Barry Elbasani, FAIA
Michael Severin, Donn Logan, and Barry Elbasani after winning the competition that created their firm.
It has been a little over a month since Barry Elbasani of ELS Architecture and Urban Design passed away. I still think I will walk to the top of the stairs at 2040 Addison Street and he will say “What’s going on, sport?” or “The security here is terrible.” When I worked for him from 1990 to 1997, I spoke to him most days. After I went out on my own, we spoke far less frequently, but whenever we sat down, it was as if no time had passed. The intimacy was unbroken. He was intuitive in almost everything he did, from a diagram to a presentation. If he wasn’t sure, he delegated. Sometimes he got it wrong, but often he got it right. He was willing to be bold. It takes a certain fearlessness to start your own firm when you are still in your twenties and not yet a registered architect. I love the photos of this intense-looking young fellow with a mop of curly hair.
Barry was a grouchy optimist and realistic urbanist. He grew up in Brooklyn and on the streets of New York. He was still innocent in some ways, but you could never fool him. Through sheer talent (and a little advocacy), he got into Harvard. He never forgot that he wasn’t born to go to Harvard. His one year in Cambridge changed him forever. After leaving Boston, he moved to Los Angeles to work for Victor Gruen for a year, where he learned something about showmanship. He loved driving around Los Angeles in a convertible MG with a good salary and no commitments. But he moved to Berkeley, where he lived and worked for the rest of his life. He told me once, “Berkeley was like Cambridge, but with better weather.” He loved looking at buildings and had a special reverence for Kahn. But he was just as interested in the spaces that buildings frame. Although he came of age in the 1960s, he was not a firebrand radical. He knew too well the result of communist tyranny in Albania. He understood that cities need economic activity to thrive. He knew that an active public sector can help revitalize a downtown.
Barry and Jerry with their mother.
One of his skills was to bring the developer and the planner together to see what was in their mutual interest. In the late 1980s and 1990s, the growth of the Southwest exurbs brought the firm work that wasn’t explicitly urban in nature. Barry’s goal was to make it as urban as possible, and he predicted that the suburb or exurb would densify and that his buildings would become the new town centers. The suburbs would catch up to his bold diagram. He took the long view.
After the communist regime in Albania fell, Barry went over to visit his long-lost relatives. When he came back, he gave us a slide show that was as powerful as any I had ever seen. He laughed about the modest accommodations. By now he was middle aged and used to comfort when traveling. Looking back, he knew it was some kind of dumb luck that had him standing in his own firm in his own building, the owner of a beautiful house overlooking the Golden Gate a few minutes away. The slides were powerful because it was personal. This was the most important lesson I learned from Barry. Everything is personal. Business is personal. If it’s not, then it’s not fun. When a client got fired from his firm, Barry always called. The moment the person was no longer influential, Barry swept into action.
Barry with his family in Albania.
Along with his family, he made the decision to sponsor several Albanian cousins in the United States. I suspect he didn’t think too long about it, he just went with his gut. Two of them spoke at his memorial. That is when I wept. He could boast about anything to do with his work, but I never heard him brag about changing the lives of these distant relatives and giving them an opportunity that they never imagined. He might have been in their place.
When his son Mark died tragically a few years ago, he was hurt more deeply than any of us knew or could see. I think some part of his optimism was dulled. When he got sick in April, he was himself until sometime in June. But as soon as the essential Barry was stilled by the cancer, I don’t think he wanted to hang around. He wanted to get to that place where he could start making calls again.