Barbara Bestor is an architect based in Los Angeles. Since 1995, her firm Bestor and Associates has been responsible for creating many noteworthy structures including the small footprint Blackbirds residencies in Echo Park and the Beats by Dre Headquarters in Culver City. Her work is thoughtful and thorough, taking neighborhoods, design, and humanistic needs into balanced and careful consideration. Step inside her office with GAL to learn more about how stories help Barbara create her singular storeys.
Girls At Library: What was the name of the first book you fell in love with that turned you into a lifelong reader?
Barbara Bestor: In third grade I was deeply into the very long series of Oz books by L. Frank Baum. It’s a crazy series! So much imagination. There’s The Wizard of Oz of course, but there’s also a hundred other ones.
GAL: What do you think it was about the series that grabbed you?
BB: One lead character in the series is princess Ozma. She’s a Wonder Woman-y type. I gravitated towards that particular book in the series because she’s a gentle but political princess. She organized the alternative universe that was Oz. Although, I’m sure in retrospect, I think that it’s got a lot of casual racism and stuff that goes with American attitudes in the 20th century. But still, it’s an enthralling adventure series.
GAL: Why do you read?
BB: I read largely for pleasure. I like reading a lot of stuff that takes place in other countries and cities. I like the feeling that I’m having some other experience of the world, seeing through other eyes, or another’s imagination. I really like good prose, too. I’m not as fascinated by plot as I am in the beauty of a good sentence.
GAL: What is the last thing you read that you absolutely loved?
BB: I’ve been reading a lot of Jane Gardam lately. I loved her Old Filth series. I also loved Michael Chabon’s Moonglow. I was on a Elizabeth Strout tear recently and there’s a fair amount of her work out there. I switched to Kindle about a year ago for marital reasons [laughs]. I download stuff that I can read at night without keeping other people awake.
BB: The best thing about reading on a Kindle is the opportunity to find more books super easily. More Elizabeth Strout? Yeah, there’s another one, click, click. Perfect for binge reading.
GAL: The best kind of guilty pleasure.
BB: The algorithm recently led me to Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson. That was an interesting novel. I was reading some books and articles on the history of slavery, saw the Twain book in the suggested reads, and I wondered what is the plot? After I looked up the plot and I’m thinking that is just a weird plot, I gotta read this! Nature versus nurture type of thing. Twain critiques identifying people by their supposed race. I recommend it.
GAL: If you could build a structure for a fictional character, who would you build it for? What would you build?
BB: Noir as architecture is an interesting concept to work with. What comes to mind is a Henry James character from his short story, The Jolly Corner. It’s about a guy who grew up in New York City, moved to Europe for most of life as an ex-pat, and returns to the States when he inherits his parents’ house. He’s living in that house, which is haunted by a ghost, and it turns out that the ghost is actually a version of him if he had stayed in the U.S. He catches a glimpse of the ghost in the mirrors and around corners. It would be a haunted house interiority kind of theme, so that would be an interesting project to build something for.
GAL: Break it down for us. How does an architect use story?
BB: Being an artisan is a very collaborative experience. Within my office, we have so many different people working on every project, from builders to contractors to designers. We really have to sit down and ask ourselves, “What are we going for with this piece?” Of course, some practical decisions are determined by the client, but some are determined by the neighborhood itself. A good example of this balanced interaction would be a house we designed in Venice Beach awhile ago. Venice was just kind of getting going at its big building boom. People were knocking down these little bungalows and building giant boxes in their place on very skinny lots. The house we built is a memorial to the lost bungalows.
GAL: How so?
BB: The house feels like it’s a bungalow suspended in air. The second floor was designed to function like a bungalow would and is a different color, and the lower floor is kind of mostly glass and recesses. It’s more like a sculptural abstraction of the bungalow. The whole downstairs part is open and public type of living room space and then the upstairs has all the bedrooms and stuff. But, anyhow, so that one I think is, you know, pretty clear. Like using a certain symbolic narrative to kind of talk about doing a house in this kind of area not just pretend that architecture is autonomous and doesn’t have anything to do with where it is.
GAL: Are there any architects whose books or written philosophies you would suggest to interested GAL readers?
BB: A lot of architects don’t write, but instead focus on building itself as their narrative. Atelier Bow-Wow of Tokyo does all kinds of stuff that’s on the edge of art in architecture, but they also create little houses in Tokyo. They have both a light heartedness and a seriousness of purpose and beautiful drawings that are exciting in terms of narrative.
GAL: Generally speaking, besides for marital reasons mentioned previously, do you prefer to read on a Kindle, or do you like physical books best?
BB: I love physical books. My favorite books were always those Everyman's Library editions. They’re a great size and good for reading on the beach. Kindles are great on planes. Though, I went on a three-week trip to Africa eight years ago. I knew there wouldn’t be a place to plug in my Kindle anywhere so I went to the local used mystery sci-fi bookstore in Glendale and picked up 25 greatest Penguin Mystery paperbacks. They fit in my backpack, and I tore through them for three weeks. I then gave each one away when I was done with it.
GAL: If you were to write your memoir, what would you title it and why?
BB: Pattern Recognition.
GAL: We have a friend who has a sanity shelf, which is dedicated to books that she returns to again and again to reread for pleasure, knowledge, and solace. What books would be on your sanity shelf?
GAL: Do you like book clubs? Have you ever been part of one?
BB: Yes, I had a history one for a while with a couple other women. I went to such a liberal school that I didn’t have to take normal American history. I believe I took Marxism for my American history requirement. I didn’t know when the Civil War was until later in life. It was a fun experience doing that American history reading group.
GAL: Please recommend three books.
BB: Simians, Cyborgs, and Women by Donna J. Haraway
Five California Architects by Esther McCoy
Life? or Theater? by Charlotte Salomon