Los Angeles Times
July 1, 2004

   

Design genius at play
Gregg Fleishman combines 3-D concepts
and a penchant for puzzles in his
playhouses, which he views as
blueprints for affordable housing..

By DAVID A. KEEPS
Special to The Times

USING no tools other than his hands,
architect and furniture designer Gregg
Fleishman needs only 29 minutes to
transform puzzle-like pieces
of Finland birch into one of his Cluster
Structures, probably the most sophisti-
cated playhouse ever devised. "You
need opposable thumbs to do this," an-
swers Fleishman, "and you have to be
at least as intelligent as a chimpanzee."
Make that the kind of chimpanzee
that can pound out "Romeo and Juliet"
the first time it sits in front of a type-
writer. Fleishman is a man who mon-
keys around with mathematics to cre-
ate chairs and tables and futuristic
buildings that are unimaginable to most
of us.

In the sometimes puffed-up world of
architecture, where "genius" is an over-
used word, Fleishman is the real deal. In
the last 30 years, he has spent his own
money and time re-imagining the proc-
ess of design and building, following his
flights of creativity yet remaining unde-
servedly under the radar. If his studious
manner, spectacles, ever-present base-
ball cap and fluency in the language of
mathematics don't make that immedi-
ately clear, his modest lifestyle and low
profile certainly do.

For the students of Play Mountain
Place, a humanistic alternative school
founded by Fleishman's mother in 1949,
it doesn't matter whether he is in West-
ern Interiors magazine. He's just a cool,
overgrown kid - Bill Nye the Science
Guy meets Bob the Builder - who
makes neat playhouses.

Fleishman was one of the early stu-
dents in his mother's Culver City school
and, since 1972, has used the play-
ground and its inhabitants to test his
experimental designs. His latest Cluster
Structure may be a fun place for these
primary schoolers to hang, but it is also
an object lesson in three-dimensional
geometry. More important, it is a scale
version of the architecture Fleishman
one day hopes to popularize.

Although he has yet to apply his de-
sign principles to a full-scale building,
Fleishman is a rarity in the commercial
enterprise of architecture. A theoreti-
cian with a social conscience, he creates
designs that are a blueprint for prefabri-
cated, low-cost housing, which looks

more Utopian than utilitarian. "My
is to create affordable housing world-
wide," Fleishman declares.

Fleishman explains his design in the
closest approximation of lay language
he can muster. The Cluster, he says, is
an arrangement of solid wood panels
joined at the comers to create open
spaces "like a 3-D checkerboard." Each
module can be repeated and joined to-
gether infinitely, hence the term Clus-
ter, which provides customizing options
limited only by one's imagination.

Watching the gang of 6- and 7-year-
olds from Play Mountain clamber
through the Cluster playhouse, Fleish-
man also notes that it has an engineer-
ing integrity similar to the Egyptian
pyramids. "The kids are far more de-
structive to it than any earthquake
could be," says the 56-year-old architect.

"Gregg is a structural genius," says
David Wilson, the director of Los An-
geles' Museum of Jurassic Technology,
who furnished the museum's tearoom
with Fleishman's elaborate router-cut j
furniture. "Everything he-designs works
aesthetically and with an unusually
pure marriage of form and function."

Like Russell Crowe in the 2001 film
about a genius mathematician, Gregg
Fleishman has a beautiful mind. Rather
than build things from pieces, he decon-
structs solid forms into parts that can
be configured into innovative shapes
and spaces. As a furniture designer, he
can cut a simple sheet of plywood into
an intricate pattern of curves and coils
that allows the wood to be folded into a
lounge chair with a springy seat. Fleish-
man's architecture is even more ambi-
tious, and the Cluster is a demonstra-
tion model for his larger humanitarian
vision.

"Gregg is pursuing a direction that
has not quite fully revealed itself just
yet," observes Abby Sher, developer of
the Edgemar complex in Santa Monica,
who in 1992 commissioned Fleishman to
design umbrellas that complement the
Frank Gehry structure. "He likes com-
ing up with his own puzzles, just so he
can solve them."

Pleishman's dilemma has always
been figuring out how to take his de-
signs from drawing board to construc-
tion site. After studying architecture at
USC under building science professor
Konrad Wachsmann, Fleishman started
his career working on concrete office
buildings and parking structures, in-
cluding the whimsical Raleigh Studios
lot with a corkscrew parking ramp.

