Populating Van Nuys with Fine Architecture


 

VNB: 1952, photo by Alan Weeks.
DWP Collection

Van Nuys (b. 1911) began as a town, centered around a main street, connected to Los Angeles by streetcar and rail.

It built its fire station, library, city hall,  police station, and its churches, schools, shops and post office steps apart. On foot, a person could buy a suit, take out a library book, mail a letter, and walk to school.

Come to think of it they still can. But it was all there in downtown Van Nuys.

Today you might stand outside the LAPD Van Nuys Station and smoke a joint, drink a can of beer,  pee against a wall and nobody would raise an eyebrow.

The librarian, the cop, the priest, the attorney, they would walk past you and shrug their shoulders and mutter, “What can I do?”

We are so tolerant these days. Everything degrading is welcomed, while everything worthwhile is rare, expensive  or extinct.

Posture Contest, Van Nuys, 1958. Impossible to imagine these days with all the cell phone spines.

Surrounded by orange and walnut groves, the growing town nonetheless managed to provide safe, civilized and opportune situations for its newly arrived residents with affordable housing, subsidized by low interest government backed loans after WWII.

And plentiful, well-paying jobs. Imagine that!

Van Nuys, circa 1938.

Widening of Victory Boulevard: 1954.
Van Nuys Blvd. at Friar (circa 1950). Notice diagonal parking and streetcar wiring.
Van Nuys Bl. 2013

Somehow it was lost after 1945. The enormous shopping centers robbed Van Nuys of its clientele. The street widenings turned boulevards into raceways and the village feel was destroyed. Factories closed, banks shrunk, stores fled, and crime settled here to afflict, rob, disable and kill.

Why does Van Nuys flounder, while all around it other cities like Burbank, Glendale, Pasadena, and sections of Los Angeles, like North Hollywood, Studio City, Mid-City and Highland Park flourish?

Delano St. July 2017
Delano St. July 2017

 

Raymer St. March 2017

A journalist from Curbed LA called me yesterday. He is writing an article about Van Nuys and wanted to talk.

I mentioned many things that I wish were changed here, from road diets to better housing, from cleaner streets to more law enforcement for illegal dumping.

But I also told him that so much of our political leadership is devoted to working on problems like prostitution, rather than building a coalition of architects, designers, investors, and planners who could build up Van Nuys and make it, once again, a coherent, safe, stimulating, and pleasant place to live and work.

I know what’s bad here. But what about making it good? Where are our dreams? Why can’t we be as artistic as our studios, as wild in our imaginations as our writers, directors, cinematographers, animators, and designers?

Why isn’t the whole energy of creative Los Angeles devoted to overcoming our civic afflictions?


Near Cedros and Delano.

Van Nuys Bl. Nov. 2016

 


The deadest and more depressing areas of Van Nuys are closest to the Orange Line, which is also a good thing. Because this is where Van Nuys should work to build new, experimental, and innovative housing and commercial buildings.

Van Nuys Bl. Oct 2016 A dead place for street life.
The Empty Post Office/ Van Nuys Bl. Oct. 2016
Dystopian Van Nuys Oct. 2016. No people, no chairs, no trees. Just concrete.
Homeless on Aetna St. Feb. 2016

 

From Kester to Hazeltine, north of Oxnard, the “Civic Center” district contains an empty post office, vacated stores, underutilized buildings, and dystopian spaces of concrete, homelessness, garbage, and withering neglect.

The pedestrian mall on Erwin, south of the Valley Municipal Building and surrounded by the Superior Court, the library and police station, is a civic disgrace.

Ironically, all the law enforcement, all the government agencies, all the power that resides in Van Nuys….. presides over the ruins of it.


Meanwhile up in Portland, OR.

Holst Architecture, Portland, OR (Dezeen)
Works Progress Architecture, Portland, OR (Dezeen)
Works Architecture, Portland, OR (Dezeen)
Fujiwaramuro Architects, Kobe, Japan (Dezeen)
Van Nuys Alley near Delano and VNB

On Dezeen, there are posts about new, infill buildings in Portland, OR and Japan where the general level of architecture and design far outpaces Van Nuys. These are sophisticated, modern, but humble structures with ideas for living.

Look at these and imagine how, perhaps 25 new ones, could transform Van Nuys.

