To those of us not privileged to live in Southern California, viewing images of projects by SPF:architects is like gazing through the looking glass at another world. Perched high in the hills above Los Angeles, with the city spread like a carpet far below, the firm’s houses exist in an architectural present that joins the current moment with the apotheosis of the Case Study houses, circa 1960. But as principal Zoltan E. Pali, FAIA, hastens to add, “This isn’t everybody’s house; this isn’t about modernism for the masses.” Working with elevated sites—and often lofty budgets—Pali and partner Judit Méda Fekete, LEED AP, produce work that is notable not only for its evocative power, but also for its restraint.
“My mentor was Jerrold Lomax, who designed 12 of the Case Study houses,” Pali says. “I come out of that thinking, that simplicity—the clean diagram, the clean plan.” SPF:architects’ houses make their plans the vehicle of a distinctly Californian mode of living, while also making the site a stage for their own sculptural forms. The firm takes a similar approach to its multifamily, commercial, and institutional work. (The latter includes the Getty Villa Museum in Malibu, Calif., and the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills, Calif.) And as if to prove the breadth of its range, it won a 2005 AIA National Honor Award for, of all things, a hay barn.
What is the most gratifying aspect of residential practice?
When clients really love their place and recognize what we have created for them. In the end it’s all that we have: to make others happy with what we do. Because for us to be satisfied with what we do is impossible and, frankly, unattainable.
What is the most frustrating aspect?
The little, picayunish details, and the fact that there are so many products on the market to choose from. It’s difficult to get clients to focus and restrain themselves.
What is your mission statement or firm goal?
We try to avoid arbitrariness. This is the hardest thing to do, because arbitrariness is really hard to define. But just as a simple phrase can define the essence of a situation in the most poignant or poetic way, so can architecture define the best of what we are, how we respond to each other, and how we react to nature.
What is the most indispensable tool in your office?
Our minds and our hands.
What software does your firm use?
AutoCAD, Rhino, Photoshop, Illustrator, Maxwell, and Revit.
Who is your ideal client?
One who is willing to engage in intellectual discourse rather than dictate. Also one who, ideally, likes to have a good time!
What is your favorite building?
It can’t be just one building; it’s more like a city: New York, Rome, Paris, Chicago. But then it is also buildings: Kimbell, Salk, Pompidou, Eiffel, Il Duomo, St. Peter’s, Grand Central, Fallingwater, the Nomadic Museum, MoMA, Disney. But having said all that, a visit to see Zumthor’s Little Brother Klaus Field Chapel would be terrific.
If you didn’t have the time to design your own house, who would you hire?
We would always have the time! But if we were physically and mentally unable to design our own home (and we still felt like living), we would consider a few folks—Zumthor, Ban, Ando, Murcutt—and probably choose Murcutt.