Preservation: A Conversation with Leo Marmol, FAIA

Richard Neutra’s Kaufmann House in Palm Springs, which was restored by Marmol Radziner. Leo Marmol, the firm’s managing principal, will speak on the restoration of Modern architecture on Thursday in Los Altos, California. Photo by David Glomb.
To hear Leo Marmol, FAIA, speak on the restoration of Modern architecture is to hear one of the most accomplished, thoughtful practitioners of the craft. With the award-winning restoration of Richard Neutra’s Kaufmann House in Palm Springs, he and Ron Radziner, his partner in the firm Marmol Radziner, established themselves as key players in the then-nascent realm of Modernist preservation. Where before little attention had been paid to the significant structures (resulting in countless sad losses), the work they undertook was part of a groundswell of appreciation and awareness. On Thursday, March 14, Marmol will speak on Modern preservation in Los Altos, California, as part of the Los Altos Neutra House Architecture Speaker Series. We had the chance to talk with him recently about his firm’s restoration work, his philosophy on restoration, and why living in an historic building doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice modern conveniences for authenticity.



How has architectural restoration changed since you first worked on the Kaufmann residence?



Our approach hasn’t changed. Each project is different and has a different methodology and perspective. The Kaufmann House was an incredibly academic restoration process. We were able to take back to what it was in 1947. It had been transformed into full time residence and had many additions. Our clients were going to turn it back into a vacation house. Rarely do we have that opportunity. Typically, we have to have the houses work as full-time houses. Our clients have demands and expectations about how we want those houses to perform. 



Other houses are simply different. All historic properties have the burden to uncover as much as possible. We can learn from the actual construction and the intent of the original architect. 



How has your restoration work informed the rest of your practice? 



Restoration work absolutely informs our new projects. We only work from a preservation perspective for modern structures. We want to learn from those [older] buildings. The ideas, issues and concepts employed during those projects are very relevant today. You could even argue that they’re more relevant. The desire to connect to exterior environment—we’re even more aware of that. The goal of simplifying the interior experience—that’s relevant in a world that’s very distracting and chaotic. Houses become a place of peace and repose. They’re a nurturing, supportive place for the family, where you can be visually protected from the chaos of daily life. The Modern goal of connection and simplification is the real root of sustainability and a real issue for today’s families. 


Have your clients ever asked you to do something with a historic property you felt uncomfortable about, or are your clients a self-selecting group?



Our clients are self-selecting, but we have been asked to do things that have been controversial in the preservation community. These things deserve the same care as things that are less controversial. If we have to make changes to historic fabric, we do it within standards defined for preservation and with respect and research. We’re prepared to defend decisions. For example, we’ve been asked to take houses back to starting point—where the original architect designed the additions. In that case, taking it back to true state is a controversial decision. 



Disagreements and discussions in our profession are healthy. There isn’t one answer to a design problem. Owners of historic houses deserve a huge amount of respect and care from our preservation community. They’re asked to make sacrifices that are not necessary or appropriate. We can’t ask them not to have big-screen TVs or modern appliances. We have to accommodate their expectations—otherwise more significant houses will be destroyed. We can only support so many museums. These houses have to be occupied by real people, families and pets. It’s the responsibility within the preservation community to support those lives. 



Are people more aware of preservation nowadays?



There has been a growth and expansion in the interest in Modern buildings. When we started on the Kaufmann House in 1993, there was little known and little conversation about modern preservation. The interest has grown up during our career. Now there’s a level of curiosity and interest and passion that simply did not exist. To see that, be able to participate in that excitement is wonderful. There’s also the institutional growth with the Getty and Palm Springs Modernism Week. 



We’re very fortunate to have had opportunity to work with some significant works by brilliant architects at a time when there wasn’t a lot of interest and to say this is possible, this is fruitful, this is valuable. There are ways to do it to preserve it and provide a way of life. You don’t have to sacrifice your life. Historic residences provide all the opportunities you’d have in non-historic houses—and you can live in an important building.



What are some of the biggest mistakes people make when doing a renovation/restoration of a significant property?



The biggest mistake is to hire a design firm that doesn’t have an interest in the historic process or interest in the time period. They come from a perspective where they want to make changes but without a willingness to understand the traditions they are messing with. Not to say that people who don’t have experience can’t to do it, they just have to have a willingness to have these conversations. 



What do you see as your role in preserving the legacy of historic 20th-century architecture?



We hope our role is one of advocacy and support for people who own extraordinary houses or buildings. We hope we can be seen in the profession as being willing to tackle the challenging projects and push boundaries of what’s acceptable to the preservation community in support of people who live in our buildings and want to support them in their process. Often we get calls from people who want to refinish wood, change a fireplace, fix stonework and are worried that they will do it in a way that will reap criticism. We refer people to help them, and give small tips and suggestions. We wish we could help more. 



What would you say to an architect in 40 or 50 years on who might be undertaking a restoration of a Marmol Radziner residence? 



Down the line, we hope they continue the modern ideology that prizes quality, beauty and efficiency. We hope our buildings exemplify those ideas and hope that those who alter our buildings in the future will respect those same goals. They will be changed. If you care for materials in a modern way, have to respect their use, employ them with respect—that’s all we can ask.


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