In traditional architecture, buildings have often been characterized by mass and static geometry, by allusions to frozen music. Such buildings might ideally be described through drawings of plan and elevation alone, their interiors having little if any connection to the outside world. Similarly a city might be represented literally as a black-and-white plan with strict differentiation between public and private zones. Architecture so conceived and realized is fixed in space, sealed.

Throughout history, great architecture has never been quite so emphatically hermetic. The Athenian Acropolis reveals itself incrementally, through a zigzag progression of oblique views as one ascends the site, whereas the exultant experience of Baroque cathedrals derives from the play of fluid, kinetic space.

With the emergence of Modernism, the practice of architecture expanded to include housing, offices space, and other everyday functions. Many architects—most notably Le Corbusier and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe—warned that rapidly growing cities risked a kind of sclerosis, as opaque and hierarchical buildings replicating the styles of bygone eras were shoehorned into an outdated urban fabric. They advocated an honest architecture of open, light filled interiors and a direct representation of form.

Today many practical aspects of those debates have been resolved; few, for instance, would argue against the provision of light and air to all urban dwellers. Yet modern architecture continues to evolve and mutate, its various schools of thought negotiating increased environmental consciousness; contemporary art practice; philosophical discourses, such as Deconstruction and Chaos Theory; the reevaluation of local and historical modes of building; and the challenge of new fabrication and graphic technologies. The work of Michael Maltzan Architecture, a ten-year-old, Los Angeles based practice, advances these themes of cultural evolution. Neither unilateral nor pretentious in proposition, Maltzan’s designs—from hillside houses in Los Angeles to MoMA QNS in Long Island City to a parkland pavilion in Jinhua, China—utilize available construction techniques in an intensely studied yet subtly executed integration of program and site. Informing Maltzan’s work is a critique of urbanization in an era of increasingly mobile, mutant cities, impacted by increasingly sophisticated media. How does one incorporate such realities into architecture? Maltzan’s response is to augment the topography and context in which we find ourselves, fusing the natural with the artificial, consistently giving priority to human perception of sensory experience and fluid space.


Michael Maltzan established his independent practice in Los Angeles in 1995. After graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design (1985) and Harvard’s Graduate School of Design (1988), he worked briefly in Boston for Schwartz/Silver Architects and then for Machado and Silvetti Associates—the latter firm’s principals, Rodolfo Machado and Jorge Silvetti, taught at Rhode Island and Harvard respectively.

Then in 1988, Maltzan moved to California, where he joined the office of Frank Gehry, arguably America’s most influential architect of the late 20th century. In Gehry’s office, Maltzan worked on the initial design stages of the acclaimed Walt Disney Concert Hall (1988–2004) for Los Angeles and was project designer for the tautly elegant Vontz Center for Molecular Studies (1993–1999) at the University of Cincinnati.

In analyzing Maltzan’s early independent work, it is possible to identify both East and West Coast characteristics synthesized in increasingly ambitious and original ways. He maintains a rational approach to the complexities of each situation while responding to the infamous sprawl of Los Angeles with an eye for collaged form and communal space. As in the work of such California architects as Gehry, Charles Moore, and Eric Owen Moss, Maltzan’s early projects reuse existing buildings as elements in new urban assemblages.

This strategy of accommodation to the realities of Los Angeles rather than imposing some theoretical abstraction shares certain affinities with Reyner Banham’s seminal text Los Angeles: the Architecture of Four Ecologies. According to the British architectural historian, “While… without conventional planning, Los Angeles might destroy itself, the fact remains that conventional planning wisdom certainly would destroy the city as we know it.” Finding inspiration in fast food outlets in the form of hats, toys, or hamburgers, as well as the legacy of local Modernism, Banham noted a tendency for Los Angeles to develop as enclaves or villages organized around shared open space.

Maltzan’s first project as a solo practitioner was Inner-City Arts in downtown Los Angeles, a project that continues to evolve through several phases. For phase one, completed in 1995, Maltzan renovated a large industrial shed, reorienting its interior with glazed garage doors that open out onto a protected patio. This sunny outdoor room is marked by a cruciform kiosk, housing the school’s ceramics center. If the shed is a normative element, unarticulated and typical of the city, the freestanding kiosk—topped by a tower with folded flanks—combines the signifying role of Banham’s roadside stands with a minimalist attention to surface and form.

