Death of a Friend: Stephen Kanner

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A move to another country is a huge undertaking and the newcomer is dependent on the kindness of strangers to ease his or her passage into a new life. At least, that was my experience. My transition to life in America was enabled by many good people, one of whom I am devastated to learn died Friday. He was Stephen Kanner, architect, tireless advocate for the architectural community in LA, and co-founder of the A+D Museum.

I met Stephen not long after arriving here, when I was editing L.A. Architect, the monthly publication for the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects, now known as Form. I was responsible for the layout as well as content and chose to put a picture of an apartment building in Koreatown, for which he had just won an AIA/LA design award, on the cover. Stephen, who had recently become a partner in his father Charles “Chuck” Kanner’s office, was so thrilled he came to the office to thank me personally. It happened to be pouring torrentially with rain when he arrived, and I was about to get soaked. Stephen chivalrously gave me his only umbrella. I promised I would return it, and he departed, not minding if he got soaked.

A few months later I got the chance to return the umbrella, when he and his wife Cynthia found that a houseguest of theirs was an old friend of mine and we met for dinner. That was the start of a friendship with the entire, extended, and very close, Kanner family, which included his mother Judith, an interior decorator, screenwriter and colorful matriarch; his daughters Caroline and Charlotte (just recently 15-year old Caroline had started designing with her father); Stephen’s sister Catherine, an illustrator; her husband Winston Chappell, also an architect, and their two daughters.

After leaving the editorship of L.A. Architect, I needed to extend my visa. Stephen and Chuck volunteered to let me work in their office, on my own projects as well as help develop theirs, and they sponsored me for a visa. I am indebted to them for doing this.

Stephen was never a cutting-edge LA architect in the sense of being avant-garde but he was certainly a very good one. He inherited a firm that been first established in 1946 by Chuck’s father, Herman, designer of clean-lined, commercial, modern buildings. Chuck and Stephen both loved that aesthetic and it flavored the work that was to come, in houses and housing as well as public buildings like the East Los Angeles Courthouse.

Stephen grew up in Brentwood and retained immensely fond memories of the cheerfully futuristic landmarks of his childhood, like Pacific Ocean Park and young Disneyland. When I first got to know him he was pushing the firm into a colorful, playful version of LA Modernism, earning popular acclaim for the red and yellow In “N” Out Burger in Westwood, that cleverly took its shape from the company’s logo. He explored these concepts in amazing, vivid images, reflective of a gift for painting as well as an innate ability to imagine a building in three dimensions. He was also an unusual person, combining professionalism with an innocent and infectious enthusiasm for people and things that charmed him.

26th and Santa Monica Boulevard Housing for CCSM
26th and Santa Monica Boulevard Housing for CCSM (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

While he toned down the color in recent years as the firm grew more prolific, and highly regarded, he remained true to the midcentury source, at the same time creating buildings that were sustainable in the traditional sense: well-built, practical, full of natural light and air. Among recent notable designs were his Jetsonian gas station on Slauson at La Brea, a lovely low-income housing complex at 26th and Santa Monica Boulevard for the Community Corporation of Santa Monica, and a sleek condo building fashioned out of a defunct commercial tower, now called Sunset Vine Tower in Hollywood.

Even as his firm got busier, he poured enormous amounts of time and energy into advocacy for the architectural community in LA (hear him on DnA, talking up other architects and “enlightened developers”), with his greatest legacy being A+D Museum, a showcase of architecture and design that he co-founded ten years ago with his great friend and collaborator, the Ghanaian architect Joe Osae-Addo, and others.

Since its founding the museum had been a permanent pop-up, bouncing from one location to another, reliant on meager funding but gradually building a loyal following drawn to its guerilla MO. I last saw Stephen in April at a proud moment: the opening of A+D’s first permanent location, on Wilshire Boulevard in Miracle Mile. Stephen, surrounded by family and supporters of the museum, just weeks before being overcome by the cancer that felled him, seemed joyful. While his death at 54 is painfully premature, this was a fitting, final, public moment for a man who got to make a large mark in a short time.

A+D Museum will hold a memorial for Stephen, opening November 4, 2010 until January 16, 2011. They have also established a memorial fund in his name.