The Man Behind the Marble
The city of Pasadena has a sense of tradition like few other towns in the history-erasing landscape of southern california. from the hallowed lecture halls of caltech to the pastoral huntington gardens and world renowned tournament of roses stretching back to 1890, the city has a entirely unique past well worth preserving. So in a municipality known architecturally for quaint bungalows, well preserved art deco and stoic craftsman homes, it might seem somewhat jarring to come upon the defiantly unrestrained condominium complexes created by local builder mike balian with their brightly colored walls, ostentatious tile work, marble floors and, in one occasion, a shimmering stained glass swimming pool bottom beaming light into the building’s lobby.
Sitting in his office at the Pasadena headquarters of his company Toledo Homes, Balian comes across as immensely confident and serious. He has an expansive world view, easily discussing Middle East politics, the role of religion and architecture throughout the world. Balian’s journey to Pasadena began several decades ago in the historically minded and culturally rich city of Beirut Lebanon. Prior to the devastating civil war of the seventies and eighties with its unimaginable violence and destruction, the Mediterranean metropolis was widely accepted as the jewel of the region. It was there that Balian, who is ethnically Armenian, was living and studying when the first signs of conflict broke out. “Beirut was a very westernized city based upon coexistence between different religious and ethnic groups,” Balian reflects. “The skirmishes started due to external forces and eventually the situation got to a point where it was difficult for me to go to college and so I left. I came to the United States to finish my education.
He arrived in Southern California where he graduated from Cal State Los Angeles before attaining a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from Pepperdine University. After that Balian worked for the Arco Oil Company before moving into the construction business. “I have wanted to build things ever since childhood and working at Arco just seemed very restrictive,” he explains. “It wasn’t what I saying the whole city should be like that, but they should allow and welcome these unique structures.”
While few, including Balian, would claim his buildings rival the iconic structures mentioned, his desire to create the unusual seems heartfelt. There is little doubt that would be easier and less risky financially to simply mimic what has worked before. But even in these uncertain times, Balian is adhering to his own particular vision as exemplified by his recent Hudson Terrace project in the South Lake district. “It’s Bauhaus architecture,” he states. “I noticed five or six years ago a new influx of modern architecture in Pasadena. But I felt like there was something missing in these projects. There was a certain production line feel to them. The ideology behind those projects seemed not to create beautiful structures that will stand the test of time but to merely speculate, make money and move on. That is the opposite of what I do. I want to build something that will be there for several hundred years and make my family proud.”
Balian explains that his family – the Armenian “Balyans,” were reowned for being the chief architects, builders and engineers of the Ottoman Empire dating back to 1600. “If you go back through history, there are books documenting that my family built most of the palaces and grand structures in Istanbul, ” he explains with a noticeable pride.
And while he acknowledges there are some in the community who might not appreciate his unorthodox designs, he has little regard for builders he believes to be motivated solely by financial gain. Balian enters the lobby of his newest luxury project entitled Delacey Place and stops under some shimmering colored light reflected from the swimming pool above. “The intention is not to be a developer here,” he explains. “The term developer is an entity who buys land and builds only for the purpose of realizing profits. I am a builder as much as a developer. I want to create beautiful things. And if you’re good at what you do, the financial reward will come with it. Unlike others I don’t believe in quantity projects I believe in quality projects. A quantity project is something that changes the character of the city. For instance Saris Regis’ “Westgate” development. It’s a huge project and you can’t even recognize the area from what it was seven years ago. And also on Colorado where you have Shea Homes enormous “Trio” project in the Playhouse District. They are nicely built projects but they have completely changed the area.”
Albert, John. “THE MAN BEHIND THE MARBLE.” Pasadena Magazine, Sept. 2010, pp. 28–32.