In subsequent phases, the school has extended to the east and south and is now bounded by three city streets. Maltzan is in the process of constructing ostensibly regular, box-like buildings along the perimeter of the site. Acting as a buffer to street traffic, these buildings are chamfered to allow diagonal access into the property; they also serve as poché or as a background mass to frame the shared external space of the patio. A second pavilion, also used as a ceramics studio, animates the larger and more dynamic courtyard and introduces another strong vertical element to the rooftop composition.

Maltzan’s second solo project was the Feldman/Horn Center for the Arts at the Harvard/Westlake School in the Hollywood hills. There Maltzan has given priority to outdoor pedestrian movement between buildings. He has extended the massing of existing school buildings, so they now climb gently up the hillside to create a new, open enclave at the summit of the site. Students enter classrooms and studios directly from the plaza, an outdoor space commanded by the school’s Spanish colonial style chapel. With its ornate doorway and campanile, this structure was relocated, in classic Los Angeles fashion, from a downtown site in 1938. At Harvard/Westlake, Maltzan has invented a new context and setting for the chapel. The project also incorporates some pre-existing elements, such as a lecture theater now located beneath the plaza next to lower-level classrooms. New exposed walls are wrapped in white stucco; there are no traditional windows or columns to break up the uniformity of these surfaces. Instead, corners are punched out to allow for porches and mullion-less windows; and an elevator tower, molded in stucco, creates a small vertical accent. The resulting collective form is understood as a set of additions and subtractions contingent to the communal space of the plaza.

Not far from the Harvard/Westlake School, Maltzan completed the Hergott/Shepard Residence in 1998. A villa designed for collectors of contemporary art, the house is situated in what Banham referred to as Los Angeles’ “foothill ecology”—areas distinguished by “narrow, tortuous residential roads serving precipitous house plots that often back up directly on wilderness.” In this case, however, the house is not backed by feral hillside but instead opens out to splendid views over Beverly Hills and the flat plains stretching east to downtown and west to the Pacific Ocean.

The resolutely orthogonal residence might again be considered as a cluster of like forms. More private zones, such as the master bedroom and rather sumptuous gym, are contained in four discrete volumes. Primary interstitial spaces have lower ceilings to create a sense of threshold; others lead upward as enclosed staircases. A bridge-like terrace above connects the master bedroom to work space. Layered parallel to the site’s contours and to the access road, interior circulation paths proceed sequentially between finely detailed walls and almost crystalline voids.

This approach to architecture as a kinetic configuration of elements is common to Maltzan’s institutional and residential work. It is sculptural, sometimes fragmentary, and unencumbered by overt stylistic language; yet it is simultaneously animated and even shaped by the movement of people through communal spaces and the relationship of external form to the cityscape.

Los Angeles seems of course to constantly undergo change—that is perhaps its greatest characteristic. Thom Mayne, founding partner of Morphosis and an active voice in contemporary architectural discourse, recently described the emerging reality of Los Angeles as a city of “interconnected nodes of intensity.” Mayne’s “call for a more three-dimensional organization matrix that promotes interconnectivity and allows the manifold logics of the city to advance, recede and cohere” seems to materialize in Maltzan’s more recent projects and their integration into the networks of the city.


The urban is about to become a major vector of the imagination. Redefined, urbanism will not only, or mostly, be a profession, but a way of thinking, an ideology: to accept what exists…. To survive, urbanism will have to imagine a new newness.”—Rem Koolhaas In theses from Leon Battista Alberti’s De re aedificatoria (1452) to Le Corbusier’s Urbanisme (1925), to Rem Koolhaas S,M,L,XL (1995), architects have tried to balance the requirements of individual buildings with some greater image of the city to whose coherence they contribute. In the 1960s, architects reacted against the acontextuality and perceived meaninglessness of postwar, functionalist building. Urged on by such different critics as Vincent Scully in the United States and Manfredo Tafuri in Italy, architects began to look again at the actual fabric of cities and at the symbolic role of architecture.

