PHOTO: Lehrer Architects Studio photo: Benny Chan for Fotoworks

Since the first time we met Michael B. Lehrer, FAIA, this year’s AIALA Gold Medal recipient, we were aware of his commitment to Los Angeles–how Lehrer uplifts the region through architecture. Those he supports with design excellence include the city’s most vulnerable, most abandoned.

Lehrer is a former AIA Los Angeles President and also a Past President of Homeless Health Care Los Angeles. He has designed institutional spaces for those with bountiful resources and he is also a prodigious advocate of dignity for  those who might be without a home. Of his practice, he says, “Our work and our community engagement go hand in hand.”

Some of this we attributed to Michael’s definition of “architect”, some to his expression of his faith—but until we read his answers to the 2020 AIALA Presidential Honoree Q&A below, we didn’t know how deeply rooted to our city he was, nor his first fortuitous introduction to a design great. To find out what that was, read on:

1. What’s your favorite public place to safe distance in LA right now?
I am a child of Griffith Park–a junky for the smells, the sights and sounds of nature. Never has the indoor-outdoor lifestyle of fresh air and happy natural light that is hardwired into every Southern Californian proved more valuable than during the Coronvirus.

I grew up building forts on the hillside behind my house with the kids who lived in the Lovell House, right near the other modernist masterpieces; my first art class at Barnsdall even featured a north-facing drawing assignment, so I have always had a sense of the expanse and wonder of the park.

To this day, I am inspired to hike through its crests and canyons by the majesty of its topography, the diversity of its demography, the richness of its flora and geology, and the centrality of its geography, smack dab in the middle of the city I love.


2. What’s the best depiction of LA architecture in culture at large and why?
The übermasterful painter David Hockney is the visual thinker for our time, and I am proud that his camera obscura studies of the Renaissance Masters, among others, grew from his artistic explorations of our city. From his visually rich and culturally impactful pool paintings and portraits, to his cubist asphalt collages and sprinkler studies, he blazed the path for transforming the humdrum–even the ugly–into the beautiful: the LA Sublime. And, of course, his epic Mulholland Drive overlapped with the Los Angeles of my mindscape in an illuminating way that refreshed my view of the city’s visual and cultural diversity.

[Michael will be honored during the 2020 AIALA Design Awards, October 29, 2020. To purchase tickets, click here.]

3. Out of your projects, can you select one which you believe has most contributed to the city, how, and… why did you do it?

For me, making is the primal pleasure, and our studio joyously facilitates that. It all started by opportunistically retrofitting a warehouse and flooding it with natural light, using skylights and fresh air with garage doors. Above and beyond our state-of-the-art technologies, the studio encourages the physical model-making that we rely on to invent spaces and convey them to our clients and the community at-large.

From 15-foot-scale models of large institutional projects to 325 square foot, true-to-scale models of affordable apartments for potential tenants, our work and our community engagement go hand in hand. In addition to our work, we host film festivals, classical music concerts, and monthly life drawing sessions open to the community.

4. What’s the best thing a client or community member can say to you?
A) After a project is completed: “Michael, every day I discover something new about this place that makes me happy to be alive!”
B) When we are hired: “Michael, I trust you and your team to solve our problems efficiently and beautifully!”

5. What’s on your bucket list design-wise. What’s that dream project?
I relish every opportunity to envision beauty in places that have previously been treated as throwaway spaces. For me, architecture is the most profound act of optimism in a world where forces militate against beauty, so my highest calling is to transform overlooked sites, large and small, into places that touch people’s souls and elevate the culture.

Read the press release announcing the 2020 AIALA Presidential Honoree Recipients.

Banner: Lehrer Architects Studio detail of a photo by Benny Chan for Fotoworks
Image (L): Katz Pavilion designed by Lehrer Architects. Photo courtesy Stephen Wise Temple
Image (R): Water and Life Museum designed by Lehrer Architects. Photo by Benny Chan for Fotoworks