A Sharp Discordance.


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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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They Had Promised Rain.


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They had promised rain.

We were going to be drenched, drowned, and flooded.

The clouds would stay overhead for months, and there would be endless days of mudslides, dark clouds and gray skies.

They had promised rain, clearly, and said it in English, many times; the word was rain, but there was so much of it and they had renamed him El Niño.

For maybe one or two days there was rain and it came down and drenched the garden and it seemed that relief was on its way.

But the heat and the sun, and that blinding light, the kind that throws deep shadows on surfaces, came back.

The hot winds, the cloudless skies, the bees and the mosquitos, the dust and the fires, and the furnace of the car parked in the sun with black seats that burn your ass when you sit down.

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In Hancock Park, last Saturday, the air smelled like smoke, and lungs labored hard to bring in oxygen.

But on curved streets with swept sidewalks and trimmed hedges, homes glowed, in the inferno.

Movie star beauties, these residences, from the 1920s and 30s, photographed like Garbo and Gable, in black and white.

They retained dignity, reserving in elegance, those rights given to the rich, to remain unaffected by external events, to quietly succeed by dint of elitism, and transcend the hot weather through graceful form.

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Bank of America, Van Nuys Boulevard, 1968.


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While researching online, I came across these 1968 photographs of the Van Nuys branch of Bank of America shot by Julius Shulman. © J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2004.R.10).

The bank at 6551 Van Nuys Boulevard still stands, still functions as a bank. But today the building is surrounded by the detritus of modern Van Nuys: garbage, homeless people, illegal vendors, trash, graffiti and the smell of urine.

 

A Quiet Enclave


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There’s a little area of Glendale or east Burbank or whatever you want to call it, a quiet neighborhood nestled into the confluence of Griffith Park, Victory Blvd, and Riverside Drive.

Old, snug, shaded, smelling of horse and hay, hit with the low, dull roar of the nearby 134, its winding houses and cottages are silent, eccentric, redolent of the old Western town, and completely out of tune with the flash, bang and sprawl city of Los Angeles.

I’m drawn back here. Especially on days like yesterday when the skies were dark, and gray clouds spread over the San Gabriels in a convincing display of more ominous meteorological conditions.

It was cool and autumnal when I turned up Winchester Avenue and parked near Riverside.

Hidden in the crook, under large trees, I found a sprawling, two-story high, hacienda apartment with a red tiled roof, white painted brick and a lush green lawn obliviously and joyfully unworried by drought. Adirondack chairs, twig chairs, plastic chairs, and a barbecue threw off an impression of eternal leisure and life without worry. A 1965 Turquoise Chevy Chevelle sat on the driveway: as if yesterday was still today and what was old was still young.

California, up until about 1960, built apartments that looked like well-to-do homes. You might live here poor, work as a waiter, scrape by on next-to-nothing, but you were surrounded and intoxicated with hope and dreams and a stage set of domestic happiness. Your aspirations were given to you the moment you arrived at Union Station. Only later did you realize they would be taken away.

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The streets are clean in Burbank and Glendale, often spotless.

Coming from Van Nuys, which gives a social excuse to every ill around us, it is remarkable that Burbank and Glendale are run so seemingly well, with a presentable public face that is simultaneously progressive and traditional.

Streets are swept. Windows are washed. Alleys are paved. Walls have no tags or markings. There are no shopping carts of clothes tied to trees. There are no tent cities of the dispossessed under the overhangs of buildings.

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And there are many small motels here. But I didn’t see prostitutes and pimps and hookers and johns and the sex community walking along Victory in Glendale.

Maybe the laws are tougher here. Maybe the police and the courts and the residents work together. Whatever they are doing here they are not doing on Sepulveda Boulevard.

At a public safety meeting last week in Van Nuys, held jointly by Councilwoman Nury Martinez and LAPD Chief Charlie Beck, the issue of homelessness came up. Ms. Martinez spoke to a resident complaining that public sidewalks are now taken up with the private possessions of individuals. The Councilwoman said the courts had sided with the people who tie their shopping carts to trees and put up tents in the alley. “You can’t haul away their belongings.”

Legally, the illegal is legal.

And that is the way the new world works. What would have been unimaginable in 1945, 1955 or 1965 is tolerable today because everyone knows that toleration—not the law—is the highest principle liberalism can aspire to.

The inhumanity and injustice of allowing people to live on sidewalks and eat trash and set up tents anywhere, that must be tolerated because “we are understanding.”

Maybe it would be inconvenient for him, but Mayor Garcetti should allot some time in his schedule to drive way out to Glendale from LA City Hall and contemplate what they are doing that provides some space for civilization and contemplation that is missing in much of the San Fernando Valley and greater Los Angeles.

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