Hip lofts, eco-friendly materials and contemporary live/work spaces may be the latest Santa Monica architecture craze, but they’ve been at the heart of local architect Michael Folonis’ designs for over 30 years.
“Counter to the throw away culture today in Southern California, I try to establish a more permanent character in my buildings,” says Folonis. “I’ve always believed a good architect sets his own pace so everything becomes fresh and new again on its own without jumping on that trend bandwagon.”
Folonis, Chairman of the Santa Monica Architectural Review Board, has called Santa Monica home since 1972. While attending the Southern California Institute of Architecture, he worked with Frank Gehry on various projects and after graduation was a field supervisor. Wanting to pursue the more creative side of architecture, Folonis opened his Santa Monica office in 1983. The firm has designed residential, commercial and mixed use buildings, primarily on the Westside.
His latest project, the Thornton Lofts, is a live/work space overlooking the Venice boardwalk. Loft design is open by nature, but these lofts feel almost boundless due to the high ceilings, floor-to-ceiling glass windows facing the ocean, and open kitchen on the expansive first level. Folonis compensates for potentially problematic design issues, such as those glass walls that can hinder environmentally conscious heating and cooling plans, by using natural resources.
“It’s called natural passive solar design, something we’ve been practicing for 25 years,” he explains. “It’s really about the orientation of the building related to the sun [and] opening it up where it’s going to take advantage of solar conditions.”
The interior temperature of the lofts is regulated in part by the favorable building design itself as well as carefully chosen interior surfaces such as concrete flooring. Folonis followed the same the passive solar design principle when building his own Santa Monica home 20 years ago. Similar concrete flooring remains cool in the summer and retains heat in the winter, reducing the need for interior air conditioning and heating.
Over the years, Santa Monica has changed from 50s World War II housing, most of which Folonis says “wasn’t very good”, to more “eclectic” housing, but Folonis’ inspirations remain the same and he says his buildings “have always had the same language.”
“I liked [Santa Monica’s] climate and what I thought were opportunities that didn’t exist further east in terms of design and people that were interested in a little more cutting-edge design and that kept me here,” says Folonis.
Folonis attributes Santa Monica’s diverse style to the change in demographics and increase in people who want to live on the Westside.
“Architecture, as with fashion and music, changes as society changes. It’s a cultural nuance that architects have been exploring for a while.”
The high point of Folonis’ career thus far is his recent election to the AIA College of Fellows, the most prestigious architectural honor that is bestowed on only 2,000 of the 80,000 members.
“That was really wonderful for me; that your peers think enough of you to elevate you,” says Folonis.
In addition to his firm’s work, Folonis says he and the Architectural Review Board are focusing on getting better buildings made in Santa Monica, in terms of design and quality.