In the midst of our wasteland, we need to go back to working to demanding the best for Van Nuys, rather than accepting squalor and mediocrity.

 

 

Pride of Place


Langham Apartments, 1936
Talmage Apartments, 1925
Wilhelm Apartments, 1905

 

In the first third of the 20th Century, Los Angeles developers built many tall apartments in the midst of single-family homes.

One sees, in the older sections of the city, in West Hollywood, Koreatown, and West Adams, the presence of five, six, even ten story apartment houses that pop up, sometimes mid-block, in-between single family properties.

These photographs of buildings, from the USC Digital Archives, are historically valuable, but also aesthetically heartbreaking, for it shows a city where architecture mattered, and humans were housed in civil, respectable, affordable places. Isn’t that the bare minimum expected in a “First World” nation?

Lido Apartments
Asbury Apartments, 1940

There may have been poor people in 1925, but they didn’t live in the tens of thousands under bridges, on park benches, or wander the streets as zombies, covered in dirt, screaming obscenities. Nor would the society back then have allowed mass vagrancy as public policy.

The old buildings were strong and subtle. They wore their classic proportions without irony. They commanded respect quietly. They stood confidently, wore facades in single colors, and were built of solid materials like brick, solid concrete or smooth stucco.

La Wanda Arms, 1936

Today, market style makers demand new apartments broken up nervously in clashing colors, painted in clownish and garish hues, most likely to reduce their bulk, preventing probable offense to neighbors prickly over density. They scream fun, but omit horror on the first of each month when rent is due.

But, in fairness to these attention grabbers, at least they have a dialogue with the street, and introduce shops and ground floor activity to the area. They just do it in the Instagram way, by shouting, “look at me man!”


The old buildings always marched right up to the sidewalk. You entered by walking up to an entrance. And this zoning reinforced the urbanity of the neighborhood, because it created chances for pedestrians to interact. Compare that to six lanes of Sepulveda, and parking garage apartments where the only people walking outside are selling something illegal.

Dover Apartments, 1940

Imagine if Van Nuys Boulevard near the Busway had a Langham or Talmage Apartments with hundreds of residents who walked to the bus, or rode their bikes, or ate in restaurants in the neighborhood?

1275 N. Hayworth Av. 1931

 

The old civility of courtyard housing, of interior spaces, shielded from the sun, planted with greenery, done with subtlety and grace, that is also how this city used to build.

What is preventing the State of California, the City of Los Angeles, the people of this region, from banding together to amend the harmful zoning laws that prohibit certain types of structures, once commonplace 100 years ago, from being built again?

Abundant Housing LA says it best:

“A whopping 87 percent of LA’s total housing supply was built prior to 1990, while only 13 percent was built in the last 25 years.

 More recently, between 2010 and 2015, we’ve only added approximately 25,000 new units. That number does not include all of 2015 and includes none of 2016, and it will grow by 30 to 50 thousand in the next several years as existing developments finish construction and planned projects get underway. But at best we’re roughly on pace for housing production similar to the ’90s and ’00s, both of which saw historically small amounts of new housing and historically large increases in housing prices. That’s not a boom, that’s the continuation of a decades-long slump.

 This slump is reflected in our city’s vacancy rates, which have a direct relationship to home prices and rents. Lower vacancy rates cause prices to go up faster. It’s exactly the same relationship we see with unemployment: When unemployment is low and fewer people are looking for work, labor is scarce and so workers can sell their labor for more money. As a result, job applicants and existing employees gain bargaining power and their average pay increases. Likewise, when housing is scarce, landlords gain bargaining power and rents increase.”

 

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All the Great Plans…


Yesterday afternoon, we were gathered at MacLeod Ale to celebrate Quirino’s birthday. We sat along a wooden table in the back, near the bags of hops. People were playing darts. The front door was closed, the air conditioning was on, we ate BBQ tri-tip beef (marinated in MacLeod). And we were discussing Van Nuys over warm and cold beer.

A young guy named Daniel sat across from me. He had worked under Former Councilman (Congressman!) Tony Cardenas and is now in the city planning department. Andreas asked him if he thought Van Nuys might be the new Highland Park.

“Not now, maybe not ever,” Daniel said.