In California in the 1960s, architects decried the “single-image” and “sober” monuments then “rising out of vacant lots”—Charles Moore, for instance, favored attention to land and place and complex historical imagery over the imposition of non-representational form. Exploring Las Vegas in search of “the vulgar and the Vitruvian,” Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown advocated a graphic iconology informed in part by Pop Art. The ethos of this period, if not the direct influence of specific polemical tracts, is implicit in subsequent works including Frank Gehry’s Santa Monica Place (1980) with its building-height supergraphics.

As a student, Maltzan was inspired by the strategies of conceptual artists, such as Bruce Nauman, with their word play, perceptual engagement, and the location of art in everyday spaces outside the gallery system. This engagement with the visual stimuli of America’s urban landscape is evident in 2002 at MoMA QNS, albeit filtered through a sensibility informed more by contemporary art practice than by architectural culture.

Maltzan’s MoMA QNS was planned as temporary accommodation for New York’s Museum of Modern Art, while its primary location in Manhattan underwent a major renovation and expansion. Maltzan painted the external walls of a former factory deep blue; he then painted several rooftop cubic boxes—screening service outlets—with fragments of the letters M, o, M, and A. At one moment, the graphic folds and unites to spell out the institution’s name.

This modest epiphany of letters not only contributes to a city roofscape already marked by advertisements and water containers, but it also is specifically designed to be viewed from the elevated number “7” train as it loops from Manhattan out onto Long Island. Whereas the unifying pigment recalls the blue bricks that originally wrapped the lower facade, the multi part upper element evokes a new stratum or terrain raised above the streets of Queens.

For an architect of Maltzan’s generation, educated in the orbit of Machado, Silvetti, and Rafael Moneo, building in the city is an intellectual issue connected to typology, to certain essential forms that recur and evolve within the urban fabric. In cities today, especially perhaps in Los Angeles, it is unlikely that any one building can be perfectly symmetrical and entirely independent. Empirical reactions inform, or mutate, with the ideal.

As in the practices of such contemporary architects as UN Studio in the Netherlands, Foreign Office Architects in Britain, and Preston Scott Cohen in the United States, Maltzan’s recent work fast-forwards from the static certainties of previous eras. It is more fluid, shaped, and splayed for physical and visual permeability. As first evident at Inner-City Arts and Feldman/Horn but increasingly ambitious and dynamic, the surfaces of his projects—both the ground and the walls—act together as active morphologies.

This concern for continuity and coherence is connected somewhat paradoxically to the architectural fragment, as seen in the collective organization of Kidspace Children’s Museum, which is currently under construction in Pasadena. On sloping parkland close to the Rose Bowl, Kidspace rehabilitates three, single-story, rectangular buildings set at right angles to one another. Maltzan’s early proposal for several additive elements coalesced during the design process into one splayed wing that contains exhibition and performance spaces and defines a courtyard between the old and new structures. A canted climbing tower, 48 feet high, serves as a vertical accent in this horizontally stretched landscape.

The extensive residence planned for Leona Drive in Beverly Hills is also an assemblage of fragments. As with the Hergott/Shepard Residence, all of these fragments are new and most are rectilinear. In the site’s northern corner, a small, translucent office tower with cantilevered floors and splayed sides rises about an inner service core. The long rectangular pavilion at its base is fractured at intervals to create irregular courtyards that separate a chain of guest suites. This physical fragmentation is complemented by diagonal elements that connect the primary forms of the house. In an evolution of Maltzan’s engagement with site, the main house digs into the ground as three elevated pavilions float overhead. Here the shardlike components exist in a dynamic equilibrium. The design of the Leona Drive Residence is arrived at by the interpenetration of material and immaterial planes so that the entire complex both establishes interstitial visual connections and abstracts the earth’s surface as a series of modulated planes.

