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

Before it Changes…….


Curbed LA recently published a photo essay by Kwasi Boyd-Bouldin, “An Ode to the Valley Before it Changes” featuring images of grass growing through concrete and defunct gas stations in parts of the San Fernando Valley. It’s a type of setting I have long adored and sought out.

Photo by Kwasi Boyd-Bouldin.
Photo by Kwasi Boyd-Bouldin.

Mr. Boyd-Bouldin writes, “The Valley neighborhoods I encounter still vibrate with an authenticity that I took for granted in the past and that have all but disappeared from the rest of the city I love. I am doubtful the Valley will always look this way as the pace of redevelopment picks up around it.”


Here are some my photographs of Van Nuys, taken with a different eye and intent.

14640-victory
14640 Victory Bl.

Should one yearn for authenticity and places that have not changed or improved in 50 years, a person might travel down Victory Boulevard between Kester and Hazeltine, where the buildings are 1950s shops and 1960s office buildings converted to vacancy, pot shop, and bail bonds. The Coalition to Preserve LA would no doubt approve of the frozen in 1966 retardation of Van Nuys where “greedy developers” have not come in and built anything on the scale of The Grove. Here preservation, in the form of economic impoverishment has worked wonders.

van-nuys-branch-library

Should one desire a great example of failed urban planning from the 1960s, one might walk amongst the sleeping homeless gathered in front of the police station, next to the library, behind the Valley Municipal Building, on that mall of nothingness surrounded by the Superior Court and the small statues sitting in pools of pee.

Van Nuys is full of the real, the urban, the forgotten, the abandoned, the neglected and the ugly. We have blocks and blocks of empty buildings, empty parking lots, and shuttered retail stores awaiting tenants, investment, customers, renters and buyers.

14547 Gilmore
14547 Gilmore-why not a beer garden or a garden?

There are no parking problems along Van Nuys Boulevard because nobody shops here. There are plenty of parking spaces in big asphalt spaces on Gilmore west of the “downtown” where Matthews Shoe Repair shut down, and other buildings, with tens of thousands of square feet of space, awaiting the next boom.

Matthews Shoe Repair-CLOSED
Matthews Shoe Repair-CLOSED

This is Van Nuys. I’ve been writing and photographing it for over ten years. I show it as it is. Or I try to.

Van Nuys, CA 90401 Built: 1929 Owners: Shraga Agam, Shulamit Agam
Van Nuys, CA 90401-a slum property owned by a wealthy Encino businessman.
Built: 1929
Owners: Shraga Agam, Shulamit Agam
Van Nuys, CA
Van Nuys, CA-why not a cool burger spot? Why not?

And I welcome change, provided it’s done with some architectural integrity and it’s not just the result of shlock hucksters and con-men throwing up the next slum.

But I would live with change, I’d welcome it, if it made my neighborhood safer, more prosperous and livelier.

 

Fox Market, Van Nuys Bl. Circa 1960


It is always fun to come across yet another old photograph of Van Nuys.  (Courtesy of USC Digital Archives)

This time it’s the Fox Market, a chain, which once had an outpost at 7425 Van Nuys Bl. at the corner of Van Nuys and Valerio, north of Sherman Way .

Fox_Market_Van_Nuys_California_ca1960sLegendary photographer Julius Schulman shot the Carl Maston designed structure sometime in the early 1960s. Maston was a noted Mid- 20th Century architect whose work is described as “stark and no frills” in his USC research repository.

A flat roof, floor to ceiling glass, and acres of asphalt mixed convenience and modernism.

The neat, spare, boxy building is gone, and in its place is a riot of ugliness typical of that stretch of Van Nuys where architecture has gone to die. And all who pass through here glimpse a hot Hell built by indifference, corruption and “The Free Market”.

The May 5, 1960 Los Angeles Times carried a display ad from the Fox Market, which also had many other locations throughout the Southland.

There was a pound of peanut butter for 39 cents, lamb roast for 39 cents a pound, cans of Libby Peaches for 29 cents, along with a 59 cent cream pie and 4 buttered steaks for 69 cents.

Nobody seems to drink grapefruit juice these days, but in 1960 you could have had a 46 ounce can for 29 cents to wash down your 4 pounds of red potatoes for 25 cents.

5 9 60.jpg

 

 

The Nadir.


DSCF2605It is doubtful that Van Nuys Boulevard, especially that languishing, forgotten, distressed stretch between Victory and Vanowen, has ever been as low, neglected and poor as it is today.

No longer do the homeless hide in alleys. They are now set up on the sidewalk, their belongings piled into shopping carts, covered in tarps.

DSCF2642 DSCF2645 DSCF2648

At the 99 Cents Only Store, a steel gate guarding a delivery door is pulled back. Towels and curtains hang over it, and behind it are black feet in flip-flops.

There are other sleeping humans on the sidewalk, and the black woman with the black feet in black flip-flops is not unique.

From 2003 to 2013, Tony Cardenas served on the Los Angeles City Council in the 6th District covering Van Nuys. He was elected to the US House of Representatives from California’s 29th District and now represents Van Nuys in Washington, DC.