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“Highland Park Market” Photo by Lance Leong / Flickr

Daniel was versed, in the somnambulistic and arcane zoning laws of Los Angeles, the kind that mandate how much parking is needed and what height a building can be, if additional units of housing can go up if some rents come down. And how many feet away from a school is permissible for a liquor store? And who can put up a 1200 sf granny flat in their backyard (the answer is you).

His generalized, and probably correct assertion is that Highland Park has an active and engaged group of residents and Van Nuys does not. The same is true of more affluent and contentious areas like Studio City or Woodland Hills. In those places, where planters and trees now line the boulevards, bike lanes are carved out, and revitalized shops, apartments, housing are going in. Much of the credit goes to the people who live there.

Van Nuys complains. But it never unites to fight for its betterment. Much easier to bicker on the Next Door app.

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Construction of the Santa Monica Freeway 1961. (USC)

Also at our table was white-haired, impassioned, articulate Howard who is on the VNNC. He is smart, accomplished, a lifelong resident of Los Angeles who grew up near Venice and Fairfax and watched the demolition of housing during the construction of the Santa Monica Freeway in the early 1960s. At that time, thousands of old houses, many architecturally notable, were bulldozed.

Howard recalled the dirt berm that extended for fifteen miles after the houses came down. “At night you could hear the rats, there were millions of them, and they ran and scurried and made noise.”

The Santa Monica Freeway was part of the big plan for Los Angeles. As was the Van Nuys Civic Center, Dodger Stadium, Bunker Hill, and the Federal Building in Westwood. In all these cases the results were less than stellar. Walkable, vibrant, historic, human scaled places were obliterated. And what remains today are acres of baked asphalt and mute modernism.

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Howard said that the planned redevelopment of Van Nuys Boulevard, to make it a transit hub, to put a light rail down the center, to install bike lanes, to increase the allowable height of apartments, all of these progressive ideas, pushed by everyone from New Urbanists to developers and transit advocates, would be a “disaster for Van Nuys.” Many small businesses would close and the area would turn into something worse than even the hellish condition it currently is in.

So simultaneously, he decried the automobile oriented era of the Santa Monica Freeway and mimicked the impending one of density and pedestrian oriented development.

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”- F. Scott Fitzgerald

And yet his views do make sense if you consider that every time big ideas come to Los Angeles, they are somehow, like a good-looking wannabe actor/model from the hinterlands, deflated and defeated by this city.

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Renderings by Gensler Courtesy of Psomas
Renderings by Gensler Courtesy of Psomas

The daily assassination of youthful idealism is the oldest tradition in our city.

In the built environment there is also something here that abhors a unifying concept of planning and harmony. If a building can be built to stick out and look freaky and out-of-place it is deserving of praise.

In architecture, as in politics and entertainment, the bigger the carnival and the louder the wreck, the more applause, the more profits. That’s what we are aiming to create.

When we do get together under some banner like Mayor Villaraigosa’s “Million Trees” or Mayor Garcetti’s “Great Streets” the gods start to laugh at us. We are best at half-hearted, half-completed projects.

And perhaps that negative is a good thing. One must give Los Angeles credit, not only for attempting to build massive public works, but for making sure that once the great works go up, small indignities, like homeless encampments along the Orange Line Bike Path, will sober up dreamers and urban fantasists.

All the Great Plans are like those coffee-house conferences with laptops, planning to produce and cast and finance something, someday….


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The Agence Ter plan. (Pershing Square Renew)

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On the drawing board now is a new park in Pershing Square.

Two years ago, I went with a group of photographers to shoot the city on a Sunday afternoon and was told I could not put my camera on a tripod. This was in the same park where mattresses were laid out and people sprawled down stairs drunk and asleep.

A public park where public photography is regulated by private security.

What you should be able to do in public you cannot, and what you should NOT do, is allowable.


And then there is MacLeod Ale, a private venture, started by two people over 50, using family money and retirement funds to make great beer.

That one small incubator of beer seems to produce more ideas for the betterment of Van Nuys than any political slogan coming out of City Hall.

Throw out all the great plans for Van Nuys.

Start small, dream big, pursue your own venture. Maybe that is the key to change.

