The Kanner name has long been associated with modernist architecture in Los Angeles. Three generations of family architects have designed some of the region's more distinctive homes and public buildings. Today, Stephen Kanner runs the firm his grandfather started 50 years ago but keeps the focus on designing accessible modernist buildings. While running a thriving firm, Kanner has also immersed himself in L.A.'s architectural community. Kanner is chairing a design review committee for the Los Angeles Unified School District's $12 billion school construction program. This month he's spearheading the reopening of A+D: Architecture and Design Museum Los Angeles in a new Miracle Mile location. And Kanner only recently stepped down as the Southern California chapter president of the American Institute of Architects. In between juggling his various roles, Kanner is also investing in several projects in Ghana. He's building a luxury condominium project in the West African country and trying to jump-start a business that could make concrete there cheaper to produce.


Question: Modernist architecture can be hard for some to connect with. How do you try to make it more accessible?

Answer: Our work is meant to be functional and serve our client's needs first. And that's very important. When we design a home, it's intended to be a place to live and not some art museum that's off limits.


Q: You take on a broad range of projects, from private homes, to retail stores, to large residential buildings. But you also like to take on smaller projects as well.

A: I've always liked the In-N-Out restaurant we did in Westwood (Village). We wanted to open up the experience. When you drive up to the drive-through, instead of pulling up to this small little window, we opened up the whole side of the restaurant with glass so that people could watch everything going on in the kitchen. It also lets workers have a pretty nice view out, too. The whole project came together nicely.


Q: Aren't you also designing a gas station?

A: Yes, in Ladera Heights at the corner of La Brea and Slauson (avenues). There's not many buildings like it that get built. The client, United Oil, wanted a flagship gas station. We designed it to play off the nearby freeway interchange, so the roof swings over the top of the station like a freeway on-ramp. It takes an owner with vision to get something like this done. Construction has begun and it should be done by the end of the year.


Q: How did you come up with the design for Metro Hollywood Apartments, the 60-unit affordable housing complex above the Hollywood & Western subway station?

A: We tried to work with the existing subway station below and wanted to incorporate all these elements of the station the entrance, the elevator into the actual building. We wanted to make sure it wasn't separate from the building. The station had this colorful mosaic tile and we patterned the building, especially the windows, around those tiles.


Q: You're used to designing million-dollar homes. Was it difficult to switch over to an affordable housing complex?

A: Not really. There was a hard budget requirement and the budget was very low. We focused on making sure the materials were unique but also wouldn't result in delays or possibly put the project over budget. We put windows into the project that were inexpensive but still interesting. They're standard windows, but they are placed strategically to give the building a unique look.


Q: How did you become interested in doing business in Africa?

A: My friend (architect) Joe Addo is from Ghana. He moved to Los Angeles in 1989, and we met and became friends. I went out to visit Joe and while he lived well here, he was living like a royal in Ghana. Touring the country with Joe, it became clear there were a lot of business opportunities. Ghana has huge potential.


Q: Aren't you worried about the notorious instability of investing in Africa?

A: Not really. Ghana is a peaceful democracy that has a stable government. The population is educated and their economy is growing. It's hard to talk someone into investing in Africa, but it's a lot easier once they're there and see it for themselves. I feel way safer walking around Ghana than I do in Los Angeles.


Q: What are you working on in Ghana?

A: We designed and building a condo project. A lot of expatriates who went abroad for education are returning to Ghana and they want the quality and types of housing they had overseas. I'm also investing in an additive, a homegrown mixture really, that could make concrete cheaper. We're calling it PozzoGhana.


Q: What is it?

A: Pozzolana is a place in Italy where they developed this technique for supplementing cement. We're calling it PozzoGhana because it rhymes and the technique uses Ghanaian soil and other techniques specific to the product.


Q: How does it make concrete cheaper?

A: For various reasons, in Africa almost all construction is done with concrete, which is very expensive. By mixing PozzoGhana in varying degrees, it can increase the amount of concrete by up to a third in some cases. There's been 10 years of testing and it performs as good as or better than if concrete is used alone. My partners and I are starting with three factories, and then we'll see how it goes.