When the concrete building industry
declined in the '80s, Fleishman was we]!
underway in a new career. He had begun
experimenting with the plywood he was
using for concrete molds as a material
for building furniture. Thirty-three
prototypes later, he had completed
Lumberest, a chair that boasted a flex-
ible back cut into a shape resembling a
human spine. By 1985, Fleishman had
begun exhibiting the sculptural furni-
ture in West Hollywood and Santa
Monica galleries devoted to functional
art. As much works of sculpture as com-
fortable pieces of furniture, Fleishman's
chairs and tables reference influences as
diverse as Greek key patterns, Chinese
fretwork and boxy Bauhaus forms.

Even while he enjoyed a period of rec-
ognition as a gallery artist, Fleishman
remained consumed by the potential of
t geometric architecture, erecting his
first project- a domed structure - at
Play Mountain Place in 1972. Though he
admired Buckminster Fuller as a pio-
neer, Fleishman considered Fuller's fa-
mous geodesic domes to be all glory, no
guts because "he never really applied his
principles to building a house." The
problem with Fuller's dome - a puzzle
that Fleishman grappled with for 20
years - was that there was no way to
add wings or rooms without corrupting
the dome's perfect symmetry,

The solution arrived rather unex-
pectedly 10 years ago. Fleishman was
building a dollhouse with a group of 10-
year-old girls from Play Mountain and
realized that the 26-face geometrical
form he was working with could fit per-
fectly with clones of itself. Thus, in a
dollhouse, the Cluster was born.

Around that time Fleishman bought
a building at Washington Boulevard
and Main Street in Culver City. He in-
stalled a workshop, made the front a
gallery for his furniture and scale mod-
els of concept buildings. The store win-
dows, he decided, "would be my calling
card to the world."

It was a good call. Though the world
has not yet swamped Fleishman's
switchboard, the building's prime loca-
tion in booming Culver City has in-
creased its value, allowing Fleishman to
borrow the money to continue his work.
"I continuously have to justify myself to
people for operating this way," says
Fleishman. "The benefit is that in the
long run I will end up with a portfolio of
designs that is unparalleled.

"If I could make a judgment," he adds
with uncharacteristic impetuousness.
"You'd have to look back to Leonardo or
Michelangelo to find this kind of output
over time, and they were fully funded by
patrons. If I can do that too, why not go
for it?"
Fleishman is going for it in other
ways as well. Paced with the possibility
that "I will run out of money at some
point," he has had to consider how to
balance art and commerce.

In the past, manufacturers have
shown interest in his furniture designs,
but despite technological advances,
they still require more materials and
production time. "They will never be in-
expensive," Fleishman admits.

Similarly, his architectural concepts
could lower construction costs in a large
housing tract, but building one Fleish-
man home would be just as expensive as
a traditional model. "It's hard for me to
go out and sell it, because it's taken me
this long to figure out how to explain it,"
he says.

Toward that end, Fleishman has hit
upon something that may make popu-
larizing his work simpler. He is now of-
fering his Cluster play structures for
sale - $2,400 per 5-foot-wide module,
available from Fleishman's studio, (310)
202-6108, or at www.greggfleish
man.com - to schools, homeowners
with backyards, even apartment-dwell-
ing Zen adepts who want a portable -
and very groovy - meditation chamber.

thought."

And Fleishman recently joined
forces with Traffic Works, a Los Angeles
manufacturer and distributor of educa-
tional toys and gift items for museum
stores, to produce sets of building
blocks that illustrate his principles.

Like many who have become in-
trigued with Fleishman, Traffic Works'
Steve Josephson had driven by Gregg's
window for a few years and admired his
work. "Finally, I just went in and started
talking to him."

The result, after a year in develop-
ment, is that Josephson's company re-
cently launched three Gregg Fleishman
Cluster Structures: the 43-piece Tower
Pak and the 26-piece Rhombicube Pak
retail at $20, the 50-piece Plato Pak at
$25, available from Traffic Works (323)
582-0616. Made of colorful translucent
die-cut polypropylene pieces that can
be assembled in countless ways, they
are educational toys for kids and pieces
of mod tabletop or hanging sculpture
for adults.

It is fitting that Fleishman, the prod-
uct of a progressive California child-
directed education, may find commer-
cial validation designing educational
playthings for kids. A new generation
growing up with Fleishman's Clusters
may even intuitively understand arid
embrace the architect's progressive de-
signs. Not that he worries about it.
"Gregg is committed to developing new
ideas," says Josephson. "He works so
hard on his projects that he hasn't
taken time to market himself."

This, perhaps, is the most difficult
puzzle Fleishman will have to solve -
how to bring his ideas to the market in
order to bankroll his groundbreaking
architecture and design. Driven by a
ceaseless creativity that propels him to
new problems and ingenious solutions,
he is always in pursuit of the elusive per-
fection that pure mathematics and ge-
ometry promise. "I am trying as hard as
I can," Plelshman says of his life's work,
"but this project is bigger than I expected".