In the essay On Typology, Moneo notes that “fragmentation seems to be in these days the concomitant of type; it is…the only remaining weapon left to the architect.” Positive, even fecund, notions of fragmentation, as well as unfolding, inform Maltzan’s two most recent projects—Ministructure No.16, in the riverside park planned for the Chinese city of Jinhua, and the Giardini di Porta Nuova, a redesign of the precinct around Milan’s Garibaldi Station by a team of international designers. In Jinhua, the bookstore/cafe unfolds like a sharp, crystalline boomerang, opening out to views across the park. It is a hybrid form induced from internal and external influences. For Milan, the design team—Maltzan, Mirko Zardini, Piet Oudolf, Irma Boom, and Petra Blaisse of Amsterdam-based Inside|Outside—envisions five, freestanding pavilions that morph and align themselves with crisscrossed patterns of plantings and pedestrian pathways. The built forms are contingent on these external influences: none is perfect unto itself.

These latest designs from Michael Maltzan Architecture reveal a strategic use of fragmentary forms that gain strength and nuance not from any nostalgic or synthetic imagery but from exterior relationships, from reciprocity in context. Maltzan’s multi-part buildings are not frozen or isolated in time and space. They are not fetishistic. Rather they interact across the ground surface and the rooftop skyline to reinforce the cityscape.

The competition entry for the Canadian Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg is perhaps the obverse of these principles of the reciprocal fragment. There, on an exposed site, many different parts coalesce, as a complex form at the center of which is a square courtyard, a perfect geometric void.


A generation ago, before Deconstructivist aesthetics and before computer graphics, Banham wrote, “The language of design, architecture, and urbanism in Los Angeles is the language of movement.” The city is experienced first from the freeway, its buildings first encountered in driveby glimpses from the automobile. The fragmentation and molding of Maltzan’s architecture is similarly kinetic. It results from framing, screening, tailoring the ground to rise and fall, and capturing natural light to animate interiors. Movement thus instigated has something of the mechanical idea of Le Corbusier’s promenade architecturale together with an anthropocentric sense of topography. Maltzan has garnered a reputation for designing buildings for art. His clients for both the Hergott/Shepard and Leona Drive residences have significant collections of contemporary art. Subsequent to the MoMA QNS project, the firm has won commissions to reconfigure the UCLA Hammer Museum (in collaboration with Petra Blaisse, graphic designer Bruce Mau, and lighting consultant Paul Zaferiou); to radically extend the Sonoma County Museum and the Fresno Metropolitan Museum; and to prepare a master plan for the Vancouver Museum of Art in British Columbia.

Maltzan’s interest in art dates back at least to his student days.His thinking and aesthetics have been exposed to many strands of 20th-century art, from Cubism to conceptual art, installations, Land Art, and the Light+Space work of such California artists as James Turrell. Almost four decades ago, Michael Heizer, Richard Serra, and other New York-based sculptors began to locate their work in remote rural sites, establishing a scale and a connection with terrain and nature difficult for artists to achieve in urban areas. Their West Coast contemporaries, such as Turrell, Robert Irwin, and Larry Bell, became known for the manipulation of light and for perceptual puzzles of surface or depth.

In Maltzan’s museum work, one witnesses a similar attention to ground and the modulation of light. At MoMA QNS, Maltzan inserted a tautly sprung mezzanine and a ramped exhibition deck, beneath a hovering, hood-like enclosure. He created this monolithic landscape as a voyeuristic social space before visitors entered the principal galleries. Maltzan’s current proposal for the UCLA Hammer Museum, a building originally opened in 1990 to designs by Edward Larrabee Barnes, revitalizes the static and opaque building with a new ribbon-like stairway, plantings, and a constellation of artificially illuminated surfaces. In Queens, the public approach is along the painted blue facade under a linear halo of light fixtures; in Los Angeles, visitors entering the underground parking garage will engage a series of luminous signage walls.

Collectively these elements lead the visitor from one space to another. They suggest interconnection within seemingly chaotic cities, and order in architectural projects where older and newer fragments require conciliation. Maltzan’s buildings engage visual cognition and pleasure, and the relationship between the human body and the space it moves through. The Leona Drive compound, for example, evolves about parallel pavilions with panoramic views of West Los Angeles and the Santa Monica Mountains. Movement through the house is largely contained within vitreous galleries and foyers that are ramped and inflected as asymmetrical volumes (part excavation, part-bridge).

