The Bard of Laguna
“Every great architect is – necessarily – a great poet. He must be a great original interpreter of his time, his day, his age, “ Frank Lloyd Wright
If Frank is right, then Laguna has lost its poet laureate in Mark Singer. Mark was a great, original interpreter of his time, reimagining Laguna’s quaint hillside residences into dramatic cathedrals of modernism, nestled in flora, cantilevering off cliffs, joyously embracing the environment, inviting the singular California light into every nook and crevice. An altogether sensual experience.
Mark was a genius. Just look at his collection of homes. Unless you are averse to sculptural beauty, the tastiest blends of steel, stone, wood and glass, volumes of open space, the finest, most precise finishes – all of which are subordinated to and reverent of the great outdoors – then admit that you could happily live in any of them.
In a town that oddly missed the mid-century wave of open floor plans and floor to ceiling glass, Mark moved our town forward, made it up to date, coffee-table book worthy, designing homes on sites of singular provenance, with unimaginable views to the endless blue abyss.
For those with the lucky confluence of affluence and taste, and who happened to stumble upon the possibilities of “la vida Laguna,” he made their dreams of a rock star residence manifest.
Mark opened a world of living possibilities, changing the vernacular of Laguna architecture from Spanish, colonial and craftsman to modern and contemporary – fine custom homes blending the best of mid-century traditions with the latest innovation in materials and construction. But Mark’s great gift wasn’t his sense of design or choice of materials.
“Mark always had a big idea for his work, whether it was a house, or a piece of furniture, and that big idea drove the project forward like a freight train,” says Laguna architect Anders Lassiter, who worked for Mark for 10 years. “The idea could be about a form, or a material, or something less tangible, like the act of moving from one space to another. Whatever it was, he made it important, made it powerful, and made sure it was not lost in the maddening shuffle of getting a house approved and built.”
Some characterized his work as cold and austere, lacking the idiosyncratic vibe of Laguna’s craftsman tradition. But look closely and you will see homes swathed in warm materials like wood and stone, bathed in sunlight by day, and soft, accented light at night. I’m pretty sure he increased the value of everyone’s homes (a rising tide of good design lifts all bungalows). For that we all owe Mark a debt of gratitude.
As his son Ryan told me, “He always had the best sense of site design. His work had nothing to do with aesthetics and everything to do with experience; where you are on the site, how to frame the view.”
Added Anders, “With Mark’s homes, you don’t just occupy them as much as interact with them.”
I never got to know the man, perceived him a bit recalcitrant to stand in the public eye. I guessed he didn’t need the trappings of local celebrity, instead retreating to his wood working shop to indulge his avocation of making custom furniture. But I’m told he was warm, welcoming, funny, and endlessly helpful with those he cared for.
His daughter, Jessica Berman, told me, “My dad was very down to earth. He came from very modest beginnings and worked very hard for his success. He was a simple man. Loved doing everything himself and loved working with his hands. He designed and built a lot of furniture.”
But he also had a drive to be the best. “He was relentless, always educating himself through traveling the world to see works done by the greatest architects on the planet, as well as traveling to see the most primitive ruins… the earliest forms of architecture. He was a child. Fascinated with the beauty in it all,” explained Jessica.
Mark’s legacy may not be on an international stage, but in our little hamlet his art will be forever immortalized. His name will remain an architectural brand that will always precede the sale of his homes (thus increasing their value and cache). And just as the late Eric “Redz” Morton brought a constellation of great reggae musicians to this town because of his singular talent, Mark Singer’s time on this planet birthed a worthy succession of architects and builders with their own voices who are elegantly updating our city with dynamic and daring designs.
I’ll leave you with this. The screenwriter Mitch Glazer and his wife (the actress Kelly Lynch), own a fabulous John Lautner home in Los Angeles that was once featured in Vanity Fair. He told the magazine that, “Great architecture can improve your life.” I agree. So to those who are lucky enough to reside in a Singer home, I commend you on your good fortune, and hope you wake each day, take a breath, look around, and swoon over the intersection of your life with Mark Singer’s.
Billy Fried sits on the boards of Transition Laguna and the Laguna Beach Community Clinic. He hosts “Laguna Talks” on Thursday nights on KX 93.5, and can be reached at [email protected].