Meeting with Architect David Montalba

You were born in Florence, Italy, and grew up between Switzerland and California. How do you think this international upbringing affected your worldview?

I feel very fortunate to have been exposed to a European sensibility and a true understanding of global citizenship an early age-it’s given me an appreciation of each culture, their differences, and their commonalities. Europe has a very different context, in terms of the natural surrounding which creates a certain thoughtfulness in considering what we design and build, and a careful consideration of its impact on history. In American culture, everything is more pronounced, often bigger, and more focused on its impact on the bottom line. The Swiss generally see the bottom line as a result, not the driving force behind decision making, but working with both of those cultures from a design perspective is really interesting and enjoyable.

What was your childhood ambition?

Aside from wanting to be a professional surfer, and always having a fascination with making things -tree houses, contraptions, machines-architecture and design were always going to be my future. My family has always been involved in buildings, particularly on my mother’s side in Switzerland. My grandfather was a builder, and my uncle was an architect, so building and thinking about a constructed environment has been in my life from an early age. As I grew up around the profession, mentors inside and outside my family had a tremendous impact on me and were inspirational in helping solidify that dream.

Tell us about your early work and your first commission...

Upon completion of my Bachelor of Architecture at SCI-Arc in Los Angeles, I worked for several practices in LA, including Frank Gehry, RIOS, and Pugh + Scarpa, learning perspectives of everything from larger-scaled corporate buildings to smaller design-oriented projects. Our first real commission was a pool house pavilion for a residence in Los Angeles. It was a Modernist glass volume we positioned as a flexible retreat and guesthouse- it had huge walls of glass and flexible spaces within. There are a lot of those ideas we still carry throughout our work today and have since carried to the next level.

You started your practice in 2004 with three staff members and now have a large team across two offices. How hands-on are you these days?

I was 34 when I started Montalba Architects with three members of staff.
Within a matter of years we grew to » 10, then 20, then 40 employees, and today we are in two offices [in Los Angeles and Lausanne, Switzerland] with a staff of around 60 people.  I might not be as hands-on as I was when the practice first started, but I try to maintain a hands-on approach to each project, especially during the design stages and project kick-off. I find this interaction with the client and the team to be important in setting the foundation and direction for the project and establishing healthy communication between everyone involved.

What are you currently working on?

Recently, we started pro bono work for a nonprofit women's shelter and pre-acclimation program in Geneva. It's an amazing organization and we are just now starting to develop a new HQ for them. Other projects include the renovation of a historical Edward Durell Stone building and two commercial office towers here in Los Angeles; a single-story residence tucked into the Beverly Hills hillside and a dual-story ocean-view house in Malibu; a large hotel project in Lake Tahoe; two Swiss-style chalets on an alpine mountainside; a new office HQ for the International Olympic Committee in Barcelona; and a boutique hotel in the rolling hills of Italy.

How has technology changed the way you work?

When I first started working in architecture in the 1990s it was just before the transition to digital and everything was still done by hand: sketching, drafting, rendering, model-making, everything. I remember during my first summer internship in an architectural office, we worked next to a landscape design practice that would often borrow our staff for deadlines and renderings -everyone was needed and it was all hands on deck. Today, it would take a single person on the computer to render these drawings, and we can just digitally map everything on our own. It's been interesting to see this transition between the tools of the past and the tools we use today.

How do you like to approach a brief, what questions do you ask clients, and what's the process?

We first evaluate each client about their priorities. It's very important we share and support a client's priorities and we are mature enough to be able also to turn down the work if the clients have different priorities. We love to design and see-through projects that clients are passionate about. It's about being inspired by the clients' dreams and vision and then crafting something transformative for them.

What unifies your work?

We bring an experience-focused and humanistic approach to all aspects of the process: we focus on how we experience space and how the building will affect our lives. Our design values have remained consistent throughout the years-working contextually in a shared landscape, honesty of materials, expansion of space, expression of technique, sculpted light, and movement through space/flow. All of these values create a common thread throughout our work.
Design is holistic and its presence is in everything we do.

What is your own home like?

We completed my family home at the end of 2019, and the pandemic really helped to speed up that lived-in feeling.
We have always enjoyed Santa Monica's charm, plus the coastal community and climate allowed us to create a home that emphasized the importance of our family and indoor-outdoor space. The main objective was to create a seamless transition between indoor and outdoor spaces, all while maintaining some degree of privacy with our neighbors.
This was achieved by creating a vertical courtyard in which the house is organized. It's a Swiss-Californian home, it melds together Swiss and Californian design elements with hints of warmth and texture from the wood and concrete.

What would be your dream commission?

An arts-focused building, with galleries, learning rooms, and public spaces; a writer's retreat in the mountains or desert; a small museum or a home that speaks to ideas of retreat and regeneration. Being challenged to use unique materials and building techniques would also be amazing.
An art-focused hotel that integrates ideas of residential, hospitality, and collections within a landscape is another dream project. We've been trying to dive deeper into the art realm, whether that's designing a residence for an art collector, a gallery, or a museum. I'm passionate about art so to work with a client who shares that appreciation but also likes to surf on Sundays sounds like a dream.
Courtesy Christie’s International Real Estate; 2022