Also intended for a sloping site, the Scoville/Turgel Residence is adjacent to a 1940s house designed in the manner of Frank Lloyd Wright, with horizontal lines and overhanging eaves. Maltzan’s clients intend to use both structures. The new house takes initial clues for its ordinance and parameters from the existing building; it then deflects, juts, and slips across the site to accommodate the fall of the land and provide views from the corner windows that protrude forward from the building envelope. The copper sheathing reinforces the house’s monolithic singularity; the open skeletal frame of the stairwell and windows suggests a structured viewing device.

In The Dynamics of Architectural Form, the art historian Rudolf Arnheim noted, “As the viewer moves around an object…he receives an orderly sequence of gradually changing projections…A work of architecture, therefore, is an object that never has and never will be seen in its entirety by anybody.” Arnheim understood that the “space between things turns out not to look simply empty”; that buildings are perceived—or experienced—obliquely; and that sites are topographic. Maltzan’s projects are typically constructed to similarly guide and shelter cognition, complex unity, and what Arnheim termed “sensory perception.” The expansion of the Sonoma County Museum pushes these themes to dramatic effect. The existing facility, a symmetrical post office dating from 1910, will be encased by an elongated sequence of galleries and internal terraces. The cast plaster exterior is corrugated or rilled, recalling the Spanish tiles of the original post office roof. Splayed interior spaces unfold one into the next and terminate in a final section that returns—appendix-like—to view the 1910 neoclassical portico. Angled to bypass the older building, the interiors are threaded with stairs and bridges, and are open to exposed spaces below grade, so the sculpted void becomes animated and kinetic. Maltzan’s museum work thus engages our senses through modulations of surface and of natural and artificial terrain.


Language does not equal experience—it points to it.
—Richard Serra.

In an urban culture where hills are scalped for development and most architectural objects exist in stark isolation, Maltzan’s consideration of the earth’s surface is unusual for an architect of his ambition. Fusing building and site, his architecture also differentiates itself from much contemporary Los Angeles work by its cool ambience. The plasticity and the extensive definitions of site characteristic of Maltzan’s work suggest an affinity with the Portuguese master Álvaro Siza Vieira, whose work is neither Postmodern nor Minimalist in any simplistic manner. Typically unimpeded by windows, doors, columns, or other linguistic components of building, Maltzan’s architecture prioritizes the surfaces of ground, wall, and ceiling. Although open, on occasion, to vivid color and innovative materials, his designs are minimal in their elimination of extraneous composition or detail. Maltzan’s mature work is furthermore attentive to terrain, to planimetrics, and appears sympathetic to what Stan Allen, urban landscape theorist and dean of Princeton’s School of Architecture, calls “field conditions.” According to Allen, “a field condition could be capable of unifying diverse elements while respecting the identity of each.” “Form matters,” writes Allen, “but not so much the forms of things as the forms between things.” In recent Maltzan projects, the in-between or interstitial space likewise becomes increasingly charged such that the classic dialectic of solid and void, figure and ground is diffused. Site surfaces may be manipulated in ways that are at once organic and clearly fabricated.

The Beach Residence proposed for Malibu is a minimal, sleek, and irregular form. It is also an example of what Maltzan has termed “alternate ground.” The house will occupy three adjacent lots, with a rectangular block to the east paralleling the Pacific Coast Highway. To the west, a stark, triangular pavilion flares out to dramatic views of the ocean. Maltzan’s proposal interpolates the house and its program into the site so that the beach extends back underneath the principal floor of the house; the main living quarters thus hover free as an inhabited deck. Floor and roof are cut into and linked by stair and light wells. The singular expanse of the panoramic window has affinities with Minimalism, whereas subsidiary elements introduce multiple scenarios for activity that enliven the total composition. A swimming pool crosses beneath the narrowest point of the triangle; one stairway drops toward the sand while another emerges from the sand as an ersatz dune. Maltzan’s manipulation of the ground surface is reminiscent of current planning tactics in the Netherlands, where the earth is often literally artificial, as for example in the Rotterdam Kunsthal or the Educatorium at Utrecht by Koolhaas. Yet one also detects in Maltzan’s Californian projects a sensibility enabled by fine materials and the culture of pleasure.

