At Home with Architect Suisman, Artist Thompson

Architect Doug Suisman and his wife, artist Moye Thompson, prepare to walk their two children (Claire, 7, and Teddy, 5) to school one morning last week.
Architect Doug Suisman and his wife, artist Moye Thompson, prepare to walk their two children (Claire, 7, and Teddy, 5) to school one morning last week.

Architect Doug Suisman remembers well his first visit to Los Angeles. He came West in 1983 looking for work, after graduating from Yale (1976) and then obtaining his master’s degree at Columbia University. “I got off the plane from New York, rented a car at LAX and found myself on the 405, then the 10, then PCH,” he recalled last week at his home in Santa Monica Canyon. “I had no idea where I was going, really, but I was so happy to have suddenly found the beach. Since I couldn’t make a right turn onto the California Incline I took the next right at Entrada, then another right at the light by Canyon School. While I didn’t know it at the time I was literally circling the neighborhood within 50 yards of this house.” However, it would be a decade before Suisman would purchase the house, built in 1952. One day while biking around the canyon–one of his favorite things to do on a Saturday afternoon–he came upon the property which was in “serious disrepair. The gate was open so I walked in to find the garden overgrown and graffiti and dry rot everywhere. It looked like it had been abandoned and it turned out it was. In fact, it was in foreclosure, like many other properties at the time.” Suisman spent about three months renovating the then 1,000-sq.-ft. house which he described as “a poor man’s Eickler,” referring to a builder in the San Francisco Bay area well known for his mid-century ranch-style homes. “However, this house had no pedigree, ” Suisman said. “It was really very modest.” Initially Suisman was “just going to paint,” but he ended up taking the house “right down to the studs.” He moved in during November 1993–two months before the Northridge earthquake. While his house sustained no damage because he had “luckily” had some seismic work done during the rehab, the houses on both sides of his were red-tagged. “Here I was all excited at having just moved in, only to find my neighbors, who had both lived here for a long time, moving out,” Suisman said. “The repairs on both their properties took over a year by the time they settled with the insurance. ” In early 1997 Suisman met magazine writer Moye Thompson, a Harvard fine arts graduate (1985) who worked for Consumer Reports in New York. The couple were introduced by a mutual friend–fiction writer Mona Simpson, who now lives a block away from them in the canyon. Just four days before Thompson met Suisman on one of his many business trips to New York, she had purchased Earthworks, a pottery studio on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. However, the couple’s commuting back and forth soon took its toll, though not on their romance. Within a year Thompson sold the studio and the couple got married in their canyon back yard. One of Suisman’s first gifts to his wife was a pottery wheel which he suggested she set up on the back deck that offered both ocean and canyon views. Having been brought up on the East Coast and unfamiliar with the California climate, Thompson asked him, “But what if it rains?” He answered: “It won’t rain until the fall,” which “turned out to be true,” she recalled. In 2000 the couple embarked on a major renovation of their home, nearly tripling the space by adding a second story to accommodate their growing family, as well as “recycling everything we could,” Thompson said. “We preserved the original fireplace and there is no air conditioning. This house is perfect for us.” Suisman and Thompson have an enviable urban lifestyle, and feel “fortunate to be living in this magical canyon,” said Suisman, who served as president of BOCA, the local neighborhood association, for five years (1999-2004). Both work at home in separate studios on the 7,500-sq.ft. lot. There is a tree house for their two children whom they walk or bike to and from school almost every day. Claire, 7, attends Canyon Charter Elementary while Teddy, 5, goes to the nursery school in Rustic Canyon Park. Thompson often bikes with the children to Santa Monica where they enjoy shopping at the farmers’ market and Michael’s on 4th Street for art supplies. Thompson, 43, said her transition from writer to artist “just evolved.” While she started out by making more “functional pieces” such as simple clay bowls and vases, some of her most recent work has been “pure art.” Bandshells, currently on display in her living room, was featured in an exhibit at the Graystone Mansion and has been purchased by Barbara Lazaroff, the former wife of Wolfgang Puck. Vertical in shape, the sculpture consists of a number of cracked, oversized ceramic eggshells piled one on top of the other. Perched at each level are birds playing musical instruments. Thompson said that the technical aspects of the work sometimes take the longest to sort out, and that her color palette has changed since moving to the West Coast. “It’s lighter,” she explained. “I use more sand colors and earth tones. In New York I used a lot of black. She has also been adding more objects to her designs–“anything of beauty, really. Things I see, like a nice piece of driftwood at the beach, could end up in one of my pieces.” The artist said she does not find it difficult to part with her work and revels in the fact that it is “out there,” in people’s homes in Paris, London, even China. “Like my children I like to see them fly.” In this case she just hopes “they don’t fall and break!” Suisman, 51, works with public agencies, private developers and community groups to reshape the urban environment. His firm is committed to creating more humane, sustainable cities–from main streets and squares in small towns and villages to parks and boulevards in larger areas. Locally, he has been helping Canyon School develop a long-term vision for the campus which will eventually see a reconfiguration of the entrance and the administration building and replacement of the portable classrooms. Suisman Urban Design was selected by the City of L.A. to develop the master plan for First Street downtown which calls for a walkable urban corridor along the two-mile stretch from Bunker Hill to Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights. The street runs by City Hall and across the Los Angeles river. “We call it ‘from Mozart to mariachi,’ because it includes the Disney Center,” Suisan said. The architect’s particular expertise is in mass transit, currently a hot topic in L.A. He has been working with the MTA (Metropolitan Transit Authority) on the design of the Metro Rapid bus routes and shelters in an effort to make them more user friendly. Solving the problem of traffic and gridlock “is going to take some time,” Suisman said. “While there is progress being made, it’s hard for the public to see because the problem is not just physical but in people’s minds. They have to be ready to get out of their cars and start using mass transit where it exists instead of waiting for it to come to them. That’s what’s happening downtown where a whole new inner city is shaping up around transit.” Suisman said the need for urban transportation is “never-ending as long as a city is growing.” He points out that while an urban center like New York may be light years ahead of us, even that city desperately needs more public transit and is “seeking three more subway lines. ” The Arc, Suisman’s award-winning proposal for a new Palestinian state developed in partnership with the Rand Corporation, would link Jenin in the northern West Bank to Gaza City and Gaza Airport. Along the route would be high-density residences capable of supporting the projected increase in population even after the repatriation of refugees. Suisman became involved in the Rand project through Palisadian Ann Kerr, whom Thompson, ironically enough, met in 1985 in Cairo, where Kerr was teaching, “We have been friends ever since,” explained Thompson. “She’s now part of our family.” Four years ago Kerr invited the couple and their children to one of her regular weekend barbecues. In attendance was a man who worked at Rand. He and Suisman got to talking about the viability of a Palestinian state. In January 2004 Suisman joined the Rand team. While the project was stalled following the election of Hamas, Suisman is now planning a trip to Tel Aviv in May.