Award-winning architect Janek Dombrowa’s journey to Topanga began in pre-Solidarity Poland in 1969. He remembers vividly being an eight-year-old boy on a boat heading for America across the Atlantic ocean staring at 30-foot waves. He recalls it being extremely scary.
“The tablecloths were wet so the dishes wouldn’t slide off the tables,” he said.
Getting permission to come to America was a long, complex and arduous process. But once the Dombrowa family knew they could come, Janek and his two siblings were sent to English classes in Poland.
“But we spent the time ice skating, as it was winter and the lake near the classroom was frozen. So when I came to the United States, I only knew how to count to ten, the names of basic animals and basic words.”
Janek’s illustrious career in architecture began with making a model fort for a school history project. Because his English was so bad and he couldn’t write the assigned essay on the British-French-Indian wars of the 1700s, Janek’s teacher agreed he could do something else.
“My father had been a lawyer in Poland, but wasn’t able to transfer his credentials to America. So he ended up working as a technician in a laboratory doing food processing. The company made popsicles. They had hundreds of boxes of popsicle sticks they were throwing out. So I took them and cut them up to make a fort. It was maybe three feet by four feet. It was incredibly well received. Suddenly, I was the star in the school.”
What did he use for reference? “Mostly imagination, a lot of photos. At the time, Daniel Boone was on television, so I had the images in my mind of the frontier. The reaction to the fort gave me a level of self-confidence and a sense that I could build anything.”
His all-boys high school in Chicago focused on engineering and architecture. In ninth grade, pupils there were taught to draw and make models of buildings.
Janek won a drafting competition in ninth grade and was given a slide rule as his prize. “I still have that slide rule. I don’t really know how to use it.”
When it came time to decide what to study at university and where to go, Janek chose USC because of its excellent architecture program. “They gave me a wonderful scholarship.”
Jumping to the early ’90s, Janek is happily married to Bonnie Morgan (owner and publisher of Topanga New Times) and they have six children between them: Bonnie’s four and Janek’s two. “We were the Brady Bunch.”
Now 67, Janek Dombrowa has been a professor of architecture at USC since 1998 and runs his own successful architecture business out of his offices in Topanga with a staff of four.
Before he moved to Topanga with his family in the 1990s, Janek had visited Topanga 20 years before and knew he liked it, so was happy to move here with his family from Mar Vista, in West Los Angeles.
“I had a friend who lived above Hidden Treasures. He brought me here a couple of times in his MG with the top down, driving up the highway, and it was spectacular. It was green. It was peaceful. And I realized as an architect it’s suburbia, essentially. Except it’s the urban/rural interface suburbia, which is the best kind.”
Living in Topanga brings great beauty but also challenges, perhaps the biggest being the risk of fire. “Houses in Topanga are made mostly of wood. And not very well. I flew over the Woolsey fire two weeks after. The buildings that remained standing were very few where there was a big burn out. They were buildings that were really well protected against fire. I remember flying over one in particular near Pepperdine. The building was surrounded by decimated charred black earth and the only other color was white powder which was the outline of the trees as they burned and collapsed into ashes. That building had roll-down shutters all around. It had fire sprinklers. It had a tiled roof. So it was hard to burn. It survived, the only building left in the middle of a black mountain.
“The important thing that Topanga has going for it is it is an incredibly well-organized monitoring watch system, the early warning. The second part is Bravo 69. I think Bravo 69 cannot receive enough credit for what it does. It has established a base for helicopters to bring in water, but it also moved the base from where the county fire department wanted it to be originally onto a hill which is much closer to the canyon. So once the helicopters fill with water, they are coming down rather than flying over a ridge. And that difference in time and power and fuel consumed is huge in terms of early response. What will continue to save Topanga and has saved it before and gives it the chance to survive is the fact there can be an early response and the fire can be suppressed.”
Fellow architects Janek admires include Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright and Frank Gehry. “Le Corbusier designed a villa for Gertrude Stein which is spectacular. Whether he’s right or wrong is beside the point. What’s important is he proposed a whole new set of rules and then demonstrated physically how to follow those rules.”
Which brings us to Artificial Intelligence. How is AI impacting architecture?