In the very different context of downtown Los Angeles, the Michael Maltzan Architecture is currently working on two complex housing projects. Parallel to the Los Angeles River, adjacent rail yards, and the one-quarter-mile-long facility of SCI-Arc (Southern California Institute of Architecture), the Santa Fe Dormitories augment this urban striation with graduate student apartments elevated in a bridge-like structure above a base that zigzags along the street. The lower element—containing undergraduate housing, a cafe, an auditorium, and stores—is designed with a public rooftop garden, a new plateau in the city offering spectacular views of the Los Angeles River, its bridges, and the city skyline.

The Skid Row Apartments provide temporary accommodation for homeless people making the transition to a permanent residence. Maltzan has proposed a U-shaped building containing five floors of basic apartment units that wrap a secluded courtyard, one floor above grade. This inner sanctum is entered from the street through a secure, glazed foyer; a broad, open-air staircase then leads upward to an interior patio surrounded on two sides by walkways. These walkways are protected by screens enlivened by biomorphic silhouettes. If Maltzan uses engineering to physically achieve new horizontal datums in the city, he is also increasingly conscious of the role vertical surfaces play in our experience of space. In the firm’s more recent work—as in that of several European architects including Herzog & de Meuron, Wiel Arets, and Caruso St John—the manipulation of vertical surface, of its materiality and texture, results in an abstract ornamentality. In Maltzan’s case, such effects are intrinsic to the material selected, as with the metal-wrapped Scoville/Turgel and Leona Drive Residences, where the play of light and shadow animates the wall surface. The kinetic potential of natural light is harnessed and released through the great roof at Fresno Metropolitan Museum and seeps through the shaped and assembled courtyard screens for the Skid Row Apartments. This porosity of a building to natural light is also essential to Maltzan’s design for Ministructure No. 16 in China. The walls of the riverside pavilion are pierced by myriad openings organized on a regular, orthogonal grid. Maltzan’s design is a tapered cage, created with folded walls and terraced floors, and animated by complex patterns of light and shade.

Themes of topographic invention and sensory envelope are best illustrated by the Fresno Metropolitan Museum, one of Michael Maltzan Architecture’s largest projects. The new structure is tethered to an existing museum building (the former Fresno Bee newspaper offices) and extends across an entire city block. It rears up from the ground surface like a giant crystal, forming a chamfered soffit above a new pedestrian plaza and providing a dramatic entrance to the galleries. Unlike many projects of the 1950s and ’60s raised on columns above barren sidewalks, the Fresno museum rises as a contiguous organism above the plaza, which is refreshed by reflecting pools. The labyrinthine exhibition spaces are within its hovering body. As Le Corbusier could only have imagined, the flow through the building is a continuous architectural promenade leading upward to a raked theatre open to the elements and views of California’s Central Valley. The main roof is a geometrical membrane folded or pleated to allow light to penetrate from the north and east.

This layering or opening up of architecture continues to evolve in Maltzan’s work. While manipulating ground surface to create stacked terrains, in a manner akin to Dutch architects Rem Koolhaas and MVRDV, Maltzan’s structures share something of the optical intricacy pursued by other contemporary architects through computer software. In Maltzan’s case, however, design is always physical and haptic. His buildings are distinguished by the penetration of natural light and shade, the extension of circulation into a kind of promenade, and the priority afforded communal space over private and service zones.

This architect does not dissemble buildings to shock, to be theoretical, or to follow fashion. Maltzan’s raison d’être is to engage human perception, the senses, and emotion. His architecture invokes the human desire to explore the environment, hence the emphasis on section and elevation, on rises and falls and folds of surface, on the augmentation of existing topography and the creation of alternate ground—new strata for communal activity above the streets and rooftops of the metropolis.

Originally published in Alternate Ground
Heinz Architectural Press, 2005