“Cool” best describes this year’s AIA Firm of the Year, Pugh + Scarpa Architects. It speaks to the casual, unpretentious character of its work, which masks the refinement underlying what appears so easygoing. It also refers to the Pop Art, experimental dimension of its designs. One of the firm’s best-known projects, the Solar Umbrella, exemplifies these traits. Home to married partners Lawrence Scarpa, FAIA, and Angela Brooks, AIA, this small renovation in an unremarkable Venice, California, neighborhood brings a 650-square-foot stucco bungalow from the 1920s to life. The architects built a two-story addition topped by a lightweight canopy composed of solar panels. The new structure sits weightlessly on top of a delicate base of tilt-up concrete; inside, funky contemporary furnishings occupy the airy space. A true indoor/outdoor house in the California Modernist style, the Solar Umbrella epitomizes cool — in its livable design sensibility, high-performance envelope, and maximizing of the limited opportunities of the site. This tiny project was the darling of the design press when it was completed in 2005. It was also the first project in history to receive an AIA National Honor Award, an AIA’s COTE Top Ten Award, and an AIA Housing Award.
Back in 1984, when Gwynne Pugh (now FAIA) started the practice in his garage, he accepted almost any work that came his way. Since those humble beginnings, Pugh + Scarpa Architects has been supplying its particular brand of inspired but understated work to Southern California. Scarpa joined the firm in 1988, and in 1991 helped turn it into Pugh + Scarpa in a former creamery. The practice evolved from those early days to designing work spaces for a series of small companies in existing industrial contexts.
The firm flexed its creative muscle with these projects, developing a quintessentially L.A. approach to adaptive reuse, applying inventive facades to plain exteriors, and enlivening bland interiors with whimsical found objects and recycled materials. Examples include the AIA National Award Winner Reactor Films (1998) — where the architects renovated a 1930s masonry building in Santa Monica, using a shipping container for a conference room — and Bergamot Station (1999), a former water-heating factory in the city turned into a destination art gallery, lofts, shops, and creative offices, all wrapped with an innovative facade, a trademark of the firm. Bergamot Station is where the team’s own modest-size practice occupies a chaotic and casual studio (to get a taste, read “A Day at Pugh + Scarpa” at pugh-scarpa.com).
Brooks joined the firm in 1999, completing the partnership triad. Unlike some firms whose principals break off into silolike studios, Pugh + Scarpa’s partners usually work in tandem. Scarpa explains: “I design 99 percent of the projects. Gwynne has good cost and construction instincts with his engineering background. He is the sounding board for my sometimes impractical ideas. Angie is the master builder. She really knows how to get our projects built.”
Founding partner Pugh, born in Cardiff, Wales, is both a civil engineer and an architect. Very involved in the local California community, he serves on the Santa Monica Planning Commission, the California Redevelopment Association on Sustainability and Green Redevelopment, and as a peer-review consultant to the cities of San Diego, Long Beach, Carson, and Los Angeles.
Scarpa wanted to be an architect for as long as he can remember. Of humble immigrant Italian roots, he received his architecture degrees in Florida, then spent two years working in New York with Paul Rudolph, who shared a similar background. “Paul Rudolph grew up as a working class kid in Alabama. He made it by himself from sheer will, determination, and talent. I have a somewhat similar working-class background. [Rudolph] opened my eyes to a whole new and unfamiliar way of thinking about architecture; for the first time, I began to understand how to actually go about designing a building,” Scarpa explained.
Brooks received a bachelor’s degree in Design in Architecture from the University of Florida and an M.Arch. from SCI-Arc in L.A. She joined Pugh + Scarpa as a principal, bringing strong operational skills and design aptitude to the job. She serves on the advisory board of Solar Santa Monica and works as a peer reviewer for Global Green and the USGBC. She was recently elected to the board of the local AIA.
Each of the three principals brings unique skills to bear on a practice built on community engagement, sustainable design, and imaginative materials and forms. Brooks became interested in low-income housing shortly after graduation. “I worked on a huge single-family house. When I realized I could put the footprint of the house I was renting inside the ‘hers’ closet, I knew that was not what I wanted to spend my professional life doing — I wanted to help a lot more people.” That became a realization in 2002, when the firm completed the widely lauded Colorado Court, a low-income housing project in Santa Monica. Garnering nine design awards, the project was the first LEED Gold—certified residential project in the country, providing 44 single-occupancy residences and utilizing vivid blue photovoltaic panels on its street facades.
While the firm has a deep commitment to sustainability, its partners feel mixed about counting LEED points. “[LEED] is one of the few places where green-washing is significantly reduced and where the measures of accomplishment have value,” comments Pugh. “But the competition it fosters to hit a mark and be given bragging rights is both encouraging and at the same time specious. If this is what it takes to get clients and architects to [design sustainably], then so be it.” This balanced view of LEED results from the architects’ shared feeling that green design is “as essential and intrinsic as a structure is to holding a building up,” continues Pugh.
A more recent housing project called Step-Up on 5th, of 2009 — a 2010 AIA Honor Award winner (see page 95 and GreenSource, January 2010, page 62) — provides residences and services for the formerly homeless while undertaking numerous sustainable-design imperatives. Featuring an exterior skin of metal screens that presents a graceful face to the street and mitigates temperature shifts, this five-story building takes a humanistic approach to design: “We developed the layout of the units and courtyards in direct response to our concern that the tenants feel protected within the building,” explains Brooks.
While most of its work has been in the Los Angeles area, the firm has expanded beyond this geographic base. Design for the Laumeier Fine Arts Center in St. Louis has been completed; and in downtown Raleigh, the Contemporary Art Museum will begin construction soon.
It is not easy to pigeonhole Pugh + Scarpa; the firm’s buildings are always dynamic, always colorful, always green, and always fit seamlessly into their context. Even its most inventive designs are decisively rooted in function and performance. Pugh describes his firm’s work as “a judicious balance of all the elements of architecture and the environment, both physical and social.”
Since its founding, Pugh + Scarpa has won close to a hundred design awards and can now call itself the AIA Firm of the Year. But its partners don’t waste time counting plaques on the wall; indeed, they rarely look back — “I’m on to other ideas,” says Scarpa.