An Architect’s Aura
For luxury housing designer Richard Landry, the architect is a stage-setter, fantasist and businessman— all at once
Your aura is entirely clear,” a psychic reader told architect Richard Landry, who visited the seer in Los Angeles a few years ago on the advice of a friend. Although skeptical, Landry admits he was intrigued by the psychic’s next comment: “You have no demons.”
It does not take a seer to notice Landry’s success. As arguably the best-known architect of high-end housing in Southern California, his palatial portfolio is impressive, to say the least. Yet, while part of his success stems from his considerable skill in designing very large houses in a variety of historical styles—Tuscan, Spanish Mediterranean, French Renaissance and his own posh version of Modernism—it’s not true that he refuses to design houses smaller than 20,000 square feet. “People have that misconception about us,” he says, sounding a little piqued.“We design houses of all sizes.”
The other part of Landry’s success is derived from his people skills, which are nearly as extraordinary as his facility in design.Those skills come from a deep place in his character, and are essential to understanding Landry both as an artist and as a businessman.While some architects try to charm or bully their clients into accepting the designs they themselves most want to build, Landry’s approach to clients is exactly the opposite. He neither seduces nor overwhelms. Instead, he listens—really listens—and that ability (combined with his clear aura, no doubt) helps him clinch design commissions as much as his frequent appearances in architectural magazines do. Even though he has clients across the world—he is building houses in both Moscow and Riyadh— he knows how to zero in on the personality at hand.
“Not only does Richard make you feel like the most important client in the world, he makes you feel like you are the only client,” says Renee Martin, for whom Landry designed a 12,000-square-foot house on the bluffs of the Palos Verdes peninsula.
Landry is also open to collaboration with his clients, according to Martin. “I have a strong artistic sense and clear ideas of taste and I wanted to enjoy the process,” says the book editor and homeowner, who reports that Landry was not miffed by the binders full of magazine clippings she brought to design meetings with the architect.
Although supermarket magnate Jack Berberian interviewed five prominent architects to design his house, he ultimately hired Landry because his wife told him she believed she could work with Landry without fear of a flare-up.“I know how hard-headed some of these architects can be,” he explains.
As a result, the architect designed the couple a 14,500-square-foot home in Los Angeles that is among Landry’s most accomplished essays in the modernist vein. An hommage to California masters of the 1930s and 40s like Richard Neutra and Rudolph Schindler, the Berberian Residence sports changing ceiling heights, artful contrasts of natural and industrial materials, and a continuous flow of space.The most obvious difference here between Landry and his mid-century exemplars is, perhaps, the sheer scale of the place, where 24-foot-tall walls of glass alternate with those of stone.The two-year construction period was “the most enjoyable experience I have had working with an architect,” recounts Berberian, who threw a cele- bratory dinner for Landry’s entire 30-person staff when the house reached completion in 2005.
Landr y grew up in a French-speaking Canadian town of 5,000 people, which seems almost exotic in West L.A., where he keeps his office. The architect, who now lives in a house of his own design in Malibu, likes to describe himself as “a simple country boy from Quebec.” His father was a carpenter with an interest in architecture, while his mother was interested in art. From an early age, Landry says he wanted to do nothing but design buildings. After learning English as a teenager (“I hated it,” he confess es), he attended the architecture program at the Université de Montréal, where he earned a Bachelor of Architecture degree, and later received a diploma in architecture and urban design from the University of Copenhagen in Denmark.
After a few years of work in a Canadian office, Landry packed up his blue Corvair and drove to California in 1984 with the hope of landing a job either with Gehry or the late Charles Moore. Neither had a position for him, and Landry ended up working for lesser-known architects and landscape designers. Shortly after going into practice for himself in 1987, he received a referral from anoth- er architect to design a French Provincial house in Seattle for Kenny G, the smooth-jazz saxophonist.The client was delighted, the house was published, and referrals began to trickle in. Whether or not it was his intention, Landry had found his market and his métier.
Landry’s easy-going manner with clients is backed up by his belief that architecture is a service profession. He is unapologetic about his intention to please.“I think there is too much ego in this industry,” he says of home design. No doubt, many architectural egos are inflamed by Landry’s willingness to design in historical styles instead of official avant-garde modes. Eclecticism, however, was a perfectly respectable approach for architects of earlier generations, including revered figures like Wallace Neff, George Washington Smith and Roland Coate. In his foreword to Modern to Classic, a monograph on Landry’s work, archi- tecture critic Paul Goldberger likens Landry to those earlier eclectics: “He cares about designing buildings well, and he has no ideological predispositions whatsoever.” Houses, adds Goldberger, are “settings to him, not polemics.”
Refreshingly, Landry does not insist on absolute historical purity. Historical styles, he says, must be adapted to modern life, and he is fully willing to introduce non-historical features into houses in a bold, undisguised way. In the Kenny G House, Landry found a way to interject tall, glass windows in parts of the ornate façade. At one residence in suburban L.A., the exterior is a rough-hewn Tuscan, while the living room, recessed behind the façade and out of sight from the street, is enclosed in a very contemporary-looking wall of steel and glass.“If you understand the rules,” says Landry, “you know how to break them without hurting the overall effect.”
Image: The ornate entryway of one of Landry’s Spanish Colonial Revival houses. Photo by Erhard Pfeiffer.