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VTBS: Building For Urban Needs:

Buildings by Johannes Van Tilburg’s VTBS firm can be found all over Los Angeles. Westsiders may be most familiar with Janns Court on the Third Street Promenade, and the Venice Renaissance, at the corner of Main Street and Rose Avenue in Venice, better known as the “Clown Ballerina” building for Jonathan Borofsky’s massive sculpture that hangs on its side.

VTBS’s stated goal is to “provide meaningful design solutions that effectively respond to the needs of our clients and the inhabitants of our buildings, while respecting the sensitive balance of community and the environment.”

Van Tilburg, the firm’s president, chief financial officer, and chief designer, has been based in Santa Monica since 1979. Originally from the Netherlands, he came to the US in 1965 and started his first firm, Johannes van Tilburg and Partners in 1971, at a Westwood location. As the business grew, Van Tilburg found it necessary to move, first to a location at Broadway and 11th Street in Santa Monica, then to a building in the downtown area (which he still owns).

In 1994, Van Tilburg founded VTBS with L. Gustaf Soderbergh and Navy Banvard, partners in his former firm. Banvard serves as vice president/secretary, with a concentration on planning and urban design; Soderbergh serves as vice-president and contributes to financial and personnel management of the firm.

After 18 years in the downtown area, VTBS moved to the firm’s current location, tucked into a tiny street in the burgeoning art and architecture area northeast of Bergamot Station.

“This is an adaptive reuse building,” explains the soft-spoken Van Tilburg. “This was Rainbow Records. Our office had grown to a point where we had outgrown our space.  We bought this industrial building. Santa Monica, as a city, is very pro-adaptive reuse. So we did that.”

Adaptive reuse, Van Tilburg points out, involves a certain amount of rebuilding, and the VTBS headquarters was no exception. “But we made a unique building. What we like about it [is] the top of the roof, which is kind of old-fashioned California. We have these high ceilings and cut these openings in the floor.”

Other adaptive reuse projects done by VTBS include the Flower Street Lofts, in downtown LA near Staples Center, and Washington Square, in the Marina. “It’s an old office building that’s reused as a housing loft building.”

He is also high on mixed-use projects. “I was born in a mixed use building in Holland. The house was in front of the street and the workshop was behind it.  In true fashion we inherited the buildings from our parents and we made new adaptive reuse out of it. The downstairs is a showroom, the upstairs is an apartment.”

Janns Court, the Promenade’s complex with retail (the Broadway Deli), offices, and apartments on different levels), was a pioneering mixed-use project for Van Tilburg, as was the Venice Renaissance. Both projects were built in the 1980s. “In the 90s we had a major recession and mixed use kind of stopped. Now it’s starting again. But I personally have a strong background in mixed use and I believe in it. It preserves land, it creates exciting environments, it brings people closer to services and transportation.”

The firm’s other areas of concentration include retail shopping centers, urban housing, such as UCLA Southwest, designed for graduate students, and offices, such as 2121 Wilshire, a medical building.

Van Tilburg is aware that Santa Monica is seen by some as moving toward bigger development, while losing affordable housing stock. He is vocal on this issue.

“Good housing always lasts. That’s why if we do urban infill in this city and we do it on a grand scale, we have to protect the neighborhoods.  Otherwise they’re going to riot. People will not sit still if they’re having their neighborhoods substantially altered.

“The City is increasing in size. People are coming.  How can we accommodate them? Can we stop them at the border? Can’t. Should we house them? Yes. Inclusionary? Yes. How to provide for them? At certain areas along the boulevards, we need to build denser.”

Van Tilburg has an eye out for sustainability in his firm’s projects, with the use of recycled materials. “Unfortunately we don’t allow recycled lumber in our construction. It must be new stamped lumber. We do recycle the [used] lumber-it goes to Mexico.

“When you do demolition you have to salvage materials. You have to post bond with the City, and say that you will recycle and properly dispose of all materials. So there’s lots of recycling going on.”

He mentions with pride a VTBS project in Hollywood that is “the largest green-roof building in the US.”

Van Tilburg believes that green building has to come about through a triple effort of developers, the community, and the government.

“The government has to legislate for it and the developers will do it – if it’s purely a voluntary system. What would you do if you had a project and you had a 15 percent cost overrun that you had to cut out of the project?  You got mandated to do the green roof and the green roof costs over a million dollars? Your eye goes immediately to that million dollars. The government now, through public awareness, has started to mandate green building. So Los Angeles passed an ordinance that every building over 50,000 square feet has to be LEED certified and that’s good.”

He’s also a promoter of mass transit. On June 26, VTBS hosted a fundraiser for Denny Zane’s  MoveLA project to get a half cent sales tax on the November ballot to fund transportation improvements. “I think as architects, employers, people in Santa Monica, we need to promote that cause.”  And he points out that VTBS has built projects near just about every stop on the Metro Red Line.

How does he see Santa Monica and the beach area developing over the next few years?

“I think Santa Monica prides itself on its sense of place, its appearance. The criticism is that they do not absorb enough density. It’s always somewhere else.  Santa Monica tries to protect itself. So I think Santa Monica is pretty much staying the same.”

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