Obituary: Franklin Israel

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The Independent Online
Franklin Israel was a quintessential Los Angeles architect. He designed a series of residences, remodels and office buildings, mainly for entertainment industry clients, that exemplify the contemporary West Coast style. This freewheeling design approach, inspired by the acclaimed LA architect Frank Gehry, is characterised by an eclectic borrowing of local materials and sources, spatial and formal experimentation, a painterly use of colour and material, and a taste for structural disequilibrium that has been read as an expression of a city, literally and metaphorically, on shaky ground.

To this Israel added an erudition and a city-lover's sensibility that set him apart from some of his coevals. Residential projects such as the Altman House (1988), the Lamy- Newton Pavilion (1988), Arango & Berry (1991) and Goldberg-Bean (1991) incorporate not only local and Mediterranean architectural influences - such as Rudolf Schindler, Richard Neutra, Carlo Scarpa, John Lautner and Frank Gehry - but juxtapose old and new in striking compositions that evoke the heterogeneity of the city.

In his noted production studios for Propaganda Films (1988), Limelight Productions, Virgin Records and the Bright and Associates studios (in the former Ray and Charles Eames studio, 1991), Israel deconstructed the interiors into a series of spatial experiences, vistas and promenades, creating what he called "cities within", to take the place of the urban fabric missing without.

He was, in the estimation of his long-time mentor Frank Gehry, "on his way" to becoming a great architect when he died, from complications from Aids, at the age of 50.

Frank Israel was also the LA design world's most energetic social animal. He maintained a vast collection of friends as eclectic as his architecture, preserving different identities in different social spheres in a way that is possible only in a city as widespread and diverse as Los Angeles. He moved fluidly from the role of father and esteemed professor to his devoted office staff and students at the school of architecture at UCLA (University of California at Los Angeles), where he taught for 20 years, to active voice for the gay community, to friend of miscellaneous people in the arts and media, to celebrity player. Only Frank Israel could casually report that at last night's party he'd danced with Madonna.

Rare among architects, Israel was genuinely interested in people. The Frank Israel I, and many others knew, was reticent about his early study of philosophy, his days under Louis Kahn at the University of Pennsylvania, his master-planning work in Tehran with the British firm of Llewelyn-Davies, or his two years, as recipient of the Rome Prize, at the American Academy of Rome which proved a turning-point in his life.

The Frank we knew was fascinated by our lives, specifically our love- lives. Not just in a gossipy way - though he loved gossip - but in, as Americans would say, a proactive way. Frank was self-appointed match-maker for friends across the city, sometimes scoring a hit. Several couples owe their domestic bliss to the efforts of Frank the yenta.

When this remedy failed he would recommend the other one: shopping. Frank Israel loved to shop. He took our mutual friend Julia Bloomfield, the head of Getty Publications, on a week-long shopping spree to help her mend a broken heart, and ever after, when things looked bleak, would advise her, "Go shopping!" He would accompany insecure clients on buying expeditions to help them transform their houses, and, if necessary, their lives. He would meet Berta Gehry, Frank Gehry's wife, in footwear boutiques for shoe-shopping binges ("You'll never be a successful architect," he told one student, "until you wear better shoes").

And everyone appreciated it. He was blessed with an innate good eye and love of texture and material that made itself manifest in the things he chose for people and in the attention to detail in all his projects.

Frank Israel was a sensitive soul inside a large frame, a frame he fought to maintain as the virus encroached. The fear he felt at impending death was expressed not in his demeanour - he had lived with the HIV infection for 12 years and remained persistently optimistic - but in his work.

Near the end, a tension and pronounced sense of instability crept into his designs, as in the recently completed Dan House in Malibu, in his installation at the self-designed retrospective of his work held at the Museum of Contemporary Art earlier this year - where the visitor was enveloped in chalky-white, jagged planes that held both the innocence of origami and the hostility of encroaching icebergs - and in the Fine Arts Building at the Riverside campus of the University of Riverside. Still in the design stage when he died, the Fine Arts Building was the first of what was predicted to be a string of major public projects and concrete proof of his stature as a great architect.

Franklin David Israel, architect: born Brooklyn, New York 22 December 1945; died Los Angeles 10 June 1996.