Zoltan Pali can’t find a photo, and it’s driving him crazy. He wants to show a visitor an iconic image of the 1955 Hunt House in Malibu, Calif., taken by Marvin Rand. The shot he’s thinking of captures a flock of birds flying over the home, designed by Pali’s friend and mentor, Jerrold E. Lomax, FAIA, while at Craig Ellwood Associates. Pali loves this house, and he really, really loves this photo. But it’s not in the book he’s determinedly thumbing through. Only a promise to look up the image online will assuage him.
Welcome to the detail-oriented mind of Zoltan Pali, FAIA, one of the two main forces behind Studio Pali Fekete Architects, known as SPF:a for short. Pali serves as the firm’s design lead, while his wife, Judit Méda Fekete, Assoc. AIA, LEED AP, manages the 20-person company. Her big-picture perspective balances out Pali’s intensely focused approach. The combination has always been a winning one, and lately they’ve kicked into an even higher gear.
SPF:a’s elegantly detailed modern houses in the Los Angeles area have garnered attention ever since its Somis Hay Barn won an on-the-boards P/A Award from Architecture magazine in 1999. The firm also made a name for itself during the early-to-mid 2000s as the executive architect of large-scale projects such as the Getty Villa, designed by Machado and Silvetti Associates, and the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, designed by José Rafael Moneo, Hon. FAIA. And SPF:a has designed a host of well-received commercial and institutional projects, particularly schools and performing arts venues.
But now Pali, Fekete, and their staff are working on their two highest-profile projects yet—commissions that should draw widespread recognition. They’re designing the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills, Calif., an under-construction, 60,000-square-foot complex. And they’re co-designing, with Renzo Piano Building Workshop, the 250,000-square-foot Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in L.A. “The future is really here for them,” says Carlo Caccavale, Hon. AIA/LA, associate director of L.A.’s AIA chapter.
Custom houses are very much a part of that future. “We will always do residential because it is just so good to do,” Fekete says. “It’s so important because of the personal relationship.” Adds Pali: “Sometimes the houses push you even farther than the other projects.” SPF:a’s jewel-box homes blend deceptively simple floor plans with innovative materials and a careful control of natural light. The Caverhill Residence in L.A., for example, uses exterior wood-composite fins to gain privacy on its west side. The painted fins create interior patterns of sunlight and shadow that change slowly throughout the day. At the Nightingale Residence in the Hollywood Hills, sunlight from above washes a 90-foot-long travertine wall, creating a shifting interplay of shadows across the stone’s varied hues. And in the recently finished Ziering Residence in Pacific Palisades, Calif., a slim skylight over a concrete wall transforms the everyday end of a hallway into a meditation on concrete’s textured beauty.
Born in L.A. to parents who emigrated from Communist Hungary, Pali seems to have retained the sense of wonder and possibility that Los Angeles, for all its faults, can convey. “On a beautiful day, the city sparkles and all the bad architecture goes away,” he says. His embrace of the area comes through in the firm’s houses, which often perch on vertiginous hillsides and tend to feature spectacular views. Pali knows exactly how to work with a view, how to give hints of it through a house but not give it away too soon, how to edit out the things you don’t want to see, and how to highlight those you do.
And the less-dramatic views play just as important a part as do the standout Pacific Ocean or Hollywood Hills vistas. At the Ziering Residence, a curved floor plan enables the owner to look back at the rest of her house from the master bedroom, providing a cozy sense of enclosure not often found in an 8,900-square-foot building. And in the living room, pivoting walnut wall panels open to a tranquil side garden. This intimate view counters the sweeping, ocean-facing outlook on the other side of the space, giving the owner two different outdoor experiences. Both provide moments of sheer pleasure, which is one of Pali’s chief goals. “We try to look for delight,” he says—while acknowledging that “restraint is one of my favorite words.”
SPF:a attains this delicate mix of joy and reserve with a design process that relies heavily on physical models. It might do some digital 3D drawings, too, but Pali counts on the tactile nature of wood, metal, or cardboard to spur his creativity. “We go to model right away, even before a rendering,” he says. The firm recently bought a laser cutter to help create models more quickly. Building them lets SPF:a think through a project, both internally and with clients. “I like to hold meetings as workshops with my clients,” Pali says. “There isn’t [just] one person who has the solution here. Everything comes out of a strong collaborative process.” Custom home client and general contractor Mauricio Oberfeld agrees. SPF:a made several models to work out the detailing of his home, including a full-sized one of an exterior fin element. “The model is an amazing tool for us to understand the space,” he says.
Many of the models end up with clients, but others make it onto the display shelves in SPF:a’s airy Culver City, Calif., office. (Some also become napping spots for Missy, the slinky gray office cat.) The double-height workspace occupies the ground floor of a 28,000-square-foot mixed-use building, MODAA Lofts, designed and developed by the firm in 2005. “It was very important to me that everyone had a good space to work in,” Pali says.
The office also contains a nonprofit art gallery run by Hungarian-born Fekete, who met Pali through friends in L.A. in 1989. Fekete earned an Arts and Architecture degree from the University of Pécs in Hungary, and she still makes time to pursue her own art. “The purpose of the gallery is to advance art and architecture,” she says. Recent show subjects include sculptures by DeWain Valentine, paintings by Lucas Blok, and houses by mid-century modernist William Krisel, AIA. In between exhibitions, the gallery can highlight images of the firm’s own work. It also works nicely as a venue for meetings or presentations—as well as weekly yoga classes for SPF:a staff members.
MODAA Lofts is a quintessentially urban building, a Swiss Army Knife of a project that accomplishes many things at once. The couple used to live full-time in one of the eight upstairs live/work lofts, basically eliminating their commute. (This year they moved to Corona del Mar, Calif., to be closer to the school that sons Renzo, age 17, and Ezra, 15, attend.) A restaurant space on the ground floor adds to Culver City’s revitalized nightlife, and the gallery aids the area’s growing reputation as an art hub. Fekete and Pali dream of developing a successor to MODAA Lofts, this time with smaller units, a carshare program, and a rooftop garden. “It would be an experimental building,” Fekete muses. “Something that makes a neighborhood better, a little bit.”
SPF:a’s multifamily work for other developers shows a similar level of care. The 12 units in a Studio City, Calif., project called Woodbridge 12 feel like little custom homes, with 9 1/2-foot ceilings and perfectly lined-up joints. “Zoltan is all about finessing the proportions and detailing,” says its developer, Elan Mordoch, noting that the architecture allowed price premiums of 10 to 15 percent. Pali seems to enjoy the considerable multiunit challenge of making every square inch count. According to Jerry Lomax, that’s just how he is. “Zoltan loves solving problems,” Lomax says. “He thrives on ’em.”
Current residential projects include three multifamily buildings, three low-income houses for a local nonprofit, two Malibu custom homes, and another custom home in Beverly Hills. Like all of the firm’s work, the Beverly Hills house creatively uses unexpected materials. Bronze-anodized aluminum panels attached with VHB (very high bond) tape will form the exterior rainscreen. And a 24-foot cantilevered roof made of aluminum grating and steel will appear to float, as many elements in SPF:a’s houses do. Although the cantilever supplies drama, the project still possesses a calm simplicity that Pali, Fekete, and their team work hard to achieve. They’ll keep aiming for that dynamic tranquility, even as their reputation grows.
“The architecture is getting quieter and quieter,” Pali says. “I’m looking for that sort of peace. Still with joy, still with delight. We’re trying to really boil things down to their essence.”