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the enigma of arrival: meeting a. quincy jones

“I saw what I saw very clearly.  But I didn’t know what I was looking at.  I had nothing to fit it into.” V.S. Naipaul, The Enigma of Arrival

I can’t seem to finish Naipaul’s classic memoir:  I’ve picked it up numerous times over the years, and the bookmark never makes it more than half way through.  I just don’t love it, that’s the problem, but I do love the title.  I may not even understand the full breadth of his term “Enigma of Arrival”, but my own interpretation evokes a deep phenomenon, hinted at by that simple sentence.

I’ve become fascinated by the process by which we come to deeply know a place, a person, an institution, a phenomenon.  Starting from the initial glimpse and moving through the layers of making sense of it all, it’s a process we all engage in many times in our lives.  As an architect and visually-oriented person, I’m especially interested in how we get to know the physicality of a place, whether it be a building or a city.  After two years in Los Angeles, I’m aware of how I’ve begun to understand the physical city.  At first, I got around using a limited number of streets, relying on them as paths in an urban wilderness.  The paths became more familiar, and I began to use them as hooks to attach other paths, my understanding of this complex city gradually moving from isolated lines to woven pattern.  Certain areas of the city embodied my initial image of the essence of Los Angeles, usually thrilling and dramatic, only to be replaced—as I came to understand the city more deeply–by other images more complex and hard-won.

I’m going to use this concept as a tool for my newest project, the “rehabilitation” of the Gelb Residence, designed by Los Angeles architectural icon A. Quincy Jones in 1950.  We’ve recently purchased the house from heirs of the original owners, who lived in it for almost sixty years.  Almost untouched since it was built, we want to understand it, respect it, coax it back to vigor, and make it ours.

We “met” this house almost like you finally “meet” someone you’ve heard about for a long time, know a bit about, perhaps have seen a picture, and whom you sense will be a significant character in your life someday.  But whom you wait patiently for, or perhaps more to the point, forget about, only to hear about once again, waiting for the right moment.

Moving to Los Angeles in 2007, we had one four-hour block with a realtor to find a rental house that would be home for the next couple of years before we bought a house.  The realtor—at warp speed—showed us a variety of houses that introduced us to the different neighborhoods on the west side of town:  Venice, Santa Monica, West LA, Brentwood.  One house we saw was on a ridge above Kenter Canyon in Brentwood, and it was designed by A. Quincy Jones, an architect whose work I didn’t know at the time.  It was tired, but wonderful, with a sculptural, non-orthogonal mid-century feeling somewhere between late-period Frank Lloyd Wright and Marcel Breuer.  It had a few pragmatic shortcomings for us at that time, but standing in the Living Room, Landis said the prophetic words:  “If we were looking to buy a house right now that we could renovate, this would be perfect.”  And thus, our first glimpse of that intriguing-looking person across the crowded room, for whom the time to meet was not quite yet ripe.

Fast-forward three years:  We bought a house we like, in Culver City which we love, but for many reasons, have realized it might not be the right house for us.  A chance look at real estate listings showed that there was an A. Quincy Jones House for sale, just a few blocks from the one we had seen three years ago, with an open house the following weekend.  It wasn’t the same house, but it was similar, and it felt very familiar from the photos.

We’re about to meet, and on some level, we’ve already met.  We’re commencing the enigma of arrival.  Next:  making sense of it all.