Inside the Mind of a Contemporary Architect
“The sun never knew how great it was until it hit the side of a building.”
When you’re standing in front of a structure designed by LA-based architects Russell Shubin and Robin Donaldson, it’s hard to imagine the great Luis Kahn’s famous quote referring to anyone else’s work.
(It is Sunny California, after all.)
Yet, good contemporary architecture isn’t just about being ready for your close-up. It takes much more than flattering light to create a standout structure. As Mr. F.L.W. is known for stating, the world’s best homes take their cues from their surroundings, blending in seamlessly with their natural environments.
Russell Shubin (left) and Robin Donaldson (right).
Shubin and Donaldson’s creations embody this philosophy, from the unobtrusively framed views of Catalina at Bentley, to grass-carpeted borders peeking through the walkway at Toro Canyon. We love this design-devoted duo’s awe-inspiring work and couldn’t wait to hear more about the contemporary ethos that drives them.
What brought you and Robin together as partners?
This year is our 25th year of practicing together. Robin and I met at a conference exploring emerging possibilities in architecture, and I would say that our shared passion for exploring “what is possible” brought us together. [That thought] keeps us pulling in the same direction in co-leading a practice that is relevant and impactful.
How do you complement one another?
Robin and I are very … yin and yang. Our expertise is different and so are our temperaments. Robin is very good at envisioning the big picture — he’s a multidimensional designer. He communicates compelling visions and crafts breakthrough strategies. I focus on moving the needle and getting results that I execute by focusing on tactics, details and follow-through.
Who is your ideal client?
A great client is engaged and desires a relevant and timeless work of architecture. The ideal client is also interested in exploring what can be done given the constraints of the project. What makes the process special is the collaboration: the architect, the landscape architect, the interior designer and the client all collaborating from day one.
Do you have any exciting work coming out this year?
What are the most important elements of contemporary design?
To us, how a building sits on the land is very important — how it optimizes every element of the site. Leveraging the relationship between indoor and outdoor space is also important.
Who inspires you?
Peter Zumthor exemplifies what we aspire to. His book “Atmospheres” discusses how spaces are shaped through our senses and bodily interaction with architecture. It’s about the interaction of materials, craft and light. When architecture is created with the intention of nurturing the senses, it is anything but cold.
What trend in contemporary architecture today do you love? What do you hate?
We love a well-proportioned, beautifully detailed building with evidence of high craft. A space that is soulful. Conversely, I personally hate generic over-scale neutral boxes that, in my opinion, are soulless.
If you could describe the most defining moment/work of your career, what would it be?
Not only surviving the great recession, but being stable throughout a historic reversal which transformed the profession. It isn’t the “strongest” that survive but rather the most adaptive, which is what I believe defines us.
What do you think are the most important elements to include in a home, from an architecture standpoint? Is it about maximizing living space, creating cozy nooks, maximizing light, etc.?
In warm contemporary architecture, craftsmanship and how materials come together are essential. We also think that a sense of scale and proportion are extremely important in the type of design that we do.
Bentley Residence, Bel Air
Are you finding yourself increasingly drawn to particular materials?
We are interested in material advancement. For example, we like Kreysler & Associates in Napa Valley. They’ve been leading the way in the use of composite materials in construction, working with artists and architects on large sculptural works, acoustic surfaces and facade panels. They developed a glass fiber reinforced polymer (GFRP) which has the advantage of being extremely light, so it’s cost-effective since it requires much less steel.
If you weren’t an architect, what would you be doing instead?
For visual artists who also need to earn a living, there isn’t really another option. Architecture chooses you … the arts are a calling.
What do you love most about living in Los Angeles? What is your favorite LA activity?
In Los Angeles, we have access to both nature and culture and incredible diversity in the landscape. I like to golf and Robin is an avid surfer. We both have two sons and love spending time outdoors with our families.
What do you love most about LA architecture?
We love the Indoor / outdoor living and the connection to the natural world.
What is your personal space like? Is it architecturally unique in any way?
Robin and I have both adapted existing houses. My home is a work in progress overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Malibu … pretty “extroverted”, and Robin’s home in Santa Barbara (a retrofitted suburban tract house) is a more inward-looking sanctuary. His house is meticulously detailed and more conceptual than mine. We have very different styles.