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The Legacy of Modernist Architect Mark Singer

His single-minded vision changed the look of Laguna Beach

In hillside areas where wooden houses have fallen victim to horrific brush fires, the architect's signature concrete survived.

Not long after Laguna Beach architect Mark Singer designed his first modernist home in the community in the late 1970s, he and his wife, Myriam, were having dinner at a local restaurant. At the next table, a woman who had just seen the house as part of a tour was telling her friends about it. She was shocked, Myriam Singer said. “It had no hallways!” the woman exclaimed, having no idea that she was within earshot of the young architect who disdained the cozy enclaves of Laguna’s signature home look – quaint wooden cottages.

Singer did not do quaint. And he seldom used wood as a structural element. His signature material was concrete in myriad forms, plus metal and wide expanses of glass.
“It was beautiful,” the woman confided to her tablemates. “But I could never live there.”

Plenty of people live in Singer homes now. The visionary architect, who died in September at 67 of pancreatic cancer, broke the mold in Laguna Beach at a time when the town was still considered – at least by traditionalists who jealously guarded its image – a bohemian outpost. “Mark Singer would not do the warm and fuzzy beach look,” said architectural firm owner Ed Lohrbach, 79, who began designing homes in Orange County in 1958. He admired Singer’s work. “He was cutting-edge. He would not play safe.”

Traditionalists sitting on city boards managed to block some of his proposed projects or force modifications. But Singer, who was born on New York’s Lower East Side and spent much of his childhood in Los Angeles’ Baldwin Park, had a diehard determination that matched the old guard’s defiance. He was the leading figure in bringing to Laguna Beach contemporary architecture that featured sharp lines, open-spaced interiors and the inclusion of the outside world through liberal use of glass walls and skylights.

“He transformed the architecture of Laguna Beach,” said architect Marshall Ininns, who collaborated with Singer on some projects. Singer took the community “from pitched roofs with shake wood shingles, wood siding and brick trim to glass walls and use of materials like stone and stucco,” Ininns told the Los Angeles Times last year. That look has been adopted by several area architects, but is still often attributed to Singer. “Every time people see a building with sharp corners,” Singer said in a 1998 Los Angeles Times interview, “it’s a Mark Singer building.”

Singer’s light-filled homes won numerous American Institute of Architects awards and are prized by owners. Not to mention Realtors, who proclaim they have a listing for a “Mark Singer home” when one comes on the market. Some of these homes carry eight-figure price tags.

One of the most stunning is a multistory beachside home for tech executive Mark Towfiq and Carol Nakahara that took more than three years to construct, finally being finished in 2015. The exterior is mostly concrete brick; many of the interior walls are made of rugged, board-formed concrete and contain no wood, although they do have the faint imprint of wood grain. With its glass walls and expansive vistas of the constantly churning Pacific, the home takes on the feeling of an ocean-going ship. Towfiq said he and his architect got along famously, which was lucky, because Singer liked to be involved in nearly every design choice in his homes. On one of the downstairs levels sits a full-sized billiards table. “Mark picked the color of the felt,” Towfiq said.

Singer designed scores of homes during his nearly four-decade career, and of course not all of them got quite the detailed attention that he gave major projects. But he always wanted to be involved. “He was never just design a home and give us the plans,” said Singer’s longtime associate, Neela Kashyap. “He wasn’t interested in that kind of project. Each one was like his baby.”

And he wanted things done his way. “Mark was stubborn,” said Myriam, his wife of about 40 years until their 2014 divorce. “The more people opposed what he was doing, the more he wanted to do it.” Singer would compromise, but only so far. Lohrbach said, “I’ve known him to give a retainer back and walk away from a client if he was not being allowed to do what he wanted to do.”

Singer’s hands-on style limited his fame as an architect to the local area. The vast majority of his projects were in Laguna Beach, and he would take commissions only about as far away as La Jolla. He got offers from other parts of the country, including New York, but turned them down. The irony was that most areas outside of Laguna Beach were more welcoming of modernist designs, and would have given him less opposition. “There’s a sector in town that’s paranoid of change,” Singer complained in a 1997 interview with Coast magazine. “Things are not the same. You have to deal with what’s here now. We need new things.”