 

 

A Sharp Discordance.


d732dfc940c1bf441606f771482ac23c ciros-entrance-sunset-blvd-1940 melody-room-1956 the-source-sunset-blvd-strip-then trocadero

In the past few years, group lead mourning on social media for a lost Sunset Strip has taken hold among some sad eyed nostalgists. In their online rooms they pine for 1997, 1977, 1957 or 1937 and wish it were just like that today.

Gone are Tower Records, Elton John’s Le Dome Restaurant, Spago, The Playboy Club; Gazzari’s, which introduced the world to The Doors and Van Halen; Villa Nova Restaurant where Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe had a first date; Ciro’s, a 1940s nightclub; and Café Trocadero. Passed on are the cars, the clothes, the songs, and the youth of those who frequented whatever was young and hot at the time.

We are so far in the future but our minds are so far in the past.

Perhaps the saddest thing to contemplate is the loss of the old Garden of Allah that stood on two acres at the corner of Crescent Heights and Sunset and comprised a pool and landscaped cottages set amidst trees and flowers. It was constructed in 1913 and played host to a variety of notables, most famously F. Scott Fitzgerald. It was razed in 1960.

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Standing in its place is a schlocky shopping mall and a bank with a folded zigzag roof. That structure, originally called Lytton Savings and Loan, and now housing a Chase Bank, is the center of a fight over preservation and architect Frank Gehry, who wants to demolish the building to erect one of his crushed-in-hand, aluminum foil wonders.

Lytton Savings and Loan (1960); now Chase Bank.
Lytton Savings and Loan (1960); now Chase Bank.
Proposed Frank Gehry design. (LA TIMES)
Proposed Frank Gehry design. (LA TIMES)

If Sunset Strip had no celebrities, if it were just a place, it would be one of the ugliest and least appealing urban sites in the world. Pockmarked by billboards, drenched in liquor and demeaned by fame, the Strip, from Crescent Heights to La Cienega looks like Las Vegas’s forgotten cousin.

New buildings are going up that channel the worst of Las Vegas anti-urbanism with blank sheets of walls, endless rows of dark windows, and morose hues of black and gray punctuated by large rectangles where future digital signs will obliterate the night and frazzle the eye.

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There is no gayety (in the old sense of the word), no frivolity, no fantasy in any of the new, sharp-angled structures that so aggressively bulk up the street like steroid filled bouncers in a club. They have inhuman, robotic, cold-blooded designs, fueled by architecture that will impress teenage Shanghai, Moscow, and Seoul.

And, sadly, there is no presence of personality or character of Los Angeles in the new buildings. They are aliens dropped onto the street, and their presence is foreboding and corporate.

In daylight, photographed in black and white, their vapidity is most evident.

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Old Los Angeles was in love with alabaster white buildings that glistened in the sun and reflected purity, cleanliness and España. Before 1940, this metropolis built to provide sanctuary from the sun, to humanize the city, and to give guidance and signposts to the newly arrived seeking meaning in a vast and disorienting environment.

New Los Angeles has no markers of civic virtue. It is an entertainment chessboard devised on an app and sent out to to billions of people to make billions of dollars.

 

 

Letter from an Old, Practicing Architect in Los Angeles


12602 Moorpark St. Studio City, CA. 91604
12602 Moorpark St. Studio City, CA. 91604

Driving down Moorpark St. in Studio City last week, I passed a notably austere and well-designed apartment under construction. I stopped and walked around and shot some photos of the building which had precise lines, solid forms and possessed an architectural sensibility of the 1930s.

I later looked up the architect online and wrote him an email. To my surprise, he responded in detail. Even more surprisingly, he is a man who has been practicing architecture for over 50 years.

Here is what he had to say about the state of planning and architecture in Los Angeles, especially as it relates to the San Fernando Valley.

I have not disclosed his name to protect his privacy.


Dear Andrew:

Thank you for the complimentary words regarding my apartment project. They are truly appreciated. I looked at your excellent blog.

Your involvement in trying to better the quality of life in Los Angeles is noble. I suspect, however that you are constantly faced with the frustration and anger of dealing with a Los Angeles bureaucracy that has become stifling and counterproductive.

The planning department has been a dismal failure as long as I can remember and has continually failed to address the real and important problems that have faced our city.

Old Montgomery Ward. Panorama City, CA.
Old Montgomery Ward. Panorama City, CA.