“AI is interesting for me because I’m seeing it at the student level and then experimenting with it in my office here in Topanga. What AI does right now is it opens up your panorama of what you’re thinking about by bringing in things you don’t expect. For example, it helps you look at everything very critically. Not so much that it tells you your idea is terrible but it tells you alternatives and as a result of seeing those alternatives you realize the strength or limitations of your original idea. It’s a completely positive thing and won’t do me out of a job. Because it’s so fast and immediate, you can design something in two or three days and then run it through AI and you realize there are other ways to try. Frank Gehry, for example, had to make literally hundreds of models and modify them, asking other people their opinion. For a while, Gehry had young architects working for him to confront his ideas. AI does exactly that. It brings an outside eye. It bases its creativity in things that already exist. It doesn’t imagine new designs, it puts your ideas together in a different way.”
What makes a good architect? “In terms of the pre-qualifications to be an architect, you have to be comfortable with math, so you can easily move through numbers. Drawing is important, because it’s a hand/eye coordination that we’ve had as human beings for a very long time. I know students who are incredibly good at using software, but there’s a stigma in not being able to draw well. They suffer a little bit, thinking ‘I’m good, but…’ If you are one-on-one with clients and you can draw upside down, people are kind of goo-goo-gaga and you can convince them of a lot of things.”
Janek can draw upside down. He designs buildings from 800-square foot homes to huge developments with 500 units. As long as clients agree to let him think outside the box and experiment, he’s happy.
Topanga is a notoriously difficult place to build. Janek says you can’t build Additional Dwelling Units here. He said, “The coastal act is essentially saying we’re here to protect the environment and increase the enjoyment by the public. At the same time, they’re not promoting more buildings. Then the fire department is saying we can’t protect you, so therefore we can’t be involved in allowing you to build.”
If you do decide to build your own home in Topanga and find a suitable piece of land, it can take up to three years to complete the project. “If you are proactive, you don’t have any conditions that would preclude straightforward processing, it’s maybe three years. One of the big issues is biology. If you have land on which there is any kind of animal life, that life is cyclical. So if you’re going to analyze how you are going to impact the biosphere, you have to study that biosphere through its full cycle. And sometimes you have to return. If you have nesting birds, if there is any determination that there are owls present, you have to study their environment while they are nesting and if you miss something you have to come back. A lot of plants have flowering cycles which aren’t all in the spring, so you have to study plants in the spring, later in the summer and understand the consequences of what you are going to do to those plants.
“The other issue is proper access for the fire department which needs a 60-foot access road. If you have a piece of land that doesn’t percolate, then you’re stuck. That’s when water doesn’t drain quickly enough. For example, an 800 square foot little jewel I designed is on a pad that was cut out of a mountain. During the summer rains I went there and realized the test pit was filled with up to four feet of water and it hadn’t percolated. So now we have to use newer systems to accommodate that. In this case, the septic designer is finding a solution to get around the percolation. Basically, the grey water will be diverted into the landscaping, having been micro-treated before it gets to that stage. In Topanga, analysis has to be done based on the topography. All these things are time-consuming. Topanga is in a coastal zone so the process of assessment and evaluation approvals is generally a year. And then you have to make sure all the documents exactly match each other. Then you go through the process of the actual building, which has its own adventures.”
Janek has this advice for people who want to build their own home in Topanga. “I think the thing to do is buy an existing house. It’s much easier to modify something that exists to fit your needs and open up to nature, bring nature in, whatever it is that you would like to do, than it is to start from scratch. To start from scratch is complex, time-consuming, and expensive.”
In 2015, Janek, Bonnie and an investor bought Rosewood (down the side of Froggy’s) with a view to creating a kind of art and technology center. “We were always interested in having something focused on kids, as we had young kids,” said Janek. “We wanted to help foster a comfort with technology in the context that kids are painting, writing,doing sculpture, and film. So we started hosting Earth Day events for kids and families. Covid came and we need to rethink how we can serve the community. Rosewood will always be a work in progress; the space works well. Our tenants are artistic, entrepreneurial and over time we’ve created a bit of a village of our own.”
Janek Dombrowa has no plans to retire or move from the place he calls home.
The next Transplant is Leanne Hirsh from England, an Emmy-winning make-up artist and perfumera.