One of his fiercest battles came in the mid-1990s over his transformation of an old-fashioned, downtown market into a sleek, upscale restaurant. Singer mostly won the drawn-out design battle waged before various city bodies, including the City Council. And the 230 Forest Ave. restaurant, which he co-owned, was successful. “I think the popularity probably bothers those who were against us,” he told Coast at the time. Former mayor and City Council member Ann Christoph, who opposed several of Singer’s projects, said the fights were less over his modernist architecture and more over the fact that buildings of historic value would be knocked down or vastly modified. “I don’t hate Mark Singer, and I respect his work,” said Christoph, who is a landscape architect. “But as far as historic preservation is concerned, he was an impediment.”

Although Singer enjoyed the company of close friends, he was not a glad-hander. And he was sometimes less than diplomatic, even in the aftermath of a horrendous fire in 1993 that destroyed or severely damaged more than 400 Laguna Beach homes. “Some people, because of their personal likes and dislikes, select materials that are not necessarily the best choices,” he said of wooden homes in a Los Angeles Times interview that year. “And some people now have paid the price.” It’s a good thing Singer enjoyed solitude.

He and Myriam met at a party in Los Angeles in 1970, shortly after she arrived from her native Peru. She spoke almost no English and Mark, who was studying engineering at Cal State Los Angeles, knew almost no Spanish. They married about a year later, still not speaking much of each other’s languages. “Don’t ask me how we got along so well back then,” she said. “I think Mark liked the fact that he didn’t have to talk much.” Their son, Ryan, also an architect in Laguna Beach, believes his mother’s home country influenced his father’s work – especially the centuries-old ruins of Machu Picchu with its still-standing stone walls. “He saw a sense of permanence in places like that,” Ryan said. “We would talk about how hundreds of years after we were gone, a house could still be there.”

When attorney Rebekah Bhansali was house hunting in Laguna Beach in 2005, the area’s traditional, wooden cottages charmed her. Until she went inside. “Every one I went into was dark,” she said. “I came from Oregon where it was always dark. I didn’t understand why everyone didn’t want a lot of windows in California.” She and her husband – former Pimco Managing Director Vineer Bhansali, who left the investment firm in December to start his own company –  have now lived in three Singer homes, including one they commissioned him to design for an inland property adjacent to the Cleveland National Forest.

“It melds the outside and the inside,” Rebekah Bhansali said of the weekend home completed in 2013 that has vast forest views. “There is always light coming in from somewhere.” She especially likes that Singer framed, through tall glass panes, a view of an existing, mighty oak tree on the property so that it could be seen while climbing the staircase. “He was able to integrate everything that was special about the property into the house.”

Perhaps Singer’s most personal home, completed in 2001, was designed for himself and Myriam after their children, Ryan and Jessica, were grown and on their own. Located in the hilltop, Arch Beach Heights neighborhood of Laguna Beach, it offers a nearly 360-degree view that takes in the distant Saddleback mountain on one side and the Pacific on the other. He designed other buildings on the property for his studio, offices, garage and beloved wood shop. Although Singer mostly rejected the use of wood as a structural element, he loved it for making furniture.

After the divorce, he stayed on in the house, which will soon go on the market, said Kashyap, who continues to work for the firm Singer founded. No one lives in the house, though it still contains numerous pieces of wooden furniture he designed and built, mostly using exotic, highly polished woods. There are tables of various sizes, cabinets, bar stools (for which he won an American Institute of Architects award) and living room chairs. And in the bedroom, with its distant view of the Pacific, are several items he designed, including the bed where he died.

Like many of Singer’s projects, the home was oriented in such a way that nearby houses could mostly not be seen. Outside, the only sound that could be heard on a recent visit was from a strong wind that was a remnant of an overnight storm. “It’s so peaceful here,” Kashyap said. “Mark liked that.”

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