Michael Lehrer is a dynamic, world-class architect who founded Lehrer Architects LA in 1985. He has carved out an impressive niche through his passionate application of his gifts for imaginative design and creativity. He, his team, and numerous collaborators are responsible for many iconic buildings.
Michael’s community leadership has been exhibited in his work with AIA-LA, serving as Chair of the Harvard Graduate School of Design Alumni Council, as President of Homeless Health Care Los Angeles, and serving as a faculty adjunct at the USC School of Architecture. We recently sat down at his Silver Lake offices to catch up.
LAW: How early did you know that architecture would be your calling?
ML: I decided to be an architect when I was eight years old in the third grade. A girl whom I was in love with brought in blueprints of a high school that her father had designed. I saw the blueprints and said that what’s I’m going to do. The way they captivated me has never changed. There’s always been a fundamental connection to the land and to nature.
LAW: Where’d you go to high school, where’d you go to college?
ML: I live and practice in the neighborhood that I was born in and it’s only for five years of college and graduate school that I left. I am a graduate of John Marshall High School; a Barrister. Berkeley had an undergraduate school of architecture. I ended up going to UCLA for a year, which was very critical to me because I had one year of general education before I got to architecture school. And the thing about design school and design studio is that it is really hard for any other courses to compete with design studio if you’re a zealot.
When I transferred to Berkeley I was home; I was in architecture school. I had an excellent experience there and I went to Harvard where I attended the Graduate School of Design. I entered in the fourth semester and I had two great years there. I met my wife in the first semester. We’ve been married for forty years and together for forty-and-a-half years. She graduated in 1979 and I graduated in the beginning of 1978.
LAW: How did you cultivate your interest in architecture?
ML: I got my first drafting table when I was eleven or twelve. My parents encouraged me. My mother who is now 97 was my muse. She valued from early childhood my love of beauty and my love of drawing. I used to stay up at night and everybody would go to sleep. I’d set up my drawing stuff on the family room table and I’d draw and clean up and go to sleep late.
I used to do architectural drawing. I’d do perspectives, I’d do plans; they weren’t bad. I read my first perspective on Frank Lloyd Wright when I was ten, maybe older; I remember looking at his drawings in the book, and forever more, it was a complete seduction. I remember looking at his drawings and just thinking that they were the most beautiful things that I had ever seen. I remember thinking as a young person how to emulate his line work; how he went from drawing foliage to drawing buildings, to drawing picture frames; printing like an architect.
So I nurtured that stuff from childhood although knowing that I was going to be an architect. From ninth grade on, I called Berkeley every year to ask what I should be studying in high school and they said take your academic courses, that’s the most important thing.
They encouraged me to take freehand drawing. My mother knew this art teacher. He recommended that I take courses at Otis Art Institute. So I started taking night courses at Otis when I was in 10th grade in figure drawing. To this day we do life drawing in my studio once a month, open to friends and strangers.
I’m living the life I set out to live. I’m doing what makes me happy. It’s hard work but I can’t imagine a better way to spend a life.
LAW: Tell us about some early successes that cemented your path. Did they come early or did it take you a while to really progress?
ML: It’s interesting that you’d ask that because, successes, you know, are what keeps you in the game. I would say that architecture is always hard. The nature of the creative process is you learn to live with a sense of chronic failure because one of my definitions of design is it’s a mistake-making process. So as a creative, just learning not to be defeated by failure.
LAW: Let’s use a baseball analogy. A guy who hits .300 is considered to be a success. He makes it to the Hall of Fame. But that means he failed 7 out of 10 times.
ML: The reason this is important to me is I’m a yin-yang sort of guy. I embrace the whole process. Given the economic cycles, there have been long sustained periods of real difficulty as an architect. But early success? I would say my last project in graduate school was where my line of thinking as an architect began. And it was a really robust inquiry.
I built my first house with an older friend of mine who was a licensed architect. I was not. So he was my mentor, my design partner. I designed it when I was in Cambridge but it was built a few blocks from here in Silver Lake back in 1980. That was year and a half after graduating from design school and I was in the process of becoming licensed. So getting that built was my first success. And for me I’ve always felt that is was critical to get things built.
That’s my fix and that’s my need. My validation…I find building things is magical and an ongoing great experience to bring things into the world. I still find it amazing and exhilarating.
I worked in Orange County for four years, and for Frank Gehry for a year. Then I started my own practice in 1985. Scariest thing I’ve ever done. But I guess staying in business for 31 years through tough times and great is the ultimate success.
So the early success was getting stuff built, with the understanding that I needed always to get stuff built.
LAW: Shall we say that getting stuff built and getting paid for it go hand in hand?
ML: We run a profitable, well-run practice. I have a partner who’s been a professional for fourteen years. He’s incredibly bright, a brilliant designer but also fierce about running a well-run intelligent business.
I know myself well enough…I talked to a friend of mine who’s a businessman, John Gray. He used to run the Autry Museum. I think he runs the National History Museum in Washington now. And he asked me ‘is business important to you?’ And I said it’s very important to me after design excellence.
I mean, my fix at making things is so great that I’ve been willing to endure staggering pain to get things built and I’m still happy to get things built. That gets you through the long long long years of beginnings.
You’ve got to get stuff built and you’ve got to be willing to make major sacrifices to get to the point where people are willing to pay you what they need to pay you to get the goods that you provide them.
LAW: How would you say that you shaped your mature identity as an architect?
ML: I think that there’s a modicum of self-awareness but you try to work with integrity. You can be conscious of those qualities in architecture that you try to imbue into your projects. You can do it at a self-aware level, or you work with integrity so that hey manifest themselves doing what you do as opposed to doing what someone else might do.
LAW: OK. Let me ask you a follow up then: what do you think attracts potential clients to Michael Lehrer and Associates? They have a lot of choices out here. What do you think causes them to pick up the phone and contact you?
ML: A few years ago a friend who’s an architect calls and says ‘I referred these two institutions your way. I told them you have to hire Michael Lehrer because he has intelligence and passion.’ And as you get older you have a body of work. But I learned right after I started my practice after working for Frank Gehry, through one of my first clients whom I met two weeks into my practice, a woman who became my angel the next seven years would send all of her friends to me.
That was the first time that it became crystal clear to me that passion had value. That the fact that this stuff meant a universe to me and that I took it dead serious with both joy and gravitas at the same time. I also think that we do excellent work. We do our work with a sense of joy. During the High Holidays in Judaism there’s a rabbinical story where you’re supposed to carry two cards on you; one which says ‘I’m the universe’ and ‘one says I am dust’. When we’re doing it we’re giving you the best that we can give you and when we’re done we don’t take it so seriously.
Life is full of lots of things including humor and good nature, all sorts of things.