In Los Angeles, would-be Hollywood stars go to sleep dreaming of their names up in lights. Leo Marmol and Ron Radziner had the same vision, only it was their philosophy they wanted posted for everyone to see. So, early in their careers, the ambitious young architects rigged up an old movie marquee outside their office and ran a weekly quote they found interesting or provocative. They drew from sources as diverse as Karl Marx and the 1984 cult film Repo Man. “We would try to make the quotes topical to what was happening in the city,” says Marmol, AIA. “When the race riots happened, we put up a Martin Luther King quote. Or we'd put up things about urban issues or growth. People started noticing that—it was a way for us to communicate.”
The marquee eventually came down when Marmol and Radziner, AIA, got too busy to go quote-hunting every week. But that desire to communicate still remains. The two of them thrive on interaction—with clients, with colleagues, with the public, and with their own staff. Which works out well, because running perhaps the most sophisticated residential design/build firm in the country leaves little time for solitary pursuits.
Nowadays, Marmol Radziner and Associates operates out of a converted factory in West Los Angeles, with architects, landscape architects, and interior designers sharing one 14,000-square-foot room. Behind the main space, an in-house wood shop and a metal shop take up an additional 3,500 soundproofed square feet. The firm's field employees, including superintendents, project managers, carpenters, and laborers, are scattered on jobsites. All in all, Marmol and Radziner oversee a 110-person fiefdom. Not bad for a couple of guys in their early 40s, who still vividly remember doing the painting themselves on the first new house they ever built, in San Pedro, Calif.
old fashioned The story of how they got here from there is a familiar one: Two young idealists meet at school (California Polytechnic at San Luis Obispo), toil at separate firms, and then join forces in 1989. But there the script veers off into the unfamiliar, unglamorous territory of design/build. According to Marmol and Radziner, their choice was obvious. “We realized the loss of control we had from not building our own projects,” says Marmol, who worked on construction sites in the San Francisco Bay area as a teenager. “Design/build is a historic process,” adds L.A. native Radziner. “Before the early 1900s, the two disciplines used to be more intertwined. We're going back to the old style.” So Marmol obtained his contractor's license, and the pair amassed a portfolio of small remodels and additions. They took care to market themselves as architects who could also build, so potential clients wouldn't confuse them with the “builder offering design services” model that's more typical of design/build.
In 1992 they caught a break when the owners of a 1950 Richard Neutra house in the Hollywood Hills, Kun House #2, tapped them for a minor restoration job. The next year Marmol and Radziner landed an even bigger fish: the restoration of Neutra's 1946–47 Kaufmann House in Palm Springs, Calif. This high-profile commission garnered a glut of media attention, and soon the pair found themselves restoring (and sometimes expanding) Modernist gems by the likes of Albert Frey, R.M. Schindler, and A. Quincy Jones. The partners partly attribute their early success in winning such projects to their own modern portfolio. But both say their design/build background helped them land these technically challenging jobs. “The design process in restoration is so much about how to build stuff in the way it was made originally,” says Marmol. Los Angeles–based architecture critic Michael Webb agrees. “They do such a good job on restoration because they fabricate the elements themselves,” he says. “In each case they've captured the detail and spirit of the original house. That's a hard thing to do, because needs have changed. People want larger spaces and more amenities.”
Modern restorations still make up about one-third of Marmol Radziner and Associates' work. The firm has another one under way on a 1961 Cliff May house, as well as its eighth and ninth Neutra restorations. Along with institutional and commercial projects, it's also doing more new houses and non-historic remodels, which follow a completely different philosophy than the restorations. “The goal with restoration is to have it be like you were never there,” says Radziner. “With a remodel or a new house, we can make it ours. The less history there is, the more freedom you have.” These projects give the firm a chance to apply the lessons it's learned on restoration jobs—about materiality, for example, or interior-exterior relationships—in a fresh context.