Barry Elbasani, an architect whose master plans and buildings were frameworks for revitalizing downtowns throughout the country, died on Tuesday, June 29, 2010, at his home in Berkeley, California. He was 69.
The cause of death was brain cancer, said his wife, Kathleen, and his son, Colin.
Mr. Elbasani, one of the founding principals of ELS Architecture and Urban Design in Berkeley, was responsible for major buildings and plans in Milwaukee; Portland, Oregon; Phoenix; Summerlin, Nevada; Los Angeles; Austin; and Coral Gables. Grounded in a belief that architecture and urban design were interdependent, his designs drew on the principles of thriving urban streets.
Mr. Elbasani and his firm came to national prominence in the 1980s and early 1990s with a series of collaborations with the Rouse Company. The first was the Grand Avenue in Milwaukee, which linked two existing department stores two blocks away from each other by connecting them through a historic arcade and a new arcade.
The next project with Rouse was the mixed-use center Pioneer Place in downtown Portland, Oregon. ELS initially worked for the Portland Development Commission, preparing a four-block master plan for the downtown that accommodated the planned light rail system. While local codes would have allowed a 40-story building, the ELS/Rouse Company design for Pioneer Place instead placed a three-story retail pavilion on the multiblock site’s prime location, across the street from the historic courthouse. The approach preserved the human scale of the city and allowed the project to build a market for the project, which includes an office tower and an additional block of retail built as a later phase. By creating a sense of place, the project served as a catalyst for other development downtown.
The Shops at Arizona Center, in Phoenix, Arizona, also for Rouse, took a similar approach by creating a retail center that formed an edge to an oasis landscape, designed by the SWA Group and flanked by office buildings. The public space and the restaurants establish a sense of place, allowing the retail to follow the market, which turned out to be food and entertainment. “Sometimes a piece of the pro forma may not make sense at first—a low-rise building, a collection of shops in a downtown—but the fundamental idea of respecting a historic landmark, or creating a new open space where there isn’t any, that makes sense,” Elbasani said in an interview. “That distinguishes the development.”
One of Mr. Elbasani’s last projects with the Rouse Company before General Growth Properties purchased Rouse in 2004 was the Village of Merrick Park in Coral Gables, Florida, a mixed-use retail/office/residential development oriented around a public garden.
The son of Albanian immigrants, Mr. Elbasani was born May 16, 1941 in Brooklyn, New York, where he grew up. He attended Stuyvesant High School, a public high school in New York City that specializes in mathematics, science, and technology, and graduated in 1960. He received a Bachelor of Architecture degree from the Cooper Union in 1964 and a Master of Architecture in Urban Design from the Harvard University Graduate School of Design in 1965. At Harvard, he studied with Spanish Catalan architect Josep Lluís Sert and Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki.
After leaving Cambridge, he took a position as a senior designer at Victor Gruen’s office in Los Angeles, where he gained an early appreciation for retail design. He then moved to Berkeley, worked for the Oakland Redevelopment Agency, and became a lecturer at UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design, where he led studios in the Architecture Department’s Masters program. In 1967, he and two other architects, Donn Logan and Michael Severin, won a national competition held by the American Institute of Architects to design the Broome County Arena in Binghamton, New York. The trio formed ELS (then known as ELS Design Group) that same year.
The arena, which ultimately landed on the cover of the December 1973 issue of Architectural Forum, served as a springboard for much of the firm’s work: the client’s representative for Broome County, Steve Dragos, went on to work for the Milwaukee Redevelopment Corporation, where he introduced ELS to Laurin B. “Monk” Askew of the Rouse Company.
In addition to working with Rouse, Mr. Elbasani also collaborated extensively with General Growth Properties on projects such as Summerlin Centre in Summerlin, Nevada. To guide new development in this fast-growing community, ELS created a master plan for Summerlin’s future downtown core. In deliberate contrast to the Las Vegas strip, the plan creates a traditional mixed-use downtown setting, integrating a network of streets, landscaped boulevards, and public open spaces to provide gathering places and enhance land values.
Under Mr. Elbasani’s direction, the firm designed the Denver Pavilions, a two-block, three-level complex that opened in 1998. It revitalized Denver’s historic 16th Street Mall with an open-air environment that blends with the existing urban fabric.
Among Mr. Elbasani’s most recent projects is the 39-acre master plan for Mueller Town Center in Austin, Texas. Located within the 711-acre redevelopment of the Robert Mueller Municipal Airport, the sustainably designed mixed-use district includes retail, entertainment, residential, office, hotel, and cultural components and will serve as a town center for the surrounding residential neighborhoods and medical campuses.
Mr. Elbasani’s work also included historic renovations, such as the restoration in the early 1990s of the Mission Inn in Riverside, California, and entertainment centers, such as the NOKIA Theatre L.A. LIVE for AEG, which opened in 2007.
A Fellow of the American Institute of Architects and the Institute for Urban Design, Mr. Elbasani was also a member of the Urban Land Institute (ULI) Mixed Use Council, the International Council of Shopping Centers, and Lambda Alpha International. He also served on ULI’s advisory panels for downtown San Jose, Cincinnati, Springfield, and West Palm Beach.
In 1992, after the fall of communism in Albania, Mr. Elbasani was able to visit his parents’ native country and reunite with more than 50 cousins, who had been separated from their American relatives for 40 years. He facilitated the immigration of several of his cousins and was extremely proud of their accomplishments in their new homeland.
Mr. Elbasani is survived by his wife, Kathleen; son, Colin; brother, Jerry; nephews, Barry Elbasani II and Zachery Conger; niece, Dr. Kim Conger; sisters-in-law, Marsha and Sharon Tinkler; brother-in-law, Bill Tinkler; and numerous cousins. He was preceded in death by his son, Marc Daja Elbasani.
In lieu of flowers, contributions can be made to the Elbasani Memorial Scholarship Fund in the Department of Architecture at the College of Environmental Design, University of California, Berkeley. Donations can be made payable to the Elbasani Memorial Scholarship Fund and mailed to Department of External Relations, c/o Adrienne Livoni, College of Environmental Design, 235 Wurster Hall, Mail Code 1820, UC Berkeley, Berkeley, CA 94720-1820.
A memorial service will be held at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre in Berkeley, California on July 18, 2010, at 1:30PM. For more information, contact Rachel Heath, ELS
Architecture and Urban Design, at 510-549-2929, or visit elsarch.com.