Often, the innovators and changemakers in Los Angeles have brought their talents, vision, and resources from elsewhere in the hopes of breaking new ground in a constantly evolving metropolis. For Christopher C. Martin, however, Los Angeles is as much a part of his family history as is architecture, design, and innovation.
Since they came to California by covered wagon and settled in the Oxnard Valley in the 1840s, Martin’s family has made an expansive and lasting impact on the shape and structure of California, most notably in Los Angeles.
Now, nearly 180 years later, Martin and his cousin, David Martin, sit proudly at the helm of AC Martin, fresh off the completion of their tallest project yet: the Wilshire Grand—a building that created thousands of jobs, changed safety codes, and broke records as a consequence of artistry, rather than competition.
With every detail of the building’s design offering a subtle homage to the California landscape, the skyscraper is as much an expression of home as it is of opportunity for the city’s occupants. But for such an extravagant accomplishment of both architecture and planning, it was one that Martin almost didn’t undertake—until it became a labor of love.
The Family Business
The grandsons of landmark designer Albert C. Martin Sr., both Chris and David stepped into the shoes each of their fathers wore—those of architect and structural engineer. “As a kid, I realized that a lot of the really famous buildings in the Los Angeles area were done by our family firm, most notably Los Angeles City Hall, which my grandfather did in 1927,” Martin reminisces.
“My family had some involvement in the development of the city’s infrastructure, the buildings, the universities, the waterways, even the power systems. The discussion always ran through our family around the dinner table about how to make the community better, how to plan for very long term, how to understand the needs of the future, and what our plans should be today.”
While this kind of systematic and thoughtful planning helped yield their firm’s impressive 100-plus-year portfolio, at the family’s core was an interest in tinkering and a culture of hands-on innovation.
“Experimentation was standard,” says Martin of his childhood. “We operated on the questions of, ‘How do things work?’ and ‘How do you make them better?’” From cars to go-carts to motorcycles (and eventually, at the prompting of his son, Patrick—planes), Martin thrived on his passion for taking things apart and putting them back together better, faster, and more elegant than before.
An Abundance of Clay
During the corporate building boom of the 1970s and ’80s, the cousins’ complementary creativity allowed them to ascend to the ranks of their fathers. “At one point in time, we may have had 8 million sq. ft. under design and construction, just in five towers alone,” says Martin. “There weren’t a lot of competitors at that point, and the city was booming. We were doing so many office buildings that I used to say, ‘Architects need to have the clay to work with, and man do we have a lot of clay.’”
As the city evolved and its industries continued to shift, so did Martin’s approach. From corporate buildings and financial institutions to 60,000-plus units of adaptive reuse apartments in Downtown alone, Martin and his team remained agile, inspired, and receptive to the pulse of the city itself. “It wasn’t my intent to go into high-density housing,” reflects Martin. “I was trying to solve a problem of empty, vacant buildings.”
As a kid, I realized that a lot of the really famous buildings in the Los Angeles area were done by our family firm, most notably Los Angeles City Hall, which my grandfather did in 1927.
Sustainability is, after all, a core value of the AC Martin legacy. “In our family, you don’t waste precious resources,” he says. One of Martin’s favorite buildings in their portfolio, the LA City Department of Water & Power (LADWP), harnesses natural light through its floor-to-ceiling windows, converts residual electrons from the power plant for heating, and is cooled through the water fountain system that surrounds it. For a building completed in the 1960s, this conservation of energy and resources was well ahead of its time, and the building now boasts a LEED Platinum certification on its fiftieth anniversary. “That was a wonderful example of the simple concept of not wasting precious resources, and using the valuable materials of power, water, and light in an ecological way.”
While accepting an award from the LA Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, Martin shared an unlikely bit of advice passed down to him by his father from his grandfather. “He said to me, ‘Chris, remember this: Always give your clients a good floor and a good roof—and don’t win any prizes. Prizes are not your goal, they are a consequence of service to your client.’ There were probably 500 architects in the room,” recalls Martin. “And it was so foreign to them. I told them, while winning an award, that winning awards was not our goal. Our goal is to make our clients and the community successful from the impact of our work.”
So when the Wilshire Grand project came along, prizes were not in the forefront of Martin’s mind. “I had been working with my father and uncle for years on how to attract foreign capital direct investment into Los Angeles,” says Martin. “I had developed a relationship with a trustee of my alma mater, USC—a man named Chairman Y.H. Cho of Korean Airlines.” Connected casually through current USC President and close friend Dr. Max Nikias, Martin assumed he was being introduced to Cho (whom he at first thought was a pilot) because of a mutual love for airplanes. Many years and projects later, Cho asked him to help with the Wilshire Grand.
“He told me his real motivation was that the Korean population in Los Angeles is the second largest population of Koreans in the world, and he wanted to do this as an anchor for his relationship with the United States,” says Martin. “He wanted to make a very important signature project in Los Angeles as a way of responding to the U.S. investment in South Korea. It was both a good idea financially, but it was also a personal and cultural expression.”
Now the tallest building west of the Mississippi, the five-year, $1.35B project involving 11,000 people all over the globe was a huge undertaking to which Martin originally didn’t anticipate being able to dedicate more than his architectural eye. “Chairman Cho was asking me to also be the Development Manager,” says Martin. “He had asked me twice, and I’d refused him both times.”
That is, until his son Patrick passed away from leukemia shortly after ground was broken on the project. The third time Cho asked, Martin accepted—in memory of his son and free of charge. “We finished it on time, under budget, and with zero complaint or lawsuit problems,” Martin muses. “It’s kind of a hallmark project in LA … but for me, it was just a labor of love. Beautiful project.”
While Martin attributes much of his wisdom and success to the generations that preceded him, he looks toward the future through the lens of a lesson he learned alongside AC Martin’s fourth generation, his late son Patrick.
As a boy, Patrick came home one day with an unquenchable desire to fly an airplane. Martin remembers responding, “Well, if we need an airplane, I suppose we’ll have to build it.” What followed was a 6,000-hour journey to build the best, fastest, and most advanced airplane. “And we did it, together,” says Martin with pride.
The lesson learned between father and son during those many hours has stuck with Martin, who reflectively notes, “After doing that, we realized we can do anything.” While the Martin family has certainly done their fair share for Los Angeles to date, there is certainly more to come.