Platinum museum in the world. In 1999, he was elected President of the American Institute of Architects, Los Angeles, and has served as Vice Chairman of School Construction Bond Oversight Committee, responsible for upgrading 700 existing schools and the construction of new schools for the Los Angeles Unified School District. In 2004 he was elevated to the College of Fellows of the American Institute of Architects.
Today Michael is President of Homeless Healthcare Los Angeles, on the Harvard Alumni Association representing the Graduate School of Design and on the Harvard Design Magazine Professional Advisory Board. He is married to Mia Lehrer, Mia Lehrer + Associates Landscape Architecture. They have three children: Benjamin, Rebecca, and Raphael.