Q: Is this something you plan to export to the United States?

A: Probably not. The export costs are too high. The savings occur over there.


Q: Getting back to L.A., your firm has also been busy with high-rise projects for CIM Group Inc. What projects are you involved with?


A: We're in the early stages on a tower in downtown Los Angeles and I'm really excited about the conversion of the CIM Tower at Sunset and Vine, which is under construction. It's a former office building that is being converted into apartments. The building is a slender tower with small floor plates that we're wrapping in a glass skin. The whole thing will be very delicate.


Q: Didn't the Los Angeles Conservancy raise questions about the project?

A: It was an AIA-award winning building and the Conservancy wanted it saved. But in my opinion, the building wasn't serving the needs of the city. It was a dead office building and it made more sense converting it to housing. The building wasn't on any major (historical) register or up for local recognition. The feeling of loss is understandable but the city's need for housing outweighs that.


Q: Where's the line between buildings that must be saved and those that, while cherished, can still be replaced?

A: I have a deep love for the historical context of Los Angeles. At the same time, clearly there are historical buildings that should be preserved forever: the Hollyhock House, the Hollywood Bowl, among others. Then there are the gray area buildings that might contain some elements but could serve a better purpose.


Q: There's a tremendous amount of construction taking place across the Los Angeles region. What will be the legacy of these projects?

A: What's taking place in places like Hollywood and downtown is absolutely phenomenal. There are a lot of major projects and all the architects behind them are quality designers. We're bringing more housing into our urban core. Projects like Grand Avenue and L.A. Live have a lot of promise. This is a great, great era for Los Angeles.


Q: The LAUSD took a lot of flak from preservationists for deciding to raze the Ambassador Hotel to make way for new schools. Was it a sad day when the Ambassador was torn down?

A: I don't believe the Ambassador Hotel was worth preserving. The only thing that made it noteworthy was the event that took place there (the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy). Nothing architecturally was significant about the place and the School District's need for more classrooms was more pressing.


Q: Speaking of the LAUSD, you've been asked to chair a design review committee that will look over plans for new schools. Designs in the School District's first phase of its $12 billion construction program have been called bland by some architects. How is the committee going to address those concerns?

A: There's been frustrations that more design-orientated firms haven't been included and the district has stuck with more corporate firms, which tend to not get the highest design. It's not an easy situation. They have to balance the quality of design with the reality of the budget. Ultimately, they have to think first of the kids, who need the classrooms.


Q: Hasn't the district included some heavily design-orientated architects like Thom Mayne, who designed an Exposition Park elementary school?

A: The performing arts school on Grand Avenue is another example. They brought in a very talented Vienna firm, Coop Himmelblau. But there's also been consequences. The project has been delayed for years and gone way over budget. There's an issue of design versus output.


Q: The A+D museum, the first in Los Angeles for architecture and design, is re-opening this month at a new Miracle Mile address it's third location since being founded four years ago. Why does the museum move around so often?

A: We've focused more on shows than fundraising, so the museum has been transient and relied on others for free space. We hope to be in our space for a while, and we're planning more fundraising to make the museum a major fixture.


Q: With your attention split between so many different distractions, how do you find time to run your business?

A: I was just talking about that with my wife the other weekend. I could get a lot more (work) done and spend more time with my children if I just focused on the business. But it's a big deal for me to be into so many areas. Essentially, my staff makes everything possible. Without them, I couldn't go to Africa for three weeks or spend as much time on the architecture and design museum. As with any business, it's the quality of the staff that you surround yourself with that makes everything possible.


Stephen H. Kanner
Title: President
Company: Kanner Architects
Born: July 1955; Chandler, Arizona
Education: B.A. and M.A. in architecture from University of California, Berkeley
Most Influential Person: Father, Charles Kanner
Personal: Married with two children
Hobbies: Tennis, bicycling, painting

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.