I am sure you know the recent history of the Valley better than I do. I came to Los Angeles as a child in 1948, just after WW2 ended and lived in West LA.

A trip to the Valley was a bit of an adventure. Mostly open space. And it was hard to find a restaurant or much of anything. I did not realize then what we were soon going to lose. Tough-minded, enthusiastic, returning soldiers were coming to LA during this period wanting only to work and raise families in peace.

I was fortunate to have a few of these men as instructors at the U.S.C. School of Architecture. The Valley provided an abundance of cheap land on which to develop housing. And with the coming of these returning soldiers, a major Valley building boom began. Housing tracts and apartments were built as quickly and cheaply as possible. It was an exciting event to see a searchlight in the sky and drive towards it to find what new business opening it heralded.

Macy's, North Hollywood, CA.
Macy’s, North Hollywood, CA.

All of this was happening with virtually no master planning. One bland community rolled into another. As I drive the Valley today, I find it kind of fun to try to identify the architectural styles, if you can call them that, of each of the building booms in the 60 plus years since the end of the War. Thank God for the mature landscaping that is making the Valley environment somewhat more pleasant. I find myself, grudgingly, seeing a kind of quirky nostalgic beauty in whole thing. But enough rambling. No easy answers.

15300 Valerio St. Van Nuys, CA 91405
15300 Valerio St. Van Nuys, CA 91405

The specific problem you face in trying to elevate the quality of Architecture in LA is a tough one. It entails getting greedy bottom line developers to take an interest in the environments that they are building. They only ‘design’ that these developers relate to is that which they feel is necessary to rent or sale their product. This design is too often provided by their spouses or a friend with “good taste.”

A developer buddy of mine once exclaimed with the excitement of discovery that he had figured out how to build a modern building. It is simple he said – no details, white paint and a flat roof. He unfortunately built a number of large apartments in the Valley with his newly discovered understanding of modern architecture.

The developers must be taught that they have a moral responsibility to the community to provide good environment. Good luck on this one. Developers must also be taught that over time a well-designed building will make them more money.

Archwood St. near Van Nuys Blvd. Van Nuys, CA 91405
Archwood St. near Van Nuys Blvd. Van Nuys, CA 91405

The bureaucracy must be scaled down and restricted on the number of code provisions and roles that they can enact without public input and approval.

I have acted as an Architect, owner builder, and small time residential developer in LA for over a half a century. In the early 1960s, both the California State Board of Architectural Examiners and the A.I.A. for being an “Architect-Developer” chastised me.

There was a conflict of interest they said, not understanding the value of having the Architect as the developer as to opposed to a bottom line businessman. I chuckled when some years latter I ran across an ad for a course called the ‘Architect as a Developer’ sponsored by the A.I.A.

Studio City, CA.
Studio City, CA.

Yours is not an easy road to travel, but please keep it up.

If things are ever going to get better, and I am a pessimistic about this happening, it will take a rising up of the community, under leadership like yourself, to demand the changes you that you are seeking. Thank you for your efforts and good luck.

Van Nuys Bl. 2016
Van Nuys Bl. 2016

Crest Apartments


 

 

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One of the best buildings in Los Angeles has opened in one of the least likely locations.

Crest Apartments, 13604 Sherman Way, is a $20 million dollar, 45,000 s.f.,  64-unit apartment for the Skid Row Housing Trust. It is east of Woodman Av.

It provides special needs support for the chronically homeless as well as veterans. Social services and a federally supported health clinic are part of the complex.

Architect Michal Maltzan designed a five story tall, tautly elegant building. Rising subtly from its garish surroundings of motels, billboards, discarded furniture, speeding cars and urban decay, Crest Apartments is a crisp, all-white façade with no signage and no ornamentation.

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Mr. Malzan has experience designing many lauded buildings, including another homeless project near downtown, New Carver Apartments, which has received many awards.

There is irony in the fact that an exquisite, understated and artful building will now house a marginalized group of people.

The Crest Project is but a drop in the bucket of solutions to the appalling and obscene homelessness afflicting our city.

In a better nation, morality, money, architecture and the public good would join hands to build a more humane and aesthetic city. But reality favors bluster, bravado and bragging.

Some of the ugliest housing in Van Nuys and greater Los Angeles is still going up for those who feign affluence and success.

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