The man who calls himself “The Honorary Mayor of Van Nuys” is George Thomas, also the President of the Van Nuys Neighborhood Council, also the publisher of a newspaper called “The Van Nuys News Press” which “features stories on everything, but especially golf and travel.” Recent stories featured whale watching in Hawaii and the Kahalu’u Beach Park Condo on the Big Island, a “Property of the Week”. Mr. Thomas, who is also a resident of Agoura Hills, is currently running for state senate.

These are just two men, Mr. Cardenas and Mr. Thomas, leaders of Van Nuys. They do not live here. They may not even care about here. Their careers, not their community, are foremost.

 

DSCF2660 DSCF2666

To say that Van Nuys and its Boulevard is without leadership or vision is obvious. This once thriving district of Los Angeles is now on intoxicated autopilot. It is careening fast into oblivion and may one day be as ill and impoverished as Skid Row.

With the “revitalization” of downtown Los Angeles, the mentally ill, the drug and alcohol addicts, and the other lost men and women of the city have to go somewhere.

They are going North by Northwest to the San Fernando Valley.

The ghost citizens arrive unwelcomed, their presence an uncomfortable reminder that we all are just one paycheck away from ruin, one illness away from financial catastrophe.

They have their carts, we have our cars; they have their hovels, we have our homes; they are unemployed and we are consultants.

We took our shower this morning but we resemble them more than we admit.

The homeless are the new pioneers, the new settlers of Van Nuys. They will come here to live on the sidewalk, in the alley, in the box behind the dumpster. They will multiply into the thousands, and Van Nuys Boulevard will be an outdoor city of tents, defecation, boxes, shopping carts, and the smell of urine in 110-degree heat.

Developers may snap up the cheap building. They may come here and build, that may be a good thing. But what are the larger solutions to end the dumping of human beings into the street? How will this street reform and repent itself? Will a few benches and a few trees and a Starbucks on the corner change the larger malaise?

DSCF2672

 

 

 

All Our Blights.


DSCF2550Cleaning out the median, north of Victory, on Sepulveda last Saturday, I stopped to shoot a  scene that spoke to me.

Here were all the blights that plague Van Nuys in one photograph.

An RV parked along the road, a home for the homeless. These improvised residences are everywhere in Los Angeles these days. Unaffordable housing and the societal acceptance of allowing our fellow humans to sleep on the street or in unlicensed housing is shocking. Or maybe we are no longer shocked. Which is itself shocking.

As teenaged girls rake and clean the median, they are attacking a problem that is essentially caused by illegal dumping. No authorities, no residents, no politicians have found a way to stop old sofas, mattresses, bottles, televisions, furniture, and every type of fast food from being dropped on our streets.

A billboard from Spearmint/Rhino advertises adult film star Veronica Vain . The advertisement looms over a family neighborhood, one with many children, and features a woman who performs public sex acts on camera and in person. Here is a NSFW link.

And then there is Carl’s Jr. whose offerings are a great contributor to rampant obesity. The ½ Pound Mile High Bacon Thickburger is 1230 calories. Ordered with Onion Rings (530 calories) and a Vanilla Shake (700 calories) a person could consume 2,460 calories, or about 1000 more calories than a sedentary human needs in an entire day. That would be in just one meal. The nutritional information is taken directly from Carl’s Jr.

Through all this detritus is the six-lane speedway Sepulveda. When it is full of traffic it is impossible. When it moves, many drivers speed and run through red lights. People risk their lives crossing this asphalt hell.

This is our environment, this is our city, this is our reality.

The Big, Empty Foreground


On Flickr, where I sometimes spend my time, there is a group of photographs called “The Big Empty Foreground.” These are urban places, usually wide-open spaces, without people.

Many of the contributors come from Europe, a place one does not often think of as empty. Soccer fields, parking lots, office plazas, old factories, these are some of the unpopulated places.


 

Sepulveda Cleaners 2In Van Nuys, we have a lot of wide, empty foreground. Expansive asphalt pavements, empty shopping centers, abandoned houses on large lots.

Reynoso's

Near Vanowen, between Archwood and Sepulveda, there is a collection of one-story businesses: a cleaners, a phone store, a fishing tackle store and an odd place called Reynoso’s Lapidary and Supply which specializes in rocks, gems, stones and agate slabs.

These are in a building put up when land was cheap, sometime in the 1950s. And they are plain and homely and functional, but also practical, because the cars are put in back and the sidewalk is in front. Signs are small and discreet.

What intrigued me, on a day when dark clouds enclosed the sky and transformed the light of Los Angeles into something moody and cool, was how casually open space was made in the back, without gates or fences, or trees. That’s the way we parked in the 1950s at a suburban place. There was no thought given to landscape, only to laying down asphalt.

A walnut or orange grove, on many acres, probably occupied this land before the building was built.

This landscape back here will probably be developed someday and covered completely in a banal apartment, approved by city zoning.

But for now there is light, and space, and sky.

